OAKRIDGE -- In a hemlock forest clearing along the Willamette Middle Fork on Sunday, 50 ukulele players sat in sling-back camp chairs and strummed and sang Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere":
"Whoo-ee! Ride me high
Tomorrow's the day
My bride's gonna come
Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
Down in the easy chair!"
Such was the farewell jam of the fourth annual Oakridge Ukulele Festival, which brought about 90 players, spouses, friends and master ukulele teachers to this small town in the mountains about an hour's drive southeast of Eugene.
As unlikely as it may seem, the ukulele has become the center of a burgeoning clan of enthusiasts nationally and an opportunity for economic development for Oakridge.
Between 2009 and 2013, ukulele sales nationwide jumped from 581,000 to nearly 1 million, according to the National Association of Music Merchants.
"It's a giant subculture," said Erin McGrane, the ukulele-playing half of a guitar and ukulele jazz duo called Victor & Penny. McGrane first felt ukulele fever where she lives in Kansas City, Mo.
"Once we cracked open the door to that subculture, we were astonished," McGrane said Sunday in Oakridge. "First of all, (there's) the passion of the people in it and the seriousness about it. They love the instrument and they want to learn.
"It's a great (instrument) because it allows people who aren't professional musicians access to music. Everyone can make good sounds on the ukulele right away."
Bend's Uke U festival brought 250 players to the Redmond Fairgrounds a couple of weeks ago. Portland player Charlie Johnson, wearing a shirt with alternating sea turtles and ukuleles, attended both that festival and the one in Oakridge.
"Just looking for places to play and learn stuff and try to get better," he said, cradling a ukulele made of tiger maple, one of four that he owns.
"You start collecting them," he said. "They call it UAS -- ukulele acquisition syndrome."
The Oakridge festival also drew aficionados from as far away as San Diego and British Columbia. Several attendees showed up from Portland, "a well-known ukulele enclave," according to event organizer Lynda Kamerrer, who is co-owner of Oakridge Lodge & Guest House.
Outsiders may think of the ukulele as suitable only for "hapa haole" songs, with Hawaiian stylings but English lyrics -- but virtuosos in recent years have proven its range. The ukulele can swing through the great American songbook, having been strummed to the genres of 1920s blues, Gypsy jazz, Rumba, funk and something known as Ukeabilly.
Eugene's Brooke Adams, who taught at the weekend festival, says she's played the entire Abbey Road album, including, apparently, "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," on the ukulele.
The uke has been good for Oakridge. In 2010, Kamerrer and her partner, retired municipal judge Gary Carl, were considering ways to bring tourists to Oakridge.
The Eugene doo-wap ukulele group, The Refreshments, happened to visit.
"We were talking about streams of revenue," said ukulele band member Patty Sage. "What would bring people up to Oakridge? What would bring people to the lodge? We said you should put on a ukulele festival. It's the strangest thing: Put on a festival and uke players will find it."
Carl and Kamerrer ran with the idea, scheduling a weekend in August and contacting master ukulele teachers.
"Here we are four years later," Carl said Sunday, "up to our elbows in ukuleles."
Ukulele players form a good-humored community that welcomes first-time strummers to serious, master-level musicians.
Camas, Wash., resident Brian Beeson, for instance, took the festival's free beginner's class on Friday and by Saturday he was on stage playing "You Are My Sunshine."
All you've got to know, he said, is a C, a G7 and an F7.
"If you can't play the chord, then you just air strum. You keep your arm going," he said. "No one notices."
Medford resident Halle Harris, at age 11 by far the youngest member of the mostly boomer group, was among the novices in attendance. But the Oakridge event was already her second ukulele camp, having already completed the Ukulele Getaway in Jacksonville.
Advanced players said they found what they were looking for at Oakridge, too. Portland resident Frankie Borison, who picked up the instrument when she retired, said she got some new chops at the festival.
McGrane and her partner, Jeff Freling, analyzed Borison's playing and gave her specific advice on strumming, swinging and driving the rhythm.
When Borison's wrist got fatigued on a fast number during the farewell jam, McGrane told her the key was to keep it loose.
"It's such a nonthreatening environment," Borison said. "It's fabulous. Everybody is cheering everybody on."
Sunday's farewell wove through such songs as "This Land is Your Land," "Folsom Prison Blues," "When the Saints Go Marching In" and, finally, "Goodnight, Irene."
As young Halle Harris and her aunt stood to go, her aunt raised her uke in salute to the crowd.
A few players broke into "Happy trails to you, until we meet again ...?."
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