3/3/23 Written by Chris D
In the Summer of 2001, I was recently discharged from the U.S. Air Force and living in the Washington, DC, area. I spent a considerable amount of time hanging out with Kelly Hearn, a very close High School friend of mine (Dyersburg, TN High School Class of 1988) who was also living in the area. He lived near Capitol Hill and the two of us would routinely meet up to hang out and play guitar, sing, and basically just have a good time. Kelly was an excellent singer and a darn good guitar player. He loved to write original material, and, if memory serves me correctly, even played at a couple of “open mic” nights nearby. He had a magnificent voice and possessed the ability to sing while playing – a skill I did not (and still do not) have.

While at Kelly’s house one day, I told him that later in the month I was going whitewater rafting with several of our DHS 1988 classmates – Marcus Perry, Andy Baker, PJ Thurman, Chris Wilson, and others.  Kelly seemed very interested in making the trip to North Carolina (French Broad River). I told him that he was more than welcome to join us, and that he could ride with my wife and me. A couple of weeks later, we departed for our rafting adventure, and I remember picking him up at a Metro station near my house in Alexandria. He had little gear/clothing with him. However, he did bring his guitar, which made me smile.

The drive to North Carolina took us about 7 hours, but I remember it being a fun drive as we were largely talking about the good ole days in Dyersburg, TN. Once we arrived at the campground, we unpacked and started catching up with our old classmates. Someone brought a football – possibly PJ – and we tossed it around for hours.

Kelly Hearn tossing around football at French Broad River

We had a blast rafting the French Broad River. I believe it was Kelly’s first time in a raft. We had the option of floating down in a large, guided raft. Or, you could float down the river solo. Kelly chose the lone wolf option, as did PJ, and went down in an inflatable canoe (called a ducky). I remember him smiling ear to ear.

French Broad River, NC – May 2001

Once we were back at the campground, Kelly broke out his guitar and started playing. I remember us walking around the campground, and everywhere we went, Kelly had his guitar strapped on – singing and playing. We were literally walking up and down the main road (seen below in the picture with Andy Baker) listening to Kelly play as we walked. At one point, I was standing next to Kelly when Andy walked over, pointed to Kelly, and (in a way that nobody else in the world can do but Andy) said…” Boxcar Willie Hearn.” We all, including Kelly, immediately busted out laughing, as Andy was obviously referring to the country music icon Boxcar Willie. If you know Andy, then you will better understand how this was so funny to all of us. For the remainder of the trip, everyone in our group called Kelly – “Boxcar Willie.” It was hilarious. I’ll never forget it.

Andy Baker, moments before coining the name “Boxcar Willie Hearn”

The name stuck. After that trip, I do not think I ever called Kelly by his given name again. I always called him Boxcar Willie, and later on even shortened it to simply “Willie.” To me, he was (and will always be) Willie Hearn.

Boxcar Willie Hearn playing around the campfire May 2001 – French Broad River – That’s Marcus Perry on the left, PJ Thurman on the right.
Chris D, Willie H, Patrick T.

We returned home from the rafting trip, then quickly resumed our weekly jam sessions. I remember that we struggled a bit, as I preferred to play harder rock songs on electric guitar, while “Willie” had grown fond of country’ish bands such as Sun Volt, Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams, and others. However, we still had fun and jokingly said that if we ever formed a band (which he aspired of), we would call ourselves “Common Ground”. I always thought that name was kinda funny – mainly because it was true – as we both grown up in West Tennessee listening to the same music and for the most part had very similar musical tastes. I have vivid memories of riding around with Willie in his Black Datsun (probably around 1987), listening to Led Zeppelin, hearing him sing, and thinking to myself – damn, Kelly can sing!

Rhonda Perry on left, Willie Hearn on right

Willie had been writing original material, which sounded really good. He owned a small voice recorder that he used for his job as a writer/journalist for UPI (see his excellent work here), often using it to record himself singing and playing. I suggested we buy a 4-track recorder to start capturing his musical ideas – which we ultimately did. “4-track” is a reference to an old form of recording audio. For instance on one track (of a cassette) you might have the drums, second track you might have a guitar, third track a bass, and fourth track the singer.

I would go to Willie’s house maybe once a week – sometimes once every couple of weeks. We kept the recording gear (and my electric guitar) at his house so that I did not have to drag the stuff back and forth. I believe that over time, Willie became comfortable enough with the 4-track to record stuff on his own when I was not there. Honestly, that may have been when he did some of his best work.

More exciting, we also bought a microphone which Willie was elated about! Later on, we also bought a drum machine which neither of us could operate hahaha. You can see it (and the 4-track recorder) pictured below, as Willie is seen writing lyrics for a new song (in the upstairs of that Capitol Hill home):

Willie writing lyrics for new song; the proud new owner of a 4-track recorder & a drum machine.

Worth noting is the fact that Willie’s guitar was very nice. It was Taylor guitar, which I had never heard of until playing his. I quickly came to understand that Taylor is a high-end brand of guitar known for beautiful, bright tones. The first time I played his I remember being in awe, because I was used to playing a beat up hand-me-down that I somehow convinced Ricky Glass into giving me when we were 19. I remember thinking to myself that when I bought a “real” guitar, it would be a Taylor, just like Willie’s. I actually own two (2) Taylor guitars today, because of Boxcar Willie Hearn. They currently hang on my basement wall and I routinely play both of them. The six-string seen below on the left is almost identical to the guitar that Willie owned back in the early 2000’s:

Taylor 6 and 12-string guitars; inspired by Boxcar Willie Hearn – Photo taken 3/3/23

I eventually left the Washington DC area and moved to Pittsburgh. For a while, I kept in contact with Willie but unfortunately we lost touch. A few years later, I stumbled across the original 4-track cassettes that we had recorded on, and decided to revisit the music. I converted some of the songs to digital format and then uploaded them to SoundCloud. I still had Willie’s email address, so I sent him the link. He responded, and I think we ended up talking on the phone – and kinda laughed about the whole “Common Ground” thing. Obviously, he had not heard any of the recordings since I had moved (I had the actual cassettes in my possession). He loved hearing the music again online, but had largely forgotten about it. Actually, I had kinda forgotten about the songs, too, until I came across the cassettes that day. We had a few laughs, and, unfortunately, I’m not sure I ever saw or talked to my dear friend Willie again.

The original cassettes. If someone from Willie’s family sees this and wants them, I am happy to give them to you.

To be clear, we never fancied ourselves as “great musicians”, we were just a couple of High School buddies who liked to get together and have fun. I believe Willie used to refer to it as “picking and grinning”. Also, neither of us were very good with the 4-track recorder or the drum machine – I wish we had taken the time to learn how to properly operate those devices. Despite this, some of the music is not half bad, in my opinion.

Why am I telling you all of this?

Because I want to share some of those songs with you so you too can appreciate our friend “Willie’s” talent.

NOTE: I specifically remember telling Willie (the last time I spoke to him) that I might post some of the stuff online, which I did (although I never shared it with anyone until now). He did not object, so I do not think he would mind me sharing this with you now. Additionally, I got permission from his sister, Carrie, before making this public. I hope his family hears the songs below and it makes them smile.

Lastly, I plan to buy another 4-track recorder, and possibly a bass guitar, to revisit the songs once again. I suspect there is a ton of music on those tapes that I simply never got around to converting to digital. I may rework some of the songs to really polish them up. However, the only thing that needs work would be my parts – Willie’s are flawless.

-Chris D.
(you can contact me at cdunavent@gmail.com)

Across the Sea

I believe Willie recorded this one using his handheld voice recorder. He wrote it, played it, and sang it:


I remember being excited about this one, because I think it was the first little song where we actually used the 4-track recorder for it’s intended use (recording tracks on top of each other). I think we laid down some guitar, then came back and recorded Willie’s vocals on top of that, then I we went back and attempted to sing sone light harmony on top of his voice. It’s a short song. Willie, as always, wrote this one:

Bus Driver

I previously thought that this was an original song that Willie had written. When I was revisiting the tapes years later, this song was labeled as “Bus Driver” on the cassette case. I think I jotted that name down because I did not know what else to call it. However, in March of 2023 I learned that it is actually “Sweet Carolina” by Ryan Adams – a song that I was not familiar with. It now makes total sense to me, as I remember Willie loving Ryan Adams. If you listen closely, he is playing the song – then I believe he stumbles across an idea (for a different song) – and you hear him make a change to begin tinkering with a different chord progression and lyrics.

Sweet Carolina

In March of 2023, I was contacted by Stephanie S. who confirmed that “Bus Driver” (above) is actually “Sweet Carolina” by Ryan Adams. She sent me a recorded copy of that song along with the following message…”Kelly sent it to me June 10, 2014. It’s so beautiful. I think he recorded it in a bathroom in Tennessee  before he moved to China. He sent it to me with the instructions to download it so I could listen to it while I was offline and doing yard work. He wanted it listened to on headphones- he was adamant about that- hopefully he will forgive us for not following those instructions. I have to warn you that it’s so beautiful that it’s heart wrenching.”

If possible, please follow Willie’s wishes and listen to this one with headphones:


I think Willie wrote this. I don’t think I was there the day he recorded it. I believe he was just toying around with some lyrics. I could see myself going back and recording some guitar on this one.

Black Arrow, Bleeding Hearts

In keeping with our “Common Ground” approach, Willie convinced me to learn Black Arrow, Bleeding Hearts by Whiskeytown. I originally fought him in the beginning (because it was country), but eventually started to like the song. Willie sang lead vocals, while I played guitar and attempted to sing harmony:

Light Shine on Me

Willie played and sang. I’m not sure if he wrote it (I kinda think he did):


Willie sang and played this one. To my knowledge, he also wrote it (I swear I remember him telling me he wrote it for HIS grandmother):

Amazing Grace

I played guitar on this one, Willie sang. We had the vocals turned down too low on this one. I’ll likely revisit this song at some point, turn down my guitar, and turn up Willie:

Missionary Man

Willie wrote and sang this one. I think I played guitar:

Love Is

We eventually bought ourselves a drum machine (pictured above), which neither of us could ever really figure out. This was the closest we ever came to recording something with halfway decent drums. I think we had planned to buy a bass guitar and record a bassline but never got around to it. Also, there was supposed to be a small guitar solo (listen for the tambourines) but we never recorded it. Willie wrote and sang this one, I played guitar:

Halls of Shame

This is all Willie. He wrote it (I think), played it, and sang it:


This was one of the originals, as you can tell we don’t have him mic’d properly. He wrote it and sang it. I played guitar:

Provident Mother

Willie was extremally happy with this one, and I remember it being one of his favorites. He wrote it, sang it, and played guitar on it:

Lay Me Down

This was likely me trying to get Willie to go “heavier” with the music. We never came up with a chorus for this one, but he did write all the verses. If I buy another 4-track recorder and bass, I’ll likely rework this one and polish it up:

Every Night

You can tell on this one that we had just purchased the 4-track recorder. Neither of us had a clue what we were doing. You can hear we did not have the vocals mic’d properly. This was just a snippet of an idea. Another one of those where I think he was on to something, but we never pursued it:

Obituary (Click Here)

Kelly Wade Hearn, 52, of Hainan, China, formerly of Dyersburg, TN, passed away on Friday, March 3, 2023 in Hainan, China.

He was born on July 20, 1970, in Union City, TN, to Willard Wade Hearn and Teresa Ladd Willis. Kelly taught English and Economics at Hainan College of Business and was presented an award for Outstanding Foreign Teacher. He was a freelance journalist for several years when he lived in Argentina and was a staff writer for the Washington Times, which was funded by Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Kelly’s freelance articles have appeared in the Washington Post, The Nation Yale 360, National Geographic News, The Christian Science Monitor and the Virginia Quarterly Review. He also published a book of short stories under a pen name, Sick and Tired of it All by Karl Henley. Kelly received the Reed Community Award for Whuhan Military Games for teaching English to volunteers of military games.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Friday, March 17, 2023 at First Baptist Church in Dyersburg, TN, with Rev. Mike Hickman officiating. Dyersburg Funeral Home is in charge of the arrangements.

The family will receive visitors from 5-8 p.m. Thursday, March 16, 2023 at Dyersburg Funeral Home.

Survivors include his wife, Huizi Zhang Hearn of Hainan, China; a son, Liam Ladd Hearn of Hainan, China; his mother and step-father, Teresa and Danny Willis of Dyersburg, TN; his father and step-mother, W.W. “Wick” and Amy Hearn; his brother, Chris (Kristen) Willis and son, Wyatt Willis, all of Dyersburg, TN; his sister, Carrie Hearn Vaughn (Loren) of Ripley, TN; a nephew, Hunter Lowery of Dyersburg, TN; two nieces, Pearson Vaughn and Peyton Vaughn, both of Ripley, TN; and many aunts, uncles and cousins.


3/20/23: Unfortunately, on the weekend of Willie’s Memorial Service, I had already made some fairly extensive travel plans to go see another of Willie’s trusted friends – Marcus Perry. When I arrived at Marcus’ home, he was quick to show me the last guitar that Willie ever owned. It is a Fender acoustic/electric that plays well. I particularly love the headstock, as it is akin to an electric guitar’s – making it easier to tune. Throughout the weekend, I played that guitar (seen below) as all of us (Marcus, Marcus’ wife, my wife, and myself) reminisced about good ole’ Willie Hearn. The guitar is still at Marcus’ home, but at some point I may have him send it to me so that I can use it to record. Once I am finished with it, I intend to get it into the hands of Willie’s son, Liam.

Willie’s last known guitar – Currently in Dallas, TX as of 3/20/23

Here’s a video from another of Willie’s friend, Brad Borden, where he is playing the guitar above. I noted that the same strings are still on the guitar:

14 thoughts on “The Story of “Boxcar Willie Hearn”

  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful tribute to Kelly. It’s hard losing a good friend. Loved hearing his songs and you playing the guitar. Cherish your memories. Prayers for his family and friends.

  2. Kelly was an awesome soul. I’m a cousin and he’s several years older than I am, but he’s the coolest of all of us. And he always has been. I told him me was like Indiana Jones without the whip. Thanks for posting the stories and the jams. They brought a smile to my face, which is what he would have wanted. To make us all smile.

  3. Hey. This is Huizi, Kelly’s wife. Thank you so much for sharing this. I’d like to keep all these for our boy if you mind. I’m so glad Kelly had all these great experiences with you guys. He really lived in his life, doesn’t he?

  4. These songs are really good. Thanks for sharing your story. Sorry for the loss for anyone who knew him. I didn’t but he seemed like a great guy.


  5. –Chris,
    Thanks for creating and publishing this. Please give me a call if you can.
    Brent Moore

  6. I have very fond memories of Kelly back from my time in DC. Thank you so much for sharing this story and the music.

    Mark Nanavati

  7. Thank you so much for this. Kelly and I were roommates in DC in the 96-97 years.

    The picture you paint of “Willie” is so perfect and so purely Kelly.

    And these songs: his voice, the words, and the purity of his tone just captures the man who made an indelible mark on the soul of all who were close to him.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  8. This a beautiful tribute. I’m so touched to have come across this after I received the news of his passing in an email from Huizi. Kelly has been a great friend to me for the past ten years since I’ve known him. He helped me get through a very rough time last year. He was one of the most interesting, genuine and deeply loving people that I have ever met. Thank you for sharing your memories of him with us. I have recordings that he sent me over the years. He liked the acoustics of a bathroom so that’s where they were recorded. 🙂 I’m so sorry for everyone’s loss, especially Liam’s. Sending love to you all.

  9. Beautiful, Chris, very beautiful. Thanks for sharing such wonderful memories of Kelly. He was such a cool person. Deeply interested and interesting. Such special Dyersburg friends. Sending love.

  10. Great job Dunavent!! This is awesome…especially all the songs and music! It brings back such great memories of that rafting trip and of memories of Hearn aka “Boxcar Willie Hearn” and of all our friendships. Kelly was a very good friend and we would always try and get together when he was in Dyersburg. He lived a very full life and he lived it his way which is how we all should live. Our brother Willie Hearn will be truly missed by all…but never forgotten!!

  11. I just heard that Kelly passed away. Mí hermano Kelly . We shared a house in Argentina for many many years and we played guitar together almost every single night, same songs over and over again.
    Sadly I’ve lost those recordings. I’m so so glad to be able to hear Kelly singing again thanks to you. Lots of love to all his friends and family around the world.

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