Following His Muse
Teacher turned ukulele maker puts his faith in a musical revival
By Lillia Callum-Penso
Russ Morin often finds himself caught between the future and the past. The 49-year-old woodworker has an aversion to power tools, but he is an avid user of YouTube. A handmade wooden high-wheel bicycle, current project, sits to one side of his workshop while a mini replica of a steam engine sits on another.
But the biggest project for Morin right now hits visitors the moment they set foot in his backyard shop near downtown Greenville. The space is a treasure trove of ukuleles. The instruments sit about the shop in various manifestations, from frame to complete body to ready for play, serving as a fascinating, if unintended, visual how-to.
The new-old instrument has become a passion for Morin over the past decade, and in May, although he loved teaching middle school, he quit his job to make ukuleles full time. This summer he added a blog to his website (www.russmorin.com).
“It’s kind of a panic, but you gotta work on faith,” Morin says one recent morning, smiling at his handiwork in his workshop. “I come alive doing this. I was like, I need to try to give this a go. I hate regrets, and I would regret if I hadn’t tried this. It’s going to be difficult, but I think I can do it.”
To outsiders the move may seem crazy, leaving a steady job for one based only on a budding niche market. And a decade ago it would have been, Morin admits, but today, ukuleles are back. The esteemed instrument with the “happy sound” is experiencing a new-wave revival, thanks in part to both mainstream and underground musicians. The band Train’s pop ditty “Soul Sister” has been giving the instrument prominent status on Top 40 radio for a while now, and Jake Shimabukuro has become a YouTube sensation with his ukulele renditions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“It’s a whole subculture, and it’s becoming more mainstream, like with Eddie Vedder,” Morin says.
Oh yeah, Eddie Vedder got on the ukulele bandwagon, too. The Pearl Jam singer released “Ukulele Songs” earlier this year, and the 16-track album has received much acclaim.
“It’s funny because when you read in magazines or the paper there’s this thing out there, it’s like, well, of course it is,” Morin says of the ukulele new wave. “I’m dialed into the underground, and it’s just burgeoning.”
Dianne Sutton feels the same way. The longtime ukulele lover says the instrument’s enduring appeal is not just the happy sound it makes, but also the ease of playing it. Sutton believed in the instrument’s merits so much that she started the Upstate’s very own ukulele group five years ago. The YesterUkes began as a recreational thing, but now the 20-member group plays gigs around the region. They are booked through spring.
“A ukulele is accessible,” Sutton says. “For $30 you can play a ukulele. There are not many instruments that you can do that with. In 15 or 20 minutes with a little help you can play a song.”
Morin’s ukulele love story truly began from the intersection of music and woodworking. He played piano as a kid and then guitar, and bass guitar in several bands, while getting into woodworking at the same time. Ten years ago his older brother got a ukulele, and Morin decided he wanted one too. But he didn’t want to pay, and since he’d been making furniture out of wood for a while, he decided to make his own instrument. That first attempt was fashioned out of a gourd bowl to which Morin added a neck and strings. It sounded a little heavy, but Morin was in love.
Morin began honing his craft just as he’d honed his woodworking skills and his music skills, by reading and doing and using the oh-so-21st-century tool, the Internet. To this day, he’s had no formal woodworking education.
“I believe I have avoided it because I don’t want to make the things everybody else makes,” he says. “I’m not against that, but I personally just want to do it my way. I know I could learn a lot, but I also fear that it could limit me.”
The process of making a ukulele begins with wood, and Morin is particular about his, though not in the way you’d assume. Traditional ukuleles are made with koa, wood that is native to Hawaii. But it’s hard to find here and expensive as well, so Morin uses wood that is native to this area, such as magnolia, black locust and white pine he got from “across the way.”
The artist rarely buys wood. Instead, he gleans most from scraps he finds on the side of the road, from his own yard and the lot next door or by Dumpster diving. It helps him keep his prices lower.
“I’ve gone out and found the 10 people I really respect, and I make sure I’m cheaper than they are. I can’t go out and buy those instruments, so I’m trying to make it so someone like me can afford them,” Morin says. “A lot of people buy them who are just people who like playing.”
Morin’s freedom of approach has led to some creative instruments. His clients span the country, from California to Texas to Michigan. Morin spends about two weeks, give or take, on each instrument he makes, first splitting the wood, thinning and shaping it and gluing the pieces, before adding a bridge, frets and four strings. The process requires incredible precision.
“The whole goal in building is to get it just before it’s going to implode, because that gives you the best sound,” Morin says of thinning and shaping an instrument’s wood to just the right thickness. “It’s kind of like creeping up to the edge. When you get confident, you get right up to the edge and you get this really great-sounding instrument that’s going to last.”
As ukuleles grow in popularity, Morin hopes to establish a niche for resonator ukuleles. The specialty instruments use an aluminum cone that creates a fuller sound. His models have gotten rave reviews so far.
The next year will be an adventure for Morin, one he hopes will feed his creative spirit and his soul. That spirit is easily felt in his workshop. Part “This Old House” and part Santa’s workshop, the space has an ethereal quality to it, and it is easy to forget where you are. A delicate sheen of dust covers pieces of wood that range from log to honed boards soon to become beautiful instruments.
Here, in a double-wide shed, at the back of a house, in a neighborhood just outside of downtown Greenville, there are ukuleles everywhere.