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This must be the place: It’s hard to frown when ukulele music is goin’ down

The Donner concert model ukulele. (photo: Garret K. Woodward) The Donner concert model ukulele. (photo: Garret K. Woodward)

Stepping into the hotel room, my mother had an odd expression on her face when she looked at me and said, “I got you something for your birthday. If you don’t like it, then you can give it away to someone.”

There I was, in the Waynesville County Club at the end of February. My parents, being the Upstate New York snowbirds that they are, were in the midst of the annual March trip down to St. Augustine, Florida. As per usual, they swung over out of their way to come and visit me in Western North Carolina for a couple days. 

And though my birthday is Feb. 5, my mother kept telling me in the weeks leading up to their getaway that she’d purchased something for my birthday. But, she couldn’t give it to me until they rolled into Haywood County. 

So, sitting in the country club hotel room, she made me close my eyes and placed this foreign object in my hands. When I opened my eyes, I found myself holding a ukulele. A little unsure of the present, I was grateful nonetheless. 

But, I thought to myself: why a ukulele? My mother, seeing my inquisitive gaze, said, “Well, you mentioned how you wanted to learn an instrument this year. So, I found this on the Facebook Marketplace back home and thought it might be a good place to start.”

Yes, I did mention a renewed interested in learning an instrument in 2020. This past Christmas, while hanging out in the kitchen at my folks’ farmhouse in the North Country, my mother and I were talking about music. She said she’d love to play piano someday. I concurred and added, “You know, I really want to learn a string instrument. Maybe a mandolin or guitar.”

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And yet, I was unsure of what instrument to pursue. As a minimalist, I didn’t want some large and cumbersome thing to lug around. Nor did I want to spend a lot of money on something I might come to find out, well, wasn’t for me. But, the idea of the ukulele never once appeared in my thoughts and possible actions in regards to this topic.

Whether you’re a longtime reader of The Smoky Mountain News or this is your first time coming across this publication, I’d like to reiterate that music is the absolute core of my heart and soul, especially when performed live. I am unabashedly a music freak. It’s an art form that has influenced my writings as much as it has created this life for myself as a journalist. 

Thus, not playing an instrument has been one of the great longings of my existence. In ninth grade, I picked up the trumpet, then the saxophone, but neither seemed to strike any kind of emotional chord within me. 

So, those instruments gathered dust in my closet until my parents sold them at a garage sale to someone who might have better luck. But, the thought of someday trying my hand at playing music was never far from my extensive travels and articles on live music, musicians, and anything music-related. 

Bringing the ukulele back to my apartment, I started tinkering with it that first night of ownership. Though the notes radiating from my fingertips sounded more like someone smashing the uke against the wall, I was able to figure out a handful of basic chords, and away I went. 

Not even two weeks after the uke appeared in my life, we found ourselves in the midst of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Where initially I questioned when I would find the time to learn and play the uke, now I seemingly had all the time in the world, just sitting in my humble abode and strumming along to YouTube tutorials on easy songs for beginners. 

And now here we stand in early May. The planet is an entirely different place than it was in late February. Things have changed. We have changed. And, in some small way, I’ve changed, too, with this newfound love and passion for the ukulele. 

In the time since I first was handed the uke, I’m constantly playing it, whether it be in passing in my apartment (it sits happily on my couch) or when I’m heading to my buddy’s mountainside cabin for a jam session while we’re grilling out to pass the time during the quarantine. 

I’ve even caught what musicians call G.A.S. (aka: “gear acquisition syndrome”). Though I originally started out with a Donner concert model uke (ideal for beginners), I soon wanted to kick things up a notch, in terms of size and quality. Scouring the internet for a full week, I finally settled on purchasing a Cordoba tenor model uke — I couldn’t be more pleased with the sound and feel of it. 

These days, I can’t even imagine not having a ukulele within my grasp. What a weird, surreal thought, eh? I’m constantly thinking about what songs I want to learn on it, and who I’d like to jam with, perhaps picking up a couple tricks of the trade in how to approach and perfect one’s ongoing skillset with the instrument.

But, most importantly, I’ve found this new and awe-inspiring lease on creativity. I never realized how big of a void not learning and playing an instrument was in my life. I’ve come to find out it was something at the core of my evolution as not only a creative soul, but also as a human being aiming to make genuine connections with others, with another outlet now at my disposal. 

Each day with these ukuleles is an adventure, and as it should be. Anything worth pursuing in life, whether an instrument or a relationship, should be a constant growth of passion and love. For me, in the here and now, the uke has become my companion during this period of isolation. And I look forward to jamming with more folks once “normalcy” returns and we can gather to pick-n-grin. 

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all. 

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