OXFORD HILLS — What started out as a joke for one couple blossomed into an adventure that now brings the Oxford Hills alive with the sound of music – ukulele music that is.
So how did this unique instrument that resembles a miniature guitar, yet is so versatile, according to players, bring happiness and friendship to a local group of people?
Oxford Hills Ukulele Group (OHUG) is starting on its third season and at the helm are Lynette and Ray Seames of Norway. The group – which has roughly 20 regular/full-time members – practices twice a month at the First Universalist Church of Norway. That’s because the ukulele players outgrew the home of Pam and Jim Burke, who started OHUG.
From their Crockett Ridge Road home, the Seames explain how they got hooked on playing the ukulele.
“For us it was just a funny story. I had been working on the Friends of the Norway Library and one of our members saw a YouTube video of Peaks Island Ukulele Group. She emailed us as a group [and said,] ‘Here’s something we can do together,’ as a joke. I said, ‘Cool let’s do it,’” Lynette remembers.
Then the Seames discovered the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was coming to Portland so the couple and three of their friends went to the concert. They were blown away by what they saw, as Lynette notes the orchestra is comprised of professional musicians, who tour all over the world.
“That was quite the impetus,” she says.
In March 2014, Lynette bought her soprano ukulele and that July Ray purchased his baritone ukulele.
“I think he saw me having a little bit of fun. He was trying to teach himself the guitar and decided maybe the ukulele would be easier,” Lynette says of Ray, smiling. “That fall we started with Pam and Jim Burke.”
When OHUG first formed there were eight or 10 people. Now their mailing list is up to 43. Members hail from all over the region, including Paris, Otisfield, Waterford, West Paris, Bryant Pond, Bethel and even someone from Auburn. Many are retired, some are still working and there is one gal in her 20s who plays with them when she’s in town.
The musical experience of their members range from none to others who have played guitars or the piano previously or just simply sang.
“Ray didn’t have any musical background other than liking music and liking to dance,” Lynette says.
“I think what’s most appealing about the ukulele is that it engages a wide group of people. You can have no musical experience,” Ray adds. “We can teach you a couple of chords in 10 minutes and you can be playing a song.”
There was one lady who played with OHUG who only played when the C chord came up and sang along to the songs.
“She had fun and we had fun,” Ray says. “The social aspect of it is huge. If you’re around a ukulele player any amount of time, you find them smiling. No one cares how good you are. No one cares if you mess up.”
Lynette says OHUG does a lot of sing-a-longs to engage the audience. That was the norm until recently.
“In fact in the beginning that’s all we did,” Ray says. “If we’re going to play for you, you have to sing.”
Now OHUG has roughly 130 songs in its repertoire and even its own theme song. It’s called “Almost Heaven,” which is written to the tune of John Denver’s “Country Roads.”
“We had a member who took that and revised the words. It’s all about the Oxford Hills,” Lynette says. “She did a great job with it.”
Two of the verses are:
“Almost heaven, western Maine
Oxford foothills, rippling Crooked River
Younger than the foothills, growing like a breeze.”
“Orange sunsets painted on the sky,
Dusty smell of wood smoke, snowflakes in my eye
Country roads, take me home,
Almost heaven, western Maine.”
The few years OHUG has been together has taken the group to perform throughout the region and other areas of the state. On Sunday, Oct. 23, they played at Norway Rehab as part of their outreach program.
Check out a video of that performance:
Their first performance ever was at Norway Memorial Library, where they’ve returned a couple other times. They’ve also played at the Finnish American Heritage Center in West Paris, the Whitman Memorial Library in Bryant Pond, Deertrees Theatre in Harrison, the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center in Livermore, the AARP annual meeting for the past two yeas and the Ukulele Picnic/Festival in Belfast.
They’re slated to play in downtown Norway on Friday, Dec. 2, for Norway’s Downtown Holiday Nights, where the businesses will host extended shopping hours.
“It’s going to be cold. We don’t know how that will go,” Lynette says, adding they’ve never played outside in the cold before. “That’s a new adventure for us.”
And trying something new is what OHUG’s all about.
Oxford Hills Ukulele Group
OHUG rehearses from 6:30 to 8 p.m. the first Monday and third Tuesday of the month at the First Universalist Church of Norway at 479 Main St.
OHUG is always accepting new members, so interested people can show up to rehearsal.
A workshop is slated from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7, at the church. A member of the Merry Plinksters in Farmington will lead the workshop.
For more information, visit Facebook and search “Oxford Hills Ukulele Group (OHUG)” or https://sites.google.com/site/oxfordhillsukulelegroup/.