BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE SUMMER 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Can you hear it? It’s Willie Nelson singing the siren’s song of hitting the road to play music with your friends. And you have tens of thousands of friends—ukulele friends that is—most of whom you haven’t met yet! During the last six years, I’ve toured North America in an Airstream trailer presenting my Play Ukulele By Ear workshops. I’ve visited 33 states and four Canadian provinces, so I’ve met many of your potential friends. All you have to do to meet your fellow ukulele aficionados is hit the road this summer. Having secured the position of Destination Specialist here at Ukulele, let me clue you into some of the most uke-nique adventures I’ve found so you can plan your own Summer Ukulele Road Trip USA!
Whether you like to camp in the great outdoors, see historic sights, eat Memphis barbecue, visit outstanding music stores, or join in with a few hundred folks jamming around a giant bonfire in central Indiana on a warm June evening, you’re sure to discover some inspiration for a great ukulele road trip.
Get Your Ukulele Kicks On Route 66
Get hip to this timely tip. Hop in your car, your uke riding shotgun, and hit the road on historic Route 66. It runs from Chicago to L.A., more than 2,000 miles all the way. And, along the way, there are ample ukulele experiences to be had.
“America’s Main Street” originates on S. Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Before you hit the road you might want to stop by the Old Town School of Folk Music in North Chicago. Voted the Windy City’s best music store in 2017, the OTSF also offers group ukulele classes. You’ll no doubt be hungry after motoring four hours south from Chicago, and that’s right about the time you’ll arrive in Litchfield, Illinois, home of The Ariston Cafe. The cafe is the oldest continually operating diner on Route 66, refueling hungry motorists since 1929. Your next stop is Saint Looey. Hey, how about organizing a ukulele flash mob near the St. Louis Arch! Contact the Ukulele Fight Club of St. Louis; maybe they’ll help you out, or at the very least invite you to jam with them.
About halfway between St. Louis and Oklahoma City is Springfield, Missouri, home to Uke 66, the ukulele duo of Karen and Rick Maxson. Karen explains, “Springfield is known as the birthplace of Route 66, so when Rick thought of the name of our duo it was such a natural thing. I trademarked ‘Uke 66,’ formed a company, and now specialize in teaching adults to play.” Both are also active members of the Queen City Ukes, which meets the first and third Tuesdays of each month at Springfield Music. Rick also runs a ukulele club on the campus of Drury University, where he is a professor. You can keep up with Uke 66 on their Facebook page. And you know, Oklahoma City sure is pretty—pretty full of ukulele players. Jeff Howard runs the OKC Ukulele Club and says if you’re passing through, “Our workshops are the first Saturdays, jams are the third Saturdays, and our open mic is the third Wednesday.” You can find the OKC Ukulele Club on Facebook.
Passing through Amarillo, Texas, don’t forget to stop on the western outskirts of town and take some selfies of yourself strumming at one of the USA’s great roadside attractions, the Cadillac Ranch. In New Mexico, Route 66 runs right down famous Central Avenue in Albuquerque. ABQ (as the locals say) boasts a minimum of four ukulele clubs: the Road Runners Strummers (Update: disbanded due to the pandemic), the High Desert Sand Fleas, ABQ Strummers, and the Duke City Ukes. Also, don’t forget to make that left turn in Albuquerque. You know what happened to Bugs Bunny when he missed it. As you pass through Winslow, Arizona, you’ll want to have your ukulele handy to sing and strum a rousing version of the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” in the Standin’ on the Corner Park.
Up the road a piece is Flagstaff, home to the Flagstaff Ukulele Club (forget Winona, no uke club). If you hit Flag mid-week you can knock out some tunes with the Flagstaff Ukulele Jam Group. For a scenic side trip, head 80 miles north to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, rent a mule, and head on down the trail singing cowboy songs.
After that, it’s clear sailing to Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino, and finally Los Angeles. Route 66 ends at the famous Santa Monica Pier, just a ukulele’s throw from McCabe’s Guitar Shop, which has an awesome selection of ukes. You might even run into Ukulele contributing writer Fred Sokolow, who teaches out of McCabe’s. If you’re not up for driving the entirety of the Mother Road, you might prefer the Route 66 Ukulele Whistle Stop Alternative—Amtrak’s Southwest Chief which runs from Chicago to L.A. (and vice versa). Sit back, relax, and strum the entire 2,448 miles all the way!
Route 66 Playlist
- “Route 66” Nat King Cole
- “Take It Easy” Eagles
- “Sweet Home Chicago” Mike Bloomfield
- “St. Louis Blues” Bessie Smith
- “Take Me Back To Tulsa” Bob Wills
- “Amarillo by Morning” George Strait
Here’s a ukulele bucket list item: jamming with the southernmost ukulele club in the continental U.S. Located in Key West, Florida, the Green Parrot Ukulele Association meets—where else—at the iconic Green Parrot Bar in Key West, a lively watering hole just .07 miles from the southernmost point in the continental United States. This spirited group of ukers has been meeting the first Wednesday night of each month for over eight years. Green Parrot manager John Vagnoni says, “The monthly meetings provide a platform for an ever-growing congregation of uke-bearing aficionados, most of whom crowd the stage for nimble and professional sing-alongs that produce a lively night for participants and audience members alike, who at times can become indistinguishable!”
Even if it’s not uke night, a visit to The Green Parrot is a must when in Key West. It’s been voted one of the best bars in the United States, and for good reason. The unique mix of eclectic locals and curious tourists coming together in an oft-times sultry drinking establishment at the literal end-of-the-road can make for a raucous evening. If you can’t make it anytime soon, you can always check in courtesy of the Green Parrot live webcam. Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville is another popular destination for ukulele-toting tourists and it’s just a three-minute walk around the corner from The Green Parrot. Did you know Jimmy Buffet started writing his big hit “Margaritaville” in Austin, Texas, but finished writing the song in Key West?
A hefty 3,232 miles to the west in California is the other must-attend ukulele jam in the U.S., the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz. Hailed as “the biggest ukulele club in the world,” UCSC meets the third Thursday of each month at a local restaurant, Bocci’s Cellar. Santa Cruz is also home to the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park, so it was an obvious choice to adopt the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk” as the club’s theme song.
The Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz was founded 16 years ago by Peter Thomas and Andy Andrews. According to Peter, “We chose the word ‘club’ because we wanted to create an informal gathering where everyone would feel like they were an important part of making the magic happen. And magic happened. Now, the original third Thursday ukulele club has created this vast overlapping network of ukulele groups in Santa Cruz.” For a Santa Cruz beach experience, join in the Saturday morning or Wednesday afternoon jam with another Santa Cruz group, the Sons of the Beach. They meet on the beach behind the Crow’s Nest restaurant, rain or shine. More summer fun can be found at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
Tennessee Ukulele Music Vacation
Your Tennessee ukulele vacation begins on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River in Memphis. The Memphis Ukulele Flash Mob meets every Tuesday evening from 6–8 p.m. at Central BBQ on Summer Avenue (make sure to check in advance for updated meeting times). Ukuleles and BBQ, now that’s a good start! The MUFM is led by the gregarious Pete McCarty, aka Petey Mac. You’ll no doubt want to brush up on your Elvis repertoire before visiting the Graceland mansion. Says Petey Mac, “Definitely go to Graceland if you’re an Elvis fan—and a fan of two-inch-tall green shag carpet.”
Two legendary recording studios are located in Memphis. Sun Studio, at 706 Union Avenue, was the early recording home of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison. Stax was an R&B label credited with creating the Memphis Soul sound. It was home to Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MG’s, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, the Staple Singers, and many more. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music address is 926 E. McLemore Avenue.
As the famous W.C. Handy song says, “If Beale Street could talk….” Beale Street is the musical heart of Memphis. Take a stroll down the Beale Street Brass Note Walk of Fame and see the nearly two hundred names of musicians, composers, disc jockeys, and others responsible for exposing the music of Beale Street to the world. Beale Street would be an appropriate spot to break out the ukulele and launch into the Memphis Jug Band’s classic “On the Road Again”! Wrap up your trip to musical Memphis with a strumming stroll along the banks of the Mississippi. Or, if you prefer, there are a number of sternwheeler riverboat excursions that depart from the Memphis waterfront.
For those wanting a total musical immersion this summer, Music City is the place. Nashville is the home of the Nashville Ukulele Society, which meets the third Monday of each month. There is also a jam the first Saturday of the month at Lane Music run by Stephen Lawson. The best thing about Nashville is the opportunity to hear a wide variety of live music. Deborah Haight of Music City Ukulele Productions says, “After an evening at the Station Inn listening to some live music, I’ll say, ‘I’ve got to go home and play that on my ukulele!’”
Number one on your Nashville to-do list is a tour of the iconic Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of country music. The 3D video introduction of the Ryman history is fantastic and sets the stage, so to speak, for exploring the history of country music’s most famous venue. For a few dollars more, have your picture taken in “the circle” on the Ryman stage where music legends including Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and Bill Monroe once stood. For an additional fee, you can even bring in your ukulele and record a song in the Ryman’s recording studio!
For the full-on Nashville experience, mosey a block down to Broadway. You’ll probably hear music blasting from Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the infamous watering hole that abuts the Ryman’s stage door. Right across the street is the Ernest Tubb Record Shop.
For those into high-end vintage instruments, including ukuleles, Gruhn Guitars and Carter Vintage are must-do stops. By now you must be getting hungry, so hit Arnold’s Country Kitchen for lunch. You might even see a country music star getting their nosh on in this famous Nashville eatery. The Country Music Hall of Fame is also located in Nashville. If you plan to visit, give yourself a lot of time. Finally, head on up and strum a tune on the Cumberland River Pedestrian Bridge to complete your Music City experience.
Ukulele Zen Retreat, Rhinebeck, New York
Searching for a more mindful approach to the ukulele? The fourth annual Ukulele Zen Retreat might be just the thing for you. Hosted by Grammy-nominated musicians Stuart Fuchs and Sarah Carlisle, the retreat is held at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, New York. You’ll benefit from daily meditative exercises for centering yourself and approaching music as a model of daily practice for creative play, stress relief, health, and well-being. Rhinebeck is located on the east bank of the Hudson River in the lovely Hudson River Valley. Outdoor adventures abound just a few miles to the west of the Hudson in the Catskill Mountains, with more than 700,000 acres of protected forest preserve to explore. For a chance to run into a famous musician, visit the quaint village of Woodstock. I bumped into John Sebastian one summer at the local hardware store. eomega.org
Magic Fluke Company, Sheffield, Massachusetts
In for a bit of exercise this summer? How about hiking the 2,192 mile Appalachian Trail? At about the two-thirds point of the AT, in the majestic southern Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts, take a break from the trail and visit the nearby Magic Fluke Company in Sheffield. Co-owner Phyllis Webb says, “We love to welcome people. We have a beautiful post-and-beam building with a view of the mountains. Come in, sit for a bit, and play our Magic Flukes, Fleas, and all the other instruments we produce here. We see AT through-hikers all summer.” Driving, of course, is also an option, as Sheffield is located just south of the Mass Turnpike. Another music-related activity just up the road from Sheffield is to visit to historic Tanglewood, which has been the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1937. How about an outdoor pops concert under the stars in the Berkshires? Now, that’s summertime living!
North Carolina Ukulele Academy, Wilmington, North Carolina
The mid-Atlantic beaches of the Carolinas are a very popular summer destination. And when it comes to ukulele summer destinations in the Carolinas, the North Carolina Ukulele Academy in Wilmington tops the list. Kent Knorr opened the academy in 2007. The retail area is stuffed with over 400 ukes ranging in price from $40 to $2,000. On the teaching side, Kent concentrates on group classes but adds, “Since we are here on the coast we get a lot of visitors in the summer, so I do offer private lessons to folks just passing through.” So after a visit with Kent, take your ukulele and head to nearby Wrightsville Beach, home to the only concrete fishing pier in the state of North Carolina. Johnnie Mercer’s Pier extends more than 1,200 feet into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a great place for a summer sunrise strum.
Just south of the glorious Acadia National Park in Down East Maine, you’ll find one of the most uke-nique places in uke country, the Valley of the Stars Ukulele School in Brooksville. Run by Lake Larrson, Valley of the Stars is much more than a ukulele school. It’s located on the lush Valley of the Stars Organic Farm. Also on the property is the Tinder Hearth Bakery, which boasts one of the largest wood-fired ovens on the East Coast. Don’t miss Pizza Nights! You can even stay on the property in Lake’s rustic cottage Airbnb (search coastal cabin and ukulele school).
Lake gives private lessons and there is an open mic every second Sunday. Says Lake, “Brooksville is on the road to nowhere, but when you get here, it’s a delightful surprise.” Just 45 miles away is the quaint seaport of Belfast, situated on Penobscot Bay. There you will find the Midcoast Ukes. Founded by Frets Halligan, the club is now run by Jeffrey Weinberger. The club hosts the Midcoast Uke Fest. Weinberger adds, “Belfast is a beautiful little city by the sea and a popular tourist destination and the uke fest only adds to the allure.” Mid-Coast Ukes meet every Tuesday night.
The Wildwood Flower, Rochester, Vermont
Located in Vermont’s Green Mountains, alongside the pristine White River, you’ll find the Wildwood Flower antiques and gift shop. And inside the Wildwood Flower you’ll find Jake Wildwood, the “Country Guitar Doctor.” But Jake doctors more than guitars back to playable health; he can repair or refurbish most any stringed instrument. So you never know what you’ll find when you visit, but he does see a lot of vintage ukuleles and banjo ukes come through the shop. The Wildwood Flower hosts a jam session the first Thursday of each month. The shop is located one mile south of Rochester on Route VT-100.
More Summertime Strumalongs
- “King of the Road” Roger Miller
- “Road to Nowhere” Talking Heads
- “Everyday Is a Winding Road” Sheryl Crow
- “Thunder Road” Bruce Springsteen
- “The Long and Winding Road” The Beatles
- “Graceland” Paul Simon
Uke-Friendly Music Stores
Great uke-destinations await travelers outside the places we’ve highlighted. Here are a few favorites.
U-Space, Los Angeles, CA. Coffee and ukuleles, who would have thought of it?
Hale Ukulele, San Diego, CA. Who wouldn’t want to go to San Diego this summer? Sun, sand, surf, and strumming would make for a perfect summer getaway. And while in San Diego, no self-respecting ukulele player would miss out on a visit to Hale Ukulele. This ukulele-exclusive emporium has over 150 ukuleles in stock. Be sure to check their events calendar, as many well-known performers present workshops and concerts there. Who knows, you might even run into Ukulele magazine contributors Sarah Maisel and Craig Chee, who teach out of the store. And, of course, San Diego has unlimited summer fun to offer visitors, from Balboa Park to the world-famous San Diego Zoo to catching a Padres baseball game.
Lightning Joe’s Guitar Heaven, Arroyo Grande, CA. 1,800 vintage, used, and new fretted instruments really make Lightning Joe’s heaven for string players. Located in a century-old bank building on the California’s Central Coast, Lightning Joe’s could be dubbed “the most interesting music store in the country.” As you make your way through the hundreds of guitars and down the stairs, you end up in ukulele paradise, in a converted bathroom. A canopy of 100 soprano ukuleles stretches out above you as you wade through lush Brahea palms. All told, you’ll find about 300 ukuleles at Lightning Joe’s. Joe says that his secret museum upstairs, “I’ve got about five-dozen vintage ukes in the museum. I have all the Martin’s up to Style 3, all the Arthur Godfrey plastic stuff, a Nunes, and one of my favorites, the Harold uke in pristine condition. It’s so cool.” Lightning Joe’s instrument museum is only open during special events. And, don’t leave the Central Coast before hopping over the hill from Arroyo Grande to tourist mecca Pismo Beach for a strum.
Dusty Strings, Seattle, WA. No trip to Seattle would be complete without a visit to Dusty Strings, the premier acoustic music store in the Pacific Northwest. The store is in the hipster Fremont neighborhood, just north of the Fremont Bridge. Located in the historic McKenzie Building, you reach the store by traversing down a long flight of stairs. As you enter the shop you’ll marvel at this stringed wonderland. You’ll find the eponymous hammered dulcimers and harps they manufacture and an especially fine collection of ukuleles for sale. Dusty Strings also hosts visiting ukulele instructors and performers, so be sure to check their schedule. After your visit to Dusty Strings, head up the street and take a selfie strumming your ukulele in front of the giant Fremont Troll sculpture! Other Seattle activities include visiting the Space Needle, riding a Washington State Ferry, and roaming the bustling Pike Place Market downtown. While at the market, keep an eye out for famous ukulele busker Howlin’ Hobbit.
The Candyman Strings & Things, Santa Fe, NM. If you find yourself and your ukulele wandering around in the sweltering heat of the desert southwest this summer, a cool reprieve would be to climb to an elevation of 7,199 feet and visit The Candyman Strings & Things in enchanting Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Candyman is one of the best music stores in the world, having been voted number one dealer in 104 countries by NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants). Show up on any Saturday afternoon and join in their free Ukulele Club. There’s one for kids followed by an all-ages group. Co-owner Cindy Cook says, “The ukulele club is mostly about getting people excited playing music in a group setting. And, you don’t even have to have a ukulele. You can borrow one of ours!” While in Santa Fe, be sure to visit the Plaza, the ornate Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Just up the road is the rugged Grand Canyon of the Rio Grande and the historic pueblo of Taos.
Bentley Guitar Studios, Parkville, MO. Start your Kansas City uke experience at Bentley Guitar Studios, located in the quaint northwest suburb of Parkville. Bentley’s carries a wide array of ukuleles, including those from Romero Creations. Just down the street is English Landing Park, the perfect place for a relaxing strum as you watch the wide Missouri River meander by. You could probably wrangle up some folks to join you. Kansas City and the surrounding area boasts a very active ukulele scene which includes the Kansas City Ukesters, Ukulele Fight Club of Kansas City, and ukulele celebrities Victor & Penny.
Penny Lane Music Emporium, Fort Lauderdale, FL. Are you booking an ocean cruise this summer departing from Fort Lauderdale? Well, the one side trip you must make before embarking is to Penny Lane Music Emporium. Armando Zuppa and his staff are the nicest folks, and they have the largest in-store inventory of stringed instruments in all of South Florida, including all the high-end ukulele brands. Armando adds, “We have our ukulele Meet-Up on the last Thursday of the month and everybody is welcome to come.” Penny Lane is located a mere one mile from Lauderdale Beach, a fabulous place for summertime strumming!
Blues Angel Music, Pensacola, FL. Planning a sojourn to the sunny beaches of the Florida Panhandle this summer? Add a visit to one of NAMM’s Top 100 music stores in the country, Blues Angel Music in Pensacola. Owned by former Navy fighter pilot Jim DeStafney and his wife Nan, Blues Angel Music is 15,000 square feet of musical adventure. The minute you walk in the door you are met with the only fully-functioning aquarium drum kit—the Yamaha full-kit aquarium was featured on the popular Animal Planet show Tanked. You can view the reveal on the Tanked website. The Pensacola Ukulele Players Society began at Blues Angel back in 2012.
Bernunzio Uptown Music, Rochester, NY. Upon first walking into Bernunzio Uptown Music in downtown Rochester, New York, you might think you’d arrived in banjo heaven. The reason, according to Julie Schnepf of Bernunzio’s: “John Bernunzio is one of the foremost historians of early banjos, so we have several hundred banjos here.” But Bernunzio’s also loves ukuleles! It’s the home of the Rochester Ukulele Support Group, now in its eleventh year, which meets on the first Thursday of each month. On the third Saturday of each month Bernunzio’s hosts its Saturday Ukulele Hour from 10–11 a.m.
And Don’t Forget To Write!
If you do hit the ukulele open road this summer and visit some of the clubs, music stores, or other uke-nique places we’ve suggested, be sure to say you heard about them from us. Oh, and don’t forget to send us a postcard from the road. We love postcards!
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