Mining a strange mountain

“I find it’s a great way to pick up guys,” local musician Lin Llewellyn recently confided to Xpress.

Her advice for the lovelorn? Strum a ukulele.

Llewellyn, a hula dancer and member of lei-festooned party band the Hula Cats, is a long-time player and fan of the diminutive instrument, made famous by 1920s-era vaudeville bands, Hawaiian musicians and Tiny Tim.

But her obsession with the emotive, four-stringed wonder can no longer be dismissed as mere eccentricity. Because this pint-sized novelty, once considered just a sub-par guitar, is plinking back to life in a big way.

Here’s the evidence: Ukuleles grace the cover of The Old Time Herald‘s fall issue. There are — count ’em — no less than six kinds of ukes for sale in this month’s Musician’s Friend catalogue. Martin is pushing their popular version of the instrument (back in the ’20s, it actually outsold their now-famous guitars). And some big names are picking them up. Eddie Vedder finessed one on Pearl Jam’s Binaural a few years back. Acclaimed San Francisco folkie Jolie Holland plays uke on her recent album Escondita.

Still, ukulele madness still lurks largely underground — as witnessed by the indie rockumentary Rock That Uke.

The idea for the film came from producer William Preston Robertson, who notes in his bio that he “has been on psychotropic medications since 1992 and has played the ukulele since 1980.”

In 2000, he and co-director Sean Anderson visited the Ukulele Hall of Fame (a festival, not an actual place) in New Jersey, where they conducted some preliminary interviews.

“While we were there, we bought a CD by Heinous Rynes,” recalls Anderson during a recent interview. “We realized that if we could find Heinous Rynes, we had a movie.”

Rynes, who wasn’t that hard to find, got his start in San Francisco as half of ’80s duo the Stretch Links. The group created darkly comical songs about death, perversion and obsession. On the ukulele.

“A lot of people [we contacted about the movie] were surprised, to say the least,” Anderson admits. “On the other hand, most of these musicians don’t play traditional music. They’re all mining a strange mountain.”

The artists in question include electric-punk duo Pineapple Princess, a group “that sucks almost as hard as it tries,” according to one critic; Ukefink, a band that also plays toy pianos, a cardboard box drum and musical saw; Casey Korder, who performs in a cow suit; and satirical heavy-metal duo Uke Til U Puke.

“A lot of people we talked to were sort of in the wilderness,” Anderson continues. “They were outside of the mainstream. [Through the movie] they gained an awareness that other people were doing this.”

Asheville boasts two ukulele acts — the Hula Cats, naturally, and the vaudeville-flavored duo Mad Tea Party. Ami Worthen, who plays in both bands, says she came to uke consciousness via the old-time route. “The way the ukulele is tuned, it lends itself to jazz from the ’20s and ’30s,” she points out.

“I used to play the banjo,” Worthen goes on, “but I mostly play the ukulele now. It suits my spirit.”

Though the singer/songwriter isn’t smashing ukes on stage or running her instrument through various amps and distortions, she still discovered fellow travelers in Rock That Uke. “The musicians featured in [the film] are all really quirky people,” she notes. “I had to take a moment and look at myself and say, ‘Am I really quirky, too?'”

The verdict: “Well, yeah.”

Despite being narrated by the suitably petite, Oscar-winning actress Holly Hunter, Rock That Uke didn’t do too well on the festival circuit — probably because “quirky” is still somewhat tricky to market. Still, Anderson knows he’s got a following at least among ukulele players.

All sorts of ukulele players. “Even people who don’t go out of their way to make it awful or distorted, they’re unusual, too,” the director insists.

Take Janet Klein, who performs vaudeville-reminiscent parlor tunes. “She plays only 1920s music, and claims she doesn’t get rock,” Anderson laughs. “Janet very boldly states that she’d never fit in anywhere else.”

And yet, somehow the ukulele suits her just fine.

Llewellyn, who’s also a member of Sweet Mama T and Her Red Hot Sugar Babies (another band whose lead singer is a uke fanatic), could stake a similar claim. She was introduced to the uke by some surfer friends in Hawaii. Once she moved back to the mainland, she started attending ukulele expos, including the one in Santa Cruz where she met Robertson and convinced him to screen his film here.

Then there was that notorious uke fest in Cambridge, Mass., back in ’96. “Tiny Tim dropped dead at [that] one,” claims Llewellyn — though at least one online fan forum reports he suffered his fatal heart attack in Minneapolis.

But there’s no disputing that Llewellyn’s ardent response to the goofy singer’s demise is … well … pretty quirky.

“I wish I’d been there,” she laments.

Rock That Uke screens at Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company (675 Merrimon Ave.) at 9 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 11. Admission is $5. The 62-minute feature will be followed by performances from local bands Mad Tea Party and the Hula Cats, along with solo ukulele acts Ken Cope and Lauren Thompson. For more information, call 254-1281.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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