“You really shouldn’t play your G like that.” My brother John sat across from me in the family room at the old house. He had just listened to me sing one of my songs and suggested I play the G Chord with my pinky on string number 1 instead of my ring finger. "You’re good enough that you really shouldn’t be playing it the way you do." Though playing it that way felt completely unnatural to me, I was honored to think that he thought I might be “good enough”.
I was a mother of four who stayed up into the wee hours of the night to write songs. He was a professional musician, the godfather of flat picking in the state of Idaho. He was a guitar string's worst nightmare. I lightly tickled the strings on my instrument. I think it was one of the first times he had come to visit us from his home in Idaho, before I knew him by heart, like I do now. I had just recorded an album of original songs, one most people now don’t know I even have. A producer had heard me somewhere and paid for the recording. Mostly, for me, it was a learning experience. I was naive, and rather raw as a player, singer and songwriter. So I was a little intimidated and nervous to even let my brother hear it. He was kind and complimentary, and most encouraging about my songwriting. You have to know a little about the dynamics of our relationship to understand what that meant to me.
My brother John is eight years older than I. He was the youngest child of my mom and her first husband, Cy Davis. When my mom married Lewis Hansen, John acquired a new set of house rules and an unhealthy dose of disinterest at best, and tragic abuse at worst. When he was in third grade he wanted so badly to belong that he started writing his last name as Hansen instead of Davis. He still goes by John Hansen, not that his stepfather deserved any credit John has brought to his name. John was child #3 of Afton Hansen, and I was child #6.
When I was 5 and John was wading into the waters of teenagehood, we moved from our small town in Idaho to Pittsburgh, PA. This was the early 1960’s, a tumultuous time in America. An equally uneasy time in our home as well. My dad, for whatever reason, was full of discontent and booze. That’s a bad combination. John was a lanky, long legged fellow who found a voice for his angst in the songs of Bob Dylan. He saved up his hard earned money working at Isaley’s Ice Cream and Deli so he could purchase his first guitar. I remember tiptoeing downstairs in my pajamas, my hair wet from my evening bath. I peeked through the rungs on the banister while John and his friends held band practice. John was hip, and handsome, and quiet and kind, though he had to have been confused by life. The music that floated from his portable turntable became the soundtrack to the scenes of my childhood: the Beatles, and Dylan, and others whose songs I know but whose names escape me. By the time John was a senior in high school, having moved six times during his high school years, he had had enough and moved back to Idaho. He carried a sort of mystery with him, and by the time I had grown into my own personality, he was far away.
|John, front middle, with an early band, circa 1971|
It was music, especially the creation of a song, that brought us together as adults. He would end up producing my first real album, in Boise and Nashville. He has played on most of my albums, and he is one of my finest cheerleaders. Because of his renown, especially among musicians, I have many friends who have changed me for the better. But mostly it is John who changed me as a musician. For years Merlyn and I journeyed to Boise to perform and record. I felt at home in his place, and secure in his love and respect for me and my little family.
When my son John was swirling in his own teenage angst, I remember one particularly vocal interchange in the kitchen. We argued about something or other. Johnny stormed up the back stairs and I followed after him, grabbing him by the leg before he hit the top stair. We both fell in an emotional heap on the steps. Somewhere in the conversation that followed Johnny told me we just didn’t understand him. I asked him what he wanted in life, and he replied that he just wanted to be like Uncle John. I listened and thought a minute, then replied that he would do well to be like his Uncle John, noting some of the fine character traits of my brother. We sat there a minute. I told him I had spent a lot of time with his Uncle John, and he had shared with me the person he most admired. “Who’s that?” Johnny asked, sure he would find the secret of life in such a person.
My son John, to his credit, knows when to be still and absorb. That bit of full-circle information has settled into his soul at this point, and I believe he himself would speak the name of his father in the short list of people he would like to emulate.
At that time, though, it was my brother. And truth be known, it still is.
My brother, John is uber-talented, and his fingers are like lightening on the neck of his guitar. He has the gift of being able to sincerely feel the spirit that each song carries. Songs are almost human, having souls of their own that yearn to be understood. Good songs, at least. Both my John’s know how to access those personalities and stories in each song.
As our mother aged, John travelled from Boise regularly to sing to her, to kiss her soft cheeks, to hang hooks in her garage or dig up a tree stump, or just sit with her. John, however, never just sits. His hands need to hold a guitar. Mom was curled into her red leather recliner, her snowy white hair like a cloud against a crimson sky. John would plant himself comfortably on the couch next to her, his guitar gently throbbing against his chest. The words and comfortable melody of Tom Waits floated from his lips: “Time went so quickly, I went lickety-splitly out to my old 55….” Harmony rose up from her throat, our beloved mother, and if I was lucky enough to be there I could pull up a third, or listen as Kate did. It makes me weep to think of it, to think of her voice harmonizing with all of us, allowing us to sing our own songs but supporting with her own harmonious sweetness. Her pitch was dead on, even when she didn’t know the lyric. And her sense of timing was impeccable. There is a sweetness in family harmony that is rare in non-bloodline music.
Even though our mother has gone the way of all living things, John still works his way down south toward us. Each August, when the fruits of the apricot trees are soft and warm, when the hot August sun awakens the sugary juices so that the apricots nearly jump into the palms of your hands as you pick them, John drives down with his granddaughter Brooklyn for Pappy week. (His treasures call him Pappy.) We pile into the van and continue south one town to Centerville, to the corner lot with the ancient gnarled trees that bend toward the ground with the weight of their bounty. For 40 cents a pound we drag the tall wooden ladders up into the orchard, through the rutty soil, and plant them firmly under the branches where the most fruit has fallen to the ground, an indicator that the fruit there is happy to be ripe. We usually pick between 50 and 80 pounds each year. Only ripe ones. No green. The riper, the better for apricot jam. At home we wash, pit and remove blighted portions of the fruit. The rest we cut into little orange pieces, adding a fair amount of granulated sugar and some corn syrup. We do not mash the fruit. If it is truly ripe it will mash itself in the process. All day my brother will stand over the stove, stirring the fruit as it bubbles down into liquid gold. Brooklyn or one of my sisters or I will spell him off. By the end of the day we have a couple dozen quart bottles sitting on the counter, their lids popping as they cool. We do not add pectin to our apricot jam. Our mom liked it a little runny, so that you had to hold your plate under your chin when you ate a crunchy piece of toast slathered with butter and a nice spoonful of apricot jam.
One of our favorite family Sunday meals is a tender pork roast browned in olive oil and butter, roasted while we are at church and all the way through a Sunday nap, if we are lucky enough to get one. About an hour before serving we pour one of those quarts of home made apricot jam over the roast, basting it occasionally as the jam mixes with the juices of the roast. The skin of the roast becomes caramelized with the fruits of those apricot trees. Served with roasted yams or sweet potatoes, or a baked potato and asparagus, it is a sweet reminder even in the bitterest part of February that August repeatedly gives us her bounty, as long as the blossoms in the spring have survived a late frost, as long as the heat of the summer days dances with the chill of northern Utah nights, and as long as my brother John makes his way south toward his family.
So much of the music that comes from me is influenced by my brothers, John and George, from the life searching lyric of Dylan to the deep harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, I cannot separate my past from my present. I am reminded repeatedly that we tend to love the things that the people who mean the most to us love. It’s a darn good thing my brothers have good taste.
There are a few men whose lives are inseparably connected to my heart, and two of them are named John.
|John and me.|
APRICOT PORK ROAST
Pork roast, boneless or pork tenderloin.
Apricot jam (if using commercial jam, dilute slightly with water or broth.
Olive oil and butter
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a heavy skillet heat about ¼ cup oil to very hot. Add a dab of butter.
Generously coat pork roast with salt and pepper and garlic salt.
Put roast in hot oil and sear until the color of the roast changes. Sear all sides of the roast.
Put roast in a covered casserole or cover your pan with foil and place in hot oven for 15 minutes. Afterwards lower heat to 300 and cook covered 3-6 hours depending on size of roast.
If you choose to add onion, brown the onion whole (peeled) in oil and add it to the roasting pan.
About one hour before eating test roast for doneness. Remove lid and pour apricot jam over roast. Baste every 20 minutes or so.
When ready to serve, remove roast from pan and cut or chunk it on a platter. Spoon some of the juices over top. Pour the rest of the juices into a small pitcher and allow guests to add more juicy sweetness to their servings.
(it is nearly 3 am Easter morning and I am weary to the bone. I will post this and proof it later when I have more of my wits about me. These late night postings are doing me in!)