It’s a special blessing when friends who appear to have passed out of your life suddenly show up again. Greg and I knew Steve Johnson before his marriage, and both our families attended Denton Community Church, where Steve and I played and sang in the church band. We also played a semiprofessional circuit of clubs, pubs, and coffee shops in a Celtic/folk band called The Outlanders. Often we’d drive to Plano, Flower Mound, the West End, or Deep Elum on a Saturday afternoon, play a gig, drag ourselves home sometime after midnight (sometimes waaaayy after), then get up Sunday morning for eight o’clock practice for the morning church service. (Dragging from fatigue only, mind you. We didn’t drink anything stronger than coffee at these places.) Sometimes Renee, Steve’s wife, would keep my kids at their place during a gig. Sometimes, if the venue were family-friendly, she’d come along and ride herd on all the kids.
Steve loves God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, and as worship leader at DCC, he cultivated a strong sense of community and family among all the musicians. It was the same way with The Outlanders. He was generous with solos, always eager to showcase the talents of fellow band members. I don’t remember any ego friction in either band. Basically we just all loved being together and making music.
Steve and Renee and their kids left North Texas years before we did and proceeded to live in so many different states that we lost track of them. Two years ago, shortly after our move south, we learned that the Johnsons were now living about forty-five minutes away from us. We’ve seen them a few times since then, along with other old friends from North Texas who’ve also migrated south. I can’t hope to describe the poignancy of taking the same wrinkled, much-marked chord charts out of the same notebooks and playing the same songs again after a decade’s hiatus. I can only say it’s a boon from God.
Wednesday of this week, Anna and I went to New Braunfels to play with Steve at the retirement home where he now works. We did a set of our old stand-bys, including some ancient Celtic hymns, a traditional Scottish boat song, and a multi-versed ballad about Irish independence. Anna, who was five years old when The Outlanders last played together en masse, sang two songs of her own composition and accompanied herself on guitar. Time does tend to go on, doesn’t it?
Now I’m remembering various gigs I played with just Steve, when the rest of the band couldn’t come or there wasn’t room for all of us. Like the St. Patrick’s Day luncheon, also at a retirement home, where a Scottish lady greeted us in Gaelic, and in addition to our pay we were each given a potted shamrock centerpiece to take home. And the lunchtime spot at the café in The Cupboard in Denton, with Steve on mountain dulcimer and me on pennywhistle, for which we were paid in much-appreciated store credit. Then there was the wedding reception for the Asian couple at Denton Bible Church. What serendipitous whim led two first-generation Asian immigrants to contract a Celtic duo for their wedding reception, I do not know and have often wondered. I remember playing “Dance Around the Spinning Wheel,” a lovely romantic piece, heavy on pennywhistle, with about a million verses for Steve to sing. Besides our fee, we each received a blue cloth printed with images of fish. I think there was supposed to be some cultural significance to this but I never caught what it was. Whatever it represents, it’s a beautiful reminder of the day.
I could go on and on about the band’s adventures, including the time we actually left the state to go on tour. Maybe I will in another post. My years with the band were exhausting and exhilarating. Often my homemaking suffered from the late nights and frequent practices, but I think my kids’ casual exposure to music and musicians was an excellent thing, giving them a cellular-level confidence about artistic endeavors. “Is this you?” they used to ask when hearing a CD of Celtic music. Sometimes it was us; sometimes it was The Chieftains or Bill Whelan’s Riverdance. Apparently they thought anything was possible. Still do.
Our chops aren’t what they were back when we were practicing and/or performing several hours each week, but we still more than hold our own. I’m grateful for the opportunity to reconnect and hoping for more of the same. And I’m grateful to Steve for taking me into the band, back when it was called Steve Johnson and Friends, and giving me a good reason to learn a new instrument. I don’t know if I’ve ever really thanked him for that before now.