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Wanted: Old as Dirt Uke


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Before I tell you the saga of my new uke, here’s a little Gus and Fin treat to tide you over till Halloween. Is there anything these boys can’t do?

As luck would have it, my all-out-Halloween-themed blog has been usurped since a landslide of ukulele emotions preoccupied most of my thoughts during the past week.

First, there’s the Alice Chalmers and the Stick a Cork in Your Jug Band show coming up at Indy Hostel this Friday at 8 PM.

We Alice Chalmers girls have been fretting for a month about what to wear for this all-ages shindig. The banter and email exchanges have taken up a great deal of time. We’ve toyed with many enticing ideas—I briefly considered going as Carmen Miranda, but the headpiece I borrowed from a friend gave me a headache. So, I was relieved when we decided to dress as a group. While I can’t tell you about our costumes—you’ll have to come to the show for that—I can tell you that we’ve chosen something well-suited for a band of such epic girly proportions as ours. And the theme is already part of the Alice Chalmers legend.

The Alice Chalmers girls, hotter than heck, pose with the Indiana State Fair Queen during our set at that Pioneer Village
  • The Alice Chalmers girls, hotter than heck, pose with the Indiana State Fair Queen during our set at that Pioneer Village

Now here’s the big ukulele acquisition thing. I’ve been looking forward to this Halloween show as the day when I would debut my new, as yet not purchased ukulele. I’ve had birthday money since September and, as you might imagine, it was earmarked even before then, for a brand new ukulele. Last weekend was supposed to have been the weekend when we ventured to Nashville to purchase my brand new Mainland ukulele.

As life sometimes allows, roadblocks started leaping in my path. Things like kids' parties and work and my daughter’s riding lessons and other things that spring up from life in general all conspired to help me slowly realize that heading down to the Mainland shop was going to be anything but a reality last weekend.

Second-guessing now began to loom large in my psyche. I started to wonder if buying another brand- spanking uke was really the right thing to do at this point in my life. I already have two perfectly good Ohana ukuleles, which are very similar to the Mainland ukes. They are hand crafted in China and set up in the US.

Me and my Ohana concert ukulele at the Indiana State Fair. Thats me with the goofy grin. The ukes the one with the pink tuners.
  • Gayle Vlantis
  • Me and my Ohana concert ukulele at the Indiana State Fair. That's me with the goofy grin. The uke's the one with the pink tuners.

But, I argued back, my Ohanas are mahogany, and my Mainland of choice is mango wood. They produce entirely different sounds. I know that because I strummed my cousin’s Mainland mango every chance I got while she was visiting last weekend.

Here's BaronK69 playing his Mainland Mango on a great cover of Mr. Bojangles. He sort of makes me like this song.

The other thing I had to weigh in was fact that I know that a Mainland would be set up lovingly by hand, by Mainland owner, Mike Hater himself. He’s a really good guy. He kept me up-to-date on the status of the fresh shipment of new ukes earlier this month, and was all ready to set one up to my liking as soon as I gave word that we were on our way to Nashville.

That reality added to the guilt factor. Mike is a nice guy and I want to support his business and help spread the word about his truly wonderful instruments. I would recommend Mainland ukuleles to anyone who is looking for a quality instrument. Here’s a link to the website.

In my opinion, Mainland ukuleles are superior to just about any other brand new ukulele you are going to find in any other music store. That said, there are still a few other new ukes that would have provided the vintage look I crave.

Besides the Mainland Mango, I suddenly cast my eyes on a used Kala lacewood soprano at Elderly Instruments. It has plenty of vintage detailing and a good look. It even comes with a fabulous velvet-lined hard shell black case. But, when I listened to a few demo videos on You Tube, I felt the sound, though very sweet, wasn't exactly what I’m looking for. It just doesn’t sound OLD. Here’s a clip:

Despite the profusion of throw-back looking ukuleles out there, I wondered, what with playing in this jug band and all, was another brand new ukulele what I really, truly wanted? I started to look around at my fellow band mates. We’re busy creating this old-timey music, and I’ve started to think that maybe, if I am serious about this, I need to find an instrument that looks like it belongs with me and the Alice Chalmers girls.

I’ve already refused to play my yet-to-be-restored vintage Kamaka with the band, because it looks too Hawaiian.

Here's a rather dry clip of a guy comparing Kamaka Gold label and Kamaka white label ukuleles. They are great ukes, but just not right or a jug band.

My life’s mantra regarding just about everything else I surround myself with has always been “Old is better.”

Even my job is about teaching people the virtues of collecting old things versus going out and buying brand new, mass produced stuff. Shouldn’t my instrument, as part of my most public persona, reflect this ideology, too?

While in this state of inner uke turmoil, I paid Blue Stone Folk School’s Director, Geoff Davis a visit at the Judge Stone House. I found him surrounded by his little birds, in varying stages of carving and construction. In the midst of Geoff and those birds was one ukulele. It’s not unusual to find Geoff with at least one or two ukuleles at arm’s reach. Sometimes the ukes are old; sometimes he’s made them himself. There’s always a story, and they are almost always ready to play.

This was a ukulele I’d never seen before. It was old, old, old, light as a feather and stunningly beautiful. Geoff explained that his daughter, Hannah, had picked it up in an antique store for a song, and he’d been fixing it up. I noted that it had carved peg tuners in place of friction tuners. And, best of all, it had an intricate checkerboard binding. It was one of the prettiest little ukuleles I’d ever laid eyes on. Handling it with great care, put it back where I found it, musing that I never had that kind of luck, finding a vintage ukulele for a song.

Now I realized that my quest for another uke had taken another, very serious turn.I wanted that old as dirt uke, and I wanted it badly.

Later, it occurred to me that I had found an instrument very similar to it in a music shop in Frankfort, Michigan in July, and my heart skipped a beat again. I’d talked about that ukulele for hours, till I am sure my husband was secretly wishing I’d taken up crochet or some other less talkative passion—anything but ukulele.

I went to work on Friday, my head a whirl of confusion. I still wanted to get a new ukulele. I began to understand that a Mainland, while it would make a wonderful addition to my ukulele collection, was not the answer for me right now.

As luck would have it, Jude Odell paid me a visit that afternoon. Jude is the banjo player in ACATSACIYJB. She also plays tenor guitar. Both of her instruments are old as dirt—I’m pretty sure she told me they both date from around the 1890s. She listened to me ramble like a teenager trying to choose between two boys, as I explained my dilemma.

Later we exchanged email—and Jude let me know that she understood my problem; she knew what I was wrestling with regarding new vs. old instruments.

It turns out she had embarked on her own two-year mission to find the right banjo. She bought three before she finally found the right one. She says, “The history in the instrument thing really turns me on, so I always get old… New ones seem sterile somehow.”

She nailed it, I guess, and I knew what I needed to do.

I found Geoff at the Judge Stone house again, and proclaimed my need for a new ukulele. I’m not even sure exactly what I said, but I think it came out sort of like a confession. I said something about how I’ve realized that, if I am playing in this band, it’s not right to keep on going out and buying brand new ukuleles, and that it was time for me to finally get one with some age and history.

Another Folk School friend, artist and mandolin player Bruce Neckar was there, too. I felt like a newly baptized convert, joining an enlightened group of musicians as we stood on the front porch of the Judge Stone house.

“Never buy a new instrument,” Bruce said. He seemed pleased to know that another one had found the way. According to Bruce, when you live in a town like Noblesville, finding old instruments is easier than you think. I guess I'm ready to fing out for myself.

Then, Geoff stepped inside the Judge Stone house and emerged with the little uke I’d fallen in love with a few days before. He handed it to me, we settled on a price, and he took it back to add some finishing touches to his repairs. I’ll pick it up for good on Wednesday.

Stay tuned for photos.

A few minutes later, I was on the phone with my cousin, breaking the news that I wasn’t going to get a Mainland right now, after all.

“It was an emotional decision,” I told her. “But, I have the feeling that once I have this ukulele, I’ll never want to buy another one ever again.”

“Yes you will,” she said bluntly.

She’s probably right.

After all, I still need to make that trip down to Nashville and buy my Mainland uke.

One of these days.

Uke Happenings around Town:

Wednesday, October 27
Beginning and Itermediate Ukulele Workshop.
Blue Stone Folk School at The Judge Stone House.
$60 for six weeks.
Learn about uking from Geoff Davis himself. This is a great class, with plenty of camaraderie, support, and individualized attention. There’s still room to join. Visit www.bluestonefolkschool to register for the class, or just bring your uke and join us at 7 PM in Noblesville

Friday, October 30
Alice Chalmers and the Stick a Cork in Your Jug Band with Special Guest Evan Slusher at the Indy Hostel8 PM.
Five bucks gets you in.
Come see your favorite girl band, sample some baked goods and enjoy some good music. You can also be among the first to check out my new old uke. It’s a costume party, by the way. This is an all-ages show in a cozy setting. Kids are certainly welcome.

Since ACATSACIYJB doesn't have any videos posted on You Tube yet, I thought I'd treat you to a clip featuring an actual Aliss Chalmers tractor instead.

Sunday, October 31
Blue Stone Folk School Third Annual Frost on the Punkin Event at the Judge Stone House in Noblesville.
2-5:30 PM.
The Punkin Holler Boys will be picking and strumming while you get the chance to carve pumpkins, hear scary stores and sample some festive autumn food and socialize with some swell folks in the historic Judge Stone House. This is a great chance to find out what the BSFS is all about. And, you’ll make it home in time for Trick or Treat.

Here's a sample of what you can expect from those Punkin Holler Boys:

Saturday, November 6
Indianapolis Ukulele FansSam Ash, Castleton
10 AM-12 PM.
Bring your uke, a song and a smile. This is a great chance to meet up with fellow ukulele players from the Indianapolis area.


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