Alberta Newspaper Group
hen did the little ukulele become cool? Better yet, when did the four-stringed musical instrument become so much fun? On a brisk Tuesday evening in January, members of the Kern River Ukulele Club stream into the dining room at Piazza’s Pine Cone Inn, a historic motel built in the 1950s in quaint, picturesque Kernville. Sometimes there are 25 or even more members on hand, but on this night just over a dozen core players have arrived, ukes in hand, ready to pluck, strum and sing along with club hosts Roberta Piazza Gordon, owner of the Cone, and her husband, Josh Gordon. The weekly gatherings are also potlucks so the players can sit down together, grab a bite to eat and catch up before they settle into chairs facing their personable hosts and begin working through the week’s musical selections. “The only rules,” Josh Gordon says, “are we don’t talk politics and we don’t talk religion.” “In 10 years, we’ve missed only a few times,” Piazza Gordon says. “We have a pretty solid core here.” Even when the pandemic shut them down, the members refused to give up their camaraderie, switching instead to remote online Zoom meetings to learn and play and sing in not-so-perfect harmony. But that’s the thing. Nobody is expecting perfection. For some, it takes a certain amount of courage just to sit down and play and sing in front of others. But there’s no judgment here. While everyone is serious about trying to get more proficient on the instrument, the goal isn’t virtuosity, it’s friendship, fun and fellowship — along with musical appreciation. “It’s good for your soul,” says Kern River Valley resident Chuck Barbee, who shows up each week with his wife, Tammie. The Barbees were involved in the making of the local film documentary “Treble and Twang: The Music That Came out of Bakersfield.” So their love for and knowledge of music was already considerable. But there’s something about the uke club that keeps them coming back. Maybe it’s the laughter. Maybe it’s the friendships. “It’s a fellowship,” Tammie Barbee says of the ukulele club. “Much like going to church.” Whatever is happening here, it’s not exclusive to the rugged mountain valley less than an hour above Bakersfield. Ukes, it seems, are not just cool, they’re also hot. Guitar Center, the national musical instrument retailer, reported ukulele sales were up 15 percent last summer compared to the same time the year before. Clubs have sprouted up all over, and travelers attend ukulele retreats in resort areas from Maine to Mexico, Seattle to Santa Fe. “Four strings, four fingers. Do the math,” Gordon says. Indeed, it’s easier for a novice to play a uke than it is to finger a six-string guitar, and with nylon strings instead of steel, you don’t need to build serious calluses on your fingertips to play. The members are provided with the music and the lyrics when they arrive, but they’ve already had access through the club’s Facebook page, and they’re encouraged to try out the songs before the weekly meetings. Don’t know any chords? Newbies can just lay a hand across the neck, and strum in time to the music. “Play what you want, but singing along is the only requirement,” Piazza Gordon says sweetly, even though — sweet or not — you know she means business. So you sing. And sing. And sing. They always start with the Harry Belafonte classic “Jamaica Farewell” and close with the 1933 jazz standard “Moonglow.” In between, the tunes are an eclectic mix of pop, rock, American standards, folk and just about anything that gets the musical juices flowing. “I had been wanting to play ukulele for a long time,” said newer member Jeffrey Will. After he joined the club, Will’s wish definitely came true. In a tribute to actress-comedienne Betty White, on Tuesday, the group performed “It’s a Good Day,” a tune White showcased on her TV show in 1955: “Yes it’s a good day for singin’ a song / And it’s a good day for movin’ along / Yes, it’s a good day, how could anything be wrong / A good day from mornin’ ’til night.” When they played the bluesy “Minnie the Moocher,” there was a little swing and a lot of laughter after the a cappella section. The members easily laugh at themselves, and there’s a therapy of sorts going on, a release of tension, a release of stress. And an undercurrent of friendship and kindness. On some tunes, Gordon grabs his stand-up bass and brings a little bottom to the tenor-dominated music. And Barbee plays a fourstring tenor guitar, which brings some added color to the sound. Piazza Gordon introduces each song with a little musical education or history. The one-time local television news anchor is a natural at the mic, and everyone benefits. “They just make a safe environment for us,” longtime member and Bodfish resident Kristi Elliott says of the hosts. “We love Roberta and Josh.” There’s so much division across the country, she says. But not at the uke club. “This is one place you can go where there’s none of that,” she said. For those thinking right about now that the Kern River Ukulele Club might be just what the cardiologist ordered, Piazza Gordon says it’s already at capacity. In addition, they’re waiting for COVID to level out before they even think about opening the club to new members. But that shouldn’t stop anyone from starting their own club. “My daughter says the ukulele is a happy music,” says Tammie Barbee. And maybe that’s the secret to the success of the club. The members are clearly happy while playing the music, and they seem happy when they’re finished. What more could anyone ask? Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.