By Bob Doerschuk
It’s June in Nashville, Tennessee, and the school day has ended at Harding Academy. Now it’s the adults’ turn to play. Cars pull into the lot near the elite private school’s music room. Those who disembark include an IT manager, a retired accounting professor, a former training director for the Metro Department of Public Works (who now teaches night-school German), a staffer at the Nashville Election Commission, and even a couple of professional musicians. It’s a varied mix except that each totes an instrument case. And all are members of the Nashville Ukulele Society (NUS).
Inside the music room, folding chairs are arranged in a semicircle on a large, faded Oriental rug. New arrivals catch up on news and unpack—baritone, resonator, and banjo ukes, as well as standard models—while Tim Davies moves among them, handing out chord charts and placing them on music stands. As with all NUS meetings, which occur on the third Monday of every month, he has picked each selection with a theme in mind.
“We have the Fourth of July and Father’s Day coming up,” says Davies, who took over as director from the group’s founder, Andy Hudson, two years ago. “They kind of work together.”
Eventually, everyone settles down—there are 16 in attendance, with two more showing up a little later. Davies takes his seat on a stool up front and asks everyone to pull the first chart, chosen to honor dads, “Papa Oom Mow Mow.”
“Does everybody know this song?” Davies asks. “Nobody knows this song?”
“I come from a cultured background,” one member protests.
Despite this impediment, everyone quickly learns the raucous classic by the Rivingtons. “I’m going to do the lead vocal and the ‘papa oom mow mows,’” Davies volunteers. “If anybody else wants to join, please do, because I end up hyperventilating by the end of the song.”
Over the next hour or so, Davies and Todd Elgin, one of the professional musicians in the group, hand out lead sheets for “Summertime,” “Over There,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and other well-known tunes. For the beginners, Elgin demonstrates licks or rhythm patterns, showing how to lay down an eighth-note rock ’n’ roll groove, alternating between the fifth and sixth steps of the scale, and then adding the seventh, on Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA.”
By this point, the vibe has changed; everyone is concentrating intently on the music. Though the Nashville Uke Society meetings are fundamentally about having a good time, the participants’ love for the instrument unifies and inspires them to play.
“I’ve been coming here for about a year,” says Steve White, who drives more than 70 miles from Bowling Green, Kentucky, for each meeting. “I always learn something here. It’s a great activity.”
“It’s just fun,” says Deborah Carman, a former Chicagoan now living in nearby Mount Juliet. “It’s especially fun to play with others.”
“It makes you a better player to play with other ukulele players,” Anita Moffatt adds, “and to play a variety of music you may not necessarily be familiar with. We’ve done lots of TV themes.”
“People have brought in show tunes,” says Davies. “I’ve even brought in punk songs.”
“What’s really surprising is how few Hawaiian songs we’ve done,” Elgin interjects, prompting laughter throughout the group. “Other than that, we’ve covered every possible genre.
“It’s a different kind of fun here,” he continues. “There’s something about the ukulele ethic that takes the pressure off. It’s different from sitting around at a guitar pull in Nashville, where everybody is watching as you play. Here, if you don’t know the chords, nobody cares.”
Elgin, Moffatt, and Davies play gigs around town as members of the Ukedelics, whose mission, according to their website, is to prove that “this little instrument can really swing!”
For NUS member Donna Frost (pictured below), the ukulele plays a critical role in her life. “I’ve been a traveling singer-songwriter/guitarist for over 30 years,” says Frost, who leads Donna Frost & the Ukeabilly Upstarts. “But I broke my arm last year. The doctor said I wouldn’t be able to play my guitar for a while, so I picked up the ukulele. Since then I’ve written music, recorded a CD, played festivals, and done workshops with my ukulele. It really saved my life—and I’m having a great time.”
For Davies, who grew up playing percussion in marching and concert bands, the ukulele’s unique and egalitarian appeal is what caught his attention.
“Several years ago, I heard somebody say you could pick up a ukulele and start having fun within 20 minutes,” he remembers. “That seemed really cool to me. Playing guitar is difficult because of the technique you have to develop. But you can pick up the ukulele, learn three or four chords, and play a lot of songs.
One of the first ones I learned was ‘Tonight You Belong to Me,’ from The Jerk with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. In 20 minutes I figured out where my fingers had to go. I just fell in love with it because this tiny little instrument can speak with such a great big voice. It brings so much joy. When people see it, they smile right away.”