True friendship is like a finely tuned instrument, the different elements and strengths combining to make beautiful music. Steve Bourassa of Brainerd and Marlene Kort of Pillager have that effortless style of friendship, much of it based on a shared love of music. Nearly 20 years separate the two but their history, hobbies and music bind them together.
Steve Bourassa and Marlene Kort have a unique friendship and love of music. They share that music with residents at nursing homes in the Brainerd lakes area. Photo by Cathi Warren.
Steve, 57, and Marlene, 76, play music, sometimes together but sometimes separately, multiple times every week. The current group is referred to as “Steve & the Gang” or “Steve & Friends” due to its rotating roster of members. There are a few regulars like Frank Lloyd (bass) of Brainerd, Harley Niles (guitar) of Merrifield and Mike Williams (harmonica) of Brainerd, who play more often than some, but other friends and musicians join the group dependent upon the venue’s location and personal schedules. The band focuses primarily on old songs, classic country and hymns.
The group officially began about six years ago when they played at Pillager Riverside Assisted Living. Management of the facility then changed, and the band discontinued temporarily. Eventually the group started to play again and has not stopped since. “I was asked by some friends that were in nursing homes to come and sing them a few songs and I really started getting into it,” Steve recalls, “It was a pleasure seeing the joy that the people got.”
Steve & the Gang play music at a variety of venues. They play once a month at Bethany, usually twice a month at Carefree Living and regularly at The Center, all in Brainerd. Marlene, a regular singer within the group, is also the band’s unofficial business manager. “I find out where, when and why,” she said, referring to her task of organization within the group. “I keep them all in line and on time,” she adds proudly.
The band does not charge to play because, according to Marlene, “You can see in the residents’ eyes how much our visits mean to them.” and she points out that there are times when residents ask when they’ll be back before they have even finished playing. “It’s a joy,” Steve agreed, “truly priceless.” Both feel that they are meant to share their music with others.
Steve grew up surrounded by music. His grandparents, father, neighbors and his father’s good friends all played instruments and continue to influence Steve even today. He fondly recollected his grandparents’ local band, The Kitchen Blenders, saying “We made our own entertainment.” Television wasn’t a common activity when he was a child and was for the most part reserved for Saturday evenings and sometimes Sundays. “Couple of people would come over and it was an all night party,” Steve said, grinning, “we would just sit and play music all night long.”
Family played a substantial influence in Marlene’s musical life as well. Her grandfather taught her to play the organ at age 12, which then led to learning the accordion and piano. Her mother and uncles all played instruments too and she remembers a lot of music growing up. Marlene wistfully recalled the barn dances of her youth saying “My uncles and my grandpa and my mother would all get together with their guitars and fiddle and accordion and banjos and they would play before they’d put the hay in the barn, a barn dance. All the neighborhood would come to a barn dance.”
Steve practices his guitar nearly every day and because he is blind, learns new songs over the telephone as Marlene reads the songs to him. “That’s how I learn my songs,” he explained, “God’s grace gave me this memory.” Though Marlene no longer plays her instruments, she continues to sing and dance and has even been known to dress up as the infamous Minnie Pearl, complete with hat and dangling price tag.
Understandably through the years Steve has accrued a large mental catalogue of songs. According to Marlene, “He has about 187, give or take, just in his head alone.” Steve has a few favorites by Johnny Cash, Ray Price and Hank Williams and makes a special mention of the song “Whispering Pines” by Johnny Horton. Marlene cites a Merle Haggard song “The Next Life”, notable for an impressive speaking part within the song.
Though the song catalogue varies with each performance, the opening song is usually Hank Williams’ “Take These Chains From My Heart”. The final song will differ according to where they are. As a rule they like to end with “God Bless America” but if at nursing homes, they prefer to close with a spiritual hymn.
Steve and Marlene have more in common than their love of music. Steve credits Marlene’s late husband, Digger, with getting him back into playing and singing, and the two men enjoyed playing music together frequently. Unfortunately, Digger developed lung cancer, and Steve moved in with the couple to help Marlene take care of her husband and his best friend. For five months, Steve helped to carry and move Digger when needed, until his passing. “He and my husband played music all the time together, then I lost my husband, and I just kept taking Steve around,” Marlene recalled.
The two friends now live in different towns but continue to see each other often. In addition to playing music, Marlene and Steve have other interests in common. Steve has a garden at Marlene’s home, and time is spent making salsa, sauerkraut and canning vegetables. “He’s my chopper upper, does all the dicing and chopping” declares Marlene. Stomping 800-1,000 pounds of cabbage each season for the sauerkraut and canning carrots, potatoes, pickles and string beans ensures time well spent. Steve likes to fish and if there is enough caught, a Sunday evening fish fry is usually inevitable.
Both Steve and Marlene plan to play music well into their futures. “As long as the good Lord lets us,” insisted Marlene and Steve added “as long as they keep letting me come back” with a mischievous smile. Steve & the Gang will continue to please their audiences because it means as much to the musicians as it does to the audience themselves.
“The gratitude is overwhelming sometimes. I owe it all to the people. My friends, we’re in this together. We have a good time when we do it. Wherever we go, the people really seem to enjoy it. I don’t know, they keep coming back,” Steve chuckled, “We’re not out of business yet.”