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Ashland's newest uke joint

There is something about the wildly popular ukulele that’s fun, draws people together and makes it a lot easier to play a musical instrument — as will be seen at a community sing-along and jam session at The Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant in Ashland Saturday, Feb. 24, led by Tish McFadden and her band of Southern Oregon Ukulele Players (SOUP).

That’s right, you get to sing in public. And if you can pick up three or four chords (you might need a little practice), you can easily strum along. There are songbooks, and everyone takes turn picking the next song. Also, you can order a pint and some chips.

“Something very special happens when people of all ages — children, grandparents, strangers — come together in a public place to sing,” says McFadden. “For a few moments we can set aside our to-do lists, break down the boundaries with perfect strangers and all the doors fling wide open, just like I saw in Irish pubs.”

Let’s face it, the guitar is a complicated instrument that takes years to master. However, the "uke" is exploding in popularity, she says, simply because it’s easy, cheap (think $80), small, portable, practically screams “fun!” and lets others know that you no longer have to sit and watch an accomplished artist; you can start being part of it.

“There’s a huge ukulele wave coming on, and there are good reasons for it,” she adds. A grandparent can sit down and play it with a grandchild. It’s accessible to a 4-year-old or a 90-year-old. I teach it to every decade of student. Not every instrument offers that — and have it be so quickly pleasing and satisfying to the player.”

McFadden, a popular and longtime performer and Ashland teacher at her Rum Tum School of Music in Ashland, has been leading such singalongs on the Plaza, but during nippy winter months has been searching for a warm and welcoming venue to make some joyful noise — and The Black Sheep was her first choice.

The four-stringed instrument is losing its cliche of being a Hawaiian thing and can be simulated on a guitar, with a capo at the fifth fret, using only the top four strings. Then, all the strings are the same notes as a uke. All guitar chords can be played, but most chords are differently arranged. It convincingly plays any genre — rock, blues, R&B, classical — all of it, she notes.

Joining the singalong will be uke lover and retired kindergarten teacher Barbara Meredith, who draws her uke group, Plaza Players & Friends, from retirement communities — Fountain Plaza, Horton Plaza and Twin Creeks — and they perform at those places, at other senior venues and weddings, at funeral and multicultural events — even a gig in the Craterian Theater lobby.

“It’s the perfect instrument to promote the unifying power of music,” says Meredith. “What’s so special about it is you need no big background in music. Anyone can join in, no matter what their level of expertise. My people are in their 80s and 90s, and if you know a couple chords, you can be a virtuoso.”

Practicing an instrument can be hard, but, she adds, if someone has a performance coming up, it gives them reason to do it. Other teachers and singalong participants are Trish Dorr and Tia Mclean. They have led uke jams at Smithfield’s Pub & Pies.

The event at The Black Sheep, 51 N. Main St. on the Plaza, is free and open to the public. It's scheduled to run from 3 to 5 p.m.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Members of the Southern Oregon Ukulele Players (SOUP) play on the Ashland Plaza in the summer. They've also played in Smithfield's Pub and Pies and are inviting the public to come Saturday when they gather for the first time at The Black Sheep. [Courtesy photo]