Gail Heil taught countless people her love for traditional music as a teacher, performer and festival organizer.
Heil taught fiddle, banjo and the autoharp at the Homestead Pickin’ Parlor in the early 1980s and performed for years with her husband and partner, Bob Bovee. Together they established recurring dance and music events that celebrated their love of traditional old-time music and dance.
Heil died from cancer on May 30 at her home in Spring Grove, Minn. She was 67.
Heil played fiddle, banjo, guitar and autoharp. She was also a singer, square dance caller and instructor.
Her musical career began in St. Louis, Mo., where she was a member of the Mound City String Band and a volunteer at the Frontier Folklife Festival.
She met Bovee at that festival in 1978, and they moved to the Twin Cities in 1979. Heil and Bovee began performing together in 1980. In 1988 they moved to Houston County, Minn., and got married. They later settled in the town of Spring Grove.
Heil and Bovee recorded together on independent and national labels and later self-released their albums of what Bovee describes as old-time music that was a precursor to bluegrass music.
Heil, Bovee, Pop Wagner and Matt Haney co-founded the Monday Night Square Dance in 1979. The weekly event was held at the Union Bar in Minneapolis for years and later moved around to a variety of Twin Cities venues. The square dance continues on the first and third Mondays of each month at the Minneapolis Eagles Aerie No. 34 Club on E. 25th St.
“It wasn’t long before there was a whole collective around the Monday Night Square Dance,” Wagner said.
At Heil’s suggestion an Annual Square Dance Weekend was formed and is now in its 32nd year.
Heil and Bovee also started the Lanesboro Barn Dances in 1995.
Heil and Bovee also were instrumental in setting up the annual Bluff Country Gathering in 1999. Also held in Lanesboro, the Gathering is a four-day event presenting traditional American music, dance and singing. “We brought in the best players we could find,” Bovee said in an interview.
“It’s Gail’s great legacy,” said Bovee of the Bluff Country Gathering.
Musician Dakota Dave Hull said Heil will be remembered for her teaching. “Her own students will carry forth what she did and her love for our American traditions,” Hull said. “I think of her fiddle. She was also a very good banjo player. She was a really tasty player, who had an ear for an unusual tune.”
Said longtime friend Lee Guthrie: “Gail Heil has been one of the most respected musicians in the old-time music community in this country since the late ’70s. With her partner, Bob Bovee, they played and sang their way across this land. They were the best.”
Survivors include Bovee, and children John and Chris Heil and Lindsey Heil of St. Louis, Mo., and grandchildren Finn Dolan and Olivia Dolan.
Pop Wagner is organizing a celebration of Heil’s life and music. In an e-mail, Wagner said: “Gail wished that, to remember her, her musical family and her friends would gather together to make the music that she so loved.”
That gathering will be held at the Celtic Junction, 836 Prior Av. N. in St. Paul, on Sunday, July 21, from 2 to 6 p.m.