BY HEIDI SWEDBERG | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE
With two birds, one cat, seven dogs, three pigs, three ponies, seven kids, one awesome stay-at-home husband, one hedgehog (she doesn’t count the fish—when would she have time?), and upwards of 500 ukuleles on-hand for her business, Mim’s Ukes, things can get a little busy for the animated and energetic presence driving the shop. “I don’t know how not to be busy,” says Mim.
If you follow Mim on social media (which you should) you may have seen early in 2017 she was “haulin’ ass”: mini-donkeys, needing to be transported, rescued, and fostered before they reached their forever homes. Although she swore she would not take in any rescue pups before the busy holiday season, Hurricane Michael changed her plan. The dog count is temporarily up to ten. “You do what you can, when you can,” she says. Clearly, she can, and does, do a lot.
Her 20-acre (mule-free), “little spot in the world,” is in the tiny hamlet known as Meadows of Dan, Virginia, on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Also known as the Crooked Road, southeastern Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail winds 330 miles through 19 counties, through a land where American musical history runs deep. People from around the world come to hear fiddles, banjos, guitars, plaintive vocal harmonies, and work up a sweat on the dance floor contra dancing or flatfootin’. The nearest one-stoplight town, Floyd, is home to a major Crooked Road venue, the Floyd Country Store. “It’s a quaint town, with the perfect mix of farmers, hippies, old-timey people, retirees, artists, and commuters. And if you come on Friday, you gotta go to the Country store for the radio show.” Mim’s shop is a very un-official stop on the tour.
“I’m an odd duck, musically,” she says. “I get more gigs in England than I do here.” Surrounded by bluegrass and old-timey music, her repertoire and instrument choice sets her apart. She describes her act as “circus-novelty-throwback-vaudeville.” Uniqueness is her strength, which is why uke enthusiasts flock to her shop, both online and on the Trail, and why she is invited to festivals far and wide. About two miles from the tourist attraction Mabry Mill, a historic water-turned gristmill, folks on a day-trip or aspiring players in search of the perfect instrument will stop by her shop. She says, “It’s like Olivander’s Wand Shop [from Harry Potter].” Have a seat on her fabulous vintage green velvet sofa, stroke the purring shop-cat’s soft ears while Mim stacks up cardboard polyhedrons of all sizes, virgin instruments quivering inside. “People come and play them all, but the uke picks you. It’s usually, like, the second one they keep going back to. I want you to be comfortable with your purchase, to get the right uke. It’s about getting what’s best for you, not my bottom line. My business is based on trust, because the real question is, ‘What do you want in your next uke?’”
‘I was raised with a hammer and nail in my hand.’
“I was always daddy’s girl.” Her voice has a little twang and her words have a country flavor, which she comes by naturally. Her father was raised in a nearby county, on the property where her sister now lives. “He was a farm boy, a worker, and he gave me my work ethic. He’d say, ‘If you show up on time, you are five minutes late.’” On her first job, with his road construction company, she reveled in the challenge of “making dad proud. He used to say, ‘Give everybody a little more than they expect.’” Which is just what she does. “I’m handy, not crafty. I don’t build instruments, but I can hear buzzes, and fix them. I work on intonation, action… When I have tools in my hand, I’m home.”
Her specialty is setup: the art of fine-tuning an instrument, especially the way the strings relate to the frets, often called the action. “I do a mean setup, and I do what I say I do. Even for the least-expensive instruments. Lots of the troubles players have come from a bad setup.” The height of the action changes how an instrument plays, and the way it can be played. Whereas a professional player may want their action higher so they can play loud and strong without buzzing, strummers, beginners, and children or those with disabilities find that low action can make an instrument much easier to play. Tender fingertips have less painful pressing to do when the strings are low. Setting up an instrument just right, whatever your predicament or passion, is Mim’s pleasure. [Editor’s note: Check out her setup advice, in this article.]
Most of her business is selling instruments online. She is the epitome of an intrepid small-business woman. If you follow her on Instagram, you can watch the progress she has made in her operations. Her shop was once a farmhouse and now sparkles with new siding and paint. Her inventory of cases is housed in a new shipping container-turned-storage room, complete with temperature and humidity controls. “As long as I am near a post office, I’m in business!” Every instrument that leaves her shop she personally sets up (an unusual plus for instruments ordered online, especially beginner models). Even on the internet, her enthusiasm is palpable. Nearly every sentence of her website’s manifesto ends with an exclamation point. When you speak with her in person, the punctuation holds true. She loves her work and she loves her life. “I’m just so pleased with everything! I am about as busy as one woman can be!”
‘Any excuse to put on the sequins!’
“I really enjoy doing festivals. That’s where I meet with my people—to know them personally is such a privilege.” Mim brings all her hats with her when she travels, figuratively and literally—vendor, workshop teacher, performer, and emcee: “That’s my quad-fecta.” Packing her car with instruments, tools, and spangly-dresses, she arrives like a tsunami of joy, flooding the venue with her high-energy love for music and community. Festival goers are drawn to her well-set tables, laden with ukuleles of every price point, but the real hubbub is at her bench.
Diminutive, yet easy to spot, she draws a crowd, crouching low over an instrument. Clad in bib overalls, her short-cropped hair dyed an unnatural tint (most often bright blue), she saws gingerly with her beloved nut files as a crowd of onlookers gather to peer over the uke owner’s shoulder. She narrates what she is doing and why, educating all within the transfixed circle. She will work until the issue is resolved, even if (especially if, she says) the instrument belongs to a beginner, because she knows that there is nothing more discouraging to someone just learning to play than a mysterious buzz.
The Grand Northern Ukulele Festival (GNUF) in Huddersfiels, England has a special spot in Mim’s heart. “That’s my happy place. I work like a little dog when I am there, but it’s my favorite festival of all. I work hard but I love every minute of it! It’s the thing in the future that keeps me going. A core group of five runs this huge festival and I am blessed to be one of them. I call the team and all the people who come to GNUF my UK Uke Family. Seeing them every year is like a reunion. GNUF was presented the Queens Award for Voluntary Service last year. It makes me giddy to think that my name is in the Queen’s record.
“The first time I was there, someone dropped out of the concert at the last minute. Mary Agnes Krell [the festival organizer] had me jump up to do three songs on stage. James Millar, the festival photographer, took an amazing photo of me, and when I got home, suddenly I was getting offers to perform! I realized I needed to work up a set that matched that picture!”
This year will be her fifth running the “Sideshow Stage” (open-mic) at GNUF—as well as teaching, vending, repairing, and performing. It is difficult to imagine a crescendo in her enthusiasm, but when she talks about leading the open-mic you get to see what fff (triple forte) looks like. “Emceeing is often the last thing [festival organizers] think about, but it is what I enjoy the most!” She loves to watch the progress people make, encourage them to come up again, and witness them being bitten by the performance bug. “They go from nervous to confident on stage at the festival. I love to see them start to believe ‘I can do this.’ You gotta strike your own match, but I love to be the sandpaper you strike your match on.”
‘Play your musical truth’
Perhaps it is her vulnerability that encourages others to brave the stage. “I remember playing my first gig. Someone encouraged me, they booked me to do a few songs in a show, and others in that show had a voice like an angel. I was worried that I wasn’t good enough, but they insisted, ‘You have a story to tell,’ and that was when I found my voice.” More than anything else, she wants folks to know that they, too, can find their voice. “When people realize that, they suddenly become music makers! A uke is a music-making tool. You don’t need to apologize for wanting a low G or a strap, needing a tuner. The question is, ‘Is it going to help you make music?’ I love to see people play their musical truth, whether it is Tiny Tim or Metallica.” Mim’s musical repertoire is all about engagement and participation, which makes sense—Mim is all about inclusion. She plays her truth and it shows—in the glow that surrounds her and that passes along to all those she touches.
Ukulele Ladies to the Rescue
Spring and fall are festival season; winter is holiday-sales season, and summer… puppy season! This past summer, Mim rescued four litters of pups. She used to have chickens, but realized there was “too much wildlife for chickens, and puppies are less work,” so she has allocated that space for rescue pups. She gleefully says, “I can buy eggs and save lives!” Often she places pups with people she meets on the ukulele trail, or people who follow her online. Here are two stories to warm your heart. —HS
Tracey Louise Miller: “Sparkle is outrageously wonderful and important to me. Mim posted him as a rescue just when I needed to be rescued! He was then 5 months old—an energetic black Pomeranian. Apparently, a senior family was forced to surrender him due to illness just when my PTSD was getting the best of me. As soon as I could, I bee-lined over to her home to get him. He is now my Service Animal and we are pretty much inseparable.
“Mim is wide open all the time, and she has vision! She is in a perfectly sublime mountain-top wilderness less than two miles from the main drag of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I love that she is routinely barefoot at the shop! In the US, this is a destination! But, you gotta want to get there.”
Randall Taylor-Craven: “I got home from a local uke Jam Sunday evening when Mim messaged me. She said she was offering her to me first since we had already communicated back and forth about this dog’s possible availability. Mim likes to check these rescues out carefully before she places them.
“The next morning I met the pooch. She was just as sweet as I was hoping she’d be. She snuggled up to me on Mim’s comfy, bright-green sofa. She was stuck like glue! (I was too!) Within the hour, we were on our way home!
“Mim is truly an amazing soul balancing her family life with her dedication to rescuing pets, all things ukulele, and uke fests all over the world! You just love her unique and colorful style! We shall have to go back sometime and visit longer—and perhaps pick up a Kamaka. My next dream uke!”