the true stories
When I was about nine years old in Louisiana my best friend got a guitar. One look at it and I was in love. The following Christmas it was my turn. It was 1966, if I recollect correctly. I was over the moon happy. My parents gave me lessons right away which I attended on Tuesdays with Mr. Johnny Gutweiler.
After two lessons, I was done with that nonsense. I could only read the high e and the b strings. My homework was to play Rueben, Rueben I've Been Thinking on these two strings. My friend was playing classical Spanish pieces like a professional. I am still musically illiterate.
I quit the lessons. I was listening to WLCS Baton Rouge on my radio and playing Lightnin' Hopkins records at this time. My guitar was steel string and the action was so high it tore the flesh from my fingers. Looking back, it was perfect for learning on. Even then, I knew if I could make that box sound halfway nice, when I ever got my hands on a good guitar, I could make it sing.
I rejected the theory of music completely and developed a method of figuring out songs that I loved so much I was willing to spend hours and hours practicing until I could express them in my own way according to my own techniques. I supplemented this with reading about different players and their methods.
For many years I had not much to show for my efforts. When I moved to Lynn Valley in British Columbia I took my guitar to school and met some other pickers. I had given my box a new paint job of red, white and blue, which I had seen on a Merle Haggard album cover. This didn't go over to well in the True North Strong and Free.
That original guitar finally got replaced when I bought my first Yamaki with my own wages. My buddy Howard Young, a cousin of Neil by the same last name, purchased a Martin from the same little shop on Lonsdale. I knew one day I sure wanted one of those Dreadnaughts when I had the money and figured I was worthy of the instrument.
The Yamaki accompanied me everywhere. It was a desk, a pillow, a table, a friend and a companion. I dragged it across Canada, the USA and Mexico. I wrote all the songs I have ever written on it. I plastered the case with stickers from everywhere I traveled. This was something I had seen on a Hank Snow album cover.
Once I was in Portland Oregon, coming back to Canada from San Francisco. I was sitting in a park and had just applied the last possible sticker to the guitar case. It was a Red Rose of Portland and covered the last open centimeters of the case. A man walked up with his dog to listen to me play and as I played Old Man by Neil Young. As I played and the man swayed and tapped his foot on the grass, his dog cocked its leg and relieved its bladder square on the Rose of Portland.
The guitar met its fate one day after my second wife used it to make a point in an argument. I saw the body descending in an arc to my head and put my elbow up instinctively. My elbow easily cracked the mahogany and I had a choice to make. I was more attached to that instrument than anything else in my life thus far. To treat it such was the greatest insult that could be done to me at that time. I was Viking angry. Thus I could take it out on a woman or something else.
I took it out on the guitar. I vacated the apartment and went to he back yard. I smashed and crushed the beloved instrument into pieces no bigger than pebbles. A man heard the commotion next door and watched from his balcony. Our eyes met briefly.
“Good day for smashing up a guitar, I figure,” he said tentatively.
I never replaced that guitar and hence never played for more than a decade after this. I had two children and they only saw me play once or twice growing up. When I got married to my third and proper wife, I went to a little old music shop in New Westminster and found a Yamaki, very similar to the one I had lost. I bought it and sat it in a closet while I raised my family.
One of my sons took up the er hu and the other younger one took up the harmonica and the guitar. He is left-handed and he taught himself to play guitar right-handed. He now has a couple of bands and has chosen the musical road to walk. He is self accomplished and probably only saw or heard me play less than a dozen times in his life. He convinced me to have my Yamaki refurbished by a wonderful Ukrainian luthier in town. I did this and the instrument rang like a fifty year old Martin. I put it in the closet.
When I was playing daily, my biggest fan was my Grandmother in Texas. She always sat me down on a kitchen chair and made me play whatever I'd written for her while she cooked us up some grub. She always told me I could make the radio if I tried. She would even call her friends over to drink beer and sing along.
One day in the summer of 2012, I was minding my own business on the couch after my shift as a letter-carrier. I became aware of a presence and felt a very strong urge to get up and do something. What was it? It was the presence of my Grandma and the message was to go get a microphone and record the songs I had written decades ago before I lost them.
I jumped up, went and bought the cheapest microphone and raced home to plug it into my computer. I got the guitar out of the closet. I sat down and started to see if I could remember anything. The first thing I discovered was that I couldn't use a flat-pick anymore. In the past I always had unless I was finger picking in particular. This time I found to my own surprise that I could only use my bare hands or nothing, even when not finger-picking.
I sat and let the songs roll out one by one. I played my best because I could feel my Grandmother sitting there with me. It was like a concert for the other side. I had to work a Friday shift the next morning and I returned home and didn't get up til it was done many many hours later. My wife brought me pineapple juice and when I discovered what it did to my voice, I requested some honey. I ate globs of honey and washed them down with the pineapple juice. Together they made my voice possible.
After an all-niter when I was done, I had seventeen tracks. Nine were my own compositions and eight were some of my favorites of other song-writers. I took a picture of my guitar in the early morning sun on my wife's Celtic shawl and tweaked the colours, named the whole project Chicory and burned about a hundred copies.
I sent copies to friends all over the world whom I had played with or played for. Some of the tunes are forty years old and were the expression of the young man I was at that time.
No guitarist knows what he sounds like when he's playing. When passively listening to a recording afterward, he may hear all kinds of little nuances and accents that he wasn't previously aware of. When I sat back to listen to Chicory a few days later, I heard red-wing blackbirds, freight trains, cicadas, my Grandpa's Swedish-Texan lilt-twang, the Mississippi, the Fraser Canyon, the Sabine, the Gulf of Mexico and wind in pine trees. My intent as I made it was nothing more than since I could do it, why not share it. My desire is that somewhere someone may get a warm clap on the back from one of my songs when they need it most.
Listen to Chicory here :
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.