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10 March 2013

Ukulele Russ

This post is one that I've been looking forward to writing for a while now. Today the topic of conversation in none other than Alaska's Wild-man of the Ukulele.. Mr Ukulele Russ! I've been getting to know Russ and threatening to do a write-up on him for a while now. Well here it is! Thanks Russ for tolerating all my stupid questions! I've enjoyed every second!

Caution: Bear in Area!

My introduction to Ukulele Russ had nothing to do with ukuleles. I'd spotted this picture on Facebook of what looked like Ron "The Hedgehog" Jeremy handing a bottle of wine to a gentleman with the happiest cheeky smile on his face. What a brilliant picture! Ron looks a little washed out... and suspicious. Russ looks over-the-moon. Apparently Ron was launching his own brand of spiced rum in Boston and Russ just happened to be there... or at least that's the way Russ tells it ;-)

Cocktails with Ron Jeremy? Don't mind if I do!

Much later, I learnt that as well as being Ron Jeremy's stunt double, Russ also plays the Ukulele. Looking back, I guess all the clues were there. Russ is Alaska's only professional ukulele performer and frontman for a touring trio called the Parks Highway Band. The Parks Highway Band have been together for 2 years and are named after the road that the guys spend most of their time on. They live about 370 miles apart along various stretches of the Highway! So much for band practice!

This adds a whole new dimension to "on the road"
Alaska! The Last Ukulele Frontier!

The Parks Highway Band are Ukulele Russ (vocals and ukulele), Pat The Rat on bass and Dr Jones on Drums. Russ describes Pat as a "musical animal" - a 66 year old Alaskan music legend who amongst other things once toured with the Drifters in the 70s. Dr Jones was a session drummer before becoming an Alaskan. The story goes that Dr Jones lived in a tent for 2 years before being forced into town after a tree fell on his home.

Parks Highway Band - Live on Alaska Underground Live

I happened to see a video of PHB on Ukulele Russ's facebook page which blew me away. It is Episode 422 of Alaska Underground Live. The thing that struck me initially was that the audio is out of sync with the video ;-P ... but then I spotted the virtuoso uke playing, tight tunes and it wasn't long before I was marveling at the liquid gold that is Russ's voice. I hope I don't embarrass Russ and the boys by saying that the show is brilliant!

I immediately put together a strongly-worded email to Russ demanding that he tell me where I could download some of his music from. It turned out that there wasn't anywhere... but there is now! Yay! I like to think that I'm partly responsible for this. Regard this post as a sort of launch party!

I think Russ has plans to get something up on iTunes, but his first choice has been to make an album available on CD Baby. This site is new to me, but it turns out to be an easy process to buy and download the music from them. I just searched for "Ukulele Russ" on the site and Russ was the top choice! Easy!

What we have here is a solo album entitled "The Last Ukulele Frontier". Russ has the following to say about it:

Alaska—the Final Frontier. Alaska has captured imaginations ever since
Thomas Jefferson purchased it from the French for two cases of whiskey
 and a buckskin pouch of glass beads. And now, with the birth of the
 interwebs and the dawn of the reality TV age upon us, people once again
 turn their eyes northward. They are enthralled with Alaska, but is what
 they see really reality?

 A native son of New England, professional ukulele player, and natural
blonde, Ukulele Russ turned his wandering eye northward. After touring
on and off with booze hall bands and B-list rap troops for several years,
he packed his things and made the move to The Great Land. He rented a
small, dry cabin with his fiancée just outside of the Fairbanks city limits,
bought a compact car known for its fuel economy and ability to corner
well on icy roads, and hit the streets of "Jefferson's Folly" to hunt for a job
with only 6 dollars left to his name. He was a man on a mission and broke.

 Unable to comprehend how the ukulele could be seen as anything other
than stringed testosterone, Russ set out to expand people's minds and open
 their hearts to the subtle sweetness of what Shakespeare often referred to as
 "those bitchin' little Hawaiian guitars." By locking himself away in his dark,
tiny cabin he has developed his own unique style of "ukuleleing," discovering
that they can in fact be used to create music other than the songs you hear at
 the Honolulu airport, and he has been capturing audiences' attention ever
since. From rock and roll to funk, bluegrass to hip-hop, Russ takes the ukulele
into uncharted waters and has compiled a selection of humorous stories and
 multi-genre songs about Alaska and the people who call it home.

 Learn just how "real" things can get with the ukulele player Gene Siskel
once described as "that homeless looking guy hanging out in the parking lot
by my car." Ukulele Russ is a wild man—a dude who chooses to drive a
Cooper Mini in a Mac Truck world, an hombre who opts for a tacquito over
 the burrito grande. He is playing it fast and loose in a guitarist's jungle with
 his show "The Last Ukulele Frontier," which contains the secret history of
49th state, and a true account of Russ's life in the north, all set to piano ukulele
 music, telling the stories of a musician's survival in the subarctic.

There are 7 songs on the download spanning a number of genres. I won't review each of the songs individually but suffice to say that what you get with Russ is wonderful ukulele artistry and his trademark sense of humour. His uke playing style is innovative and free-flowing. I'm a fan. Check out his video of The Turtle Song below for a hint of what you will find on "The Last Ukulele Frontier". Russ - a drummer turned guitarist turned ukulele player - will throw in pretty much anything to get the feel he's after in a song. It's a beautiful thing to behold. Did I mention that I'm a fan?

One thing that I'll slip in here is that Russ is seriously considering a European tour. If you are organising or promoting an event and you think that Ukulele Russ could add some sparkle to your line-up then please drop him a line to discuss the possibilities. I for one will buy a ticket!

On the question of whether there is a Parks Highway Band album on the way? Russ says YES! It will be a live album and they're just waiting for the right recordings to land. Watch this space!

I love the artwork that Russ is creating for his gig posters.
Check out this collage for a feel for where Russ's head is at.

I've enjoyed getting to know Russ and finding out what makes him tick. In the process I've surprised myself with how little I know about Alaska. I have actually been to Alaska... but that is another story altogether.

Russ is a hunting and fishing type of guy. I thought he was pulling my leg one night when he said he's been out bear baiting. Surely not! :-O FACT: Alaskans are allowed to catch 3 black bears and 1 brown bear a year for food. Russ's dinner that day was going to be moose ribs. He says I can go round to his for dinner next time I'm in Alaska :-D

You're on Russ! All I can get round here is bloody horse. Personally, I find horse a bit stringy... Whenever I eat it, I always end up with a bit stuck between my teeth :-D

Ukulele Russ drives a trike! Check this out...

It just so happens that the topic of ukuleles came up one time I was talking to Russ. I think it caught both of us off-guard. I'd remarked that I really liked the sound of Russ's uke. Russ was quick to reveal that he is sponsored by Far North Ukuleles. His uke was specifically made for him and he plays so much that he needs to get it refretted every year! Wow! That's a lot of ukulele playing! For strings Russ is using American black nylon GHS tenor strings with the wound C. Russ says he buys them by the box. Sort yourselves out GHS and sponsor Ukulele Russ... you know it makes sense!

Far North Ukuleles is run by a gentleman by the name of Tom Parse. Having seen Russ's ukulele I was desperate to get hold of Tom to see if I could learn a little more about him and what he does. Tom came back to me with loads of fantastic pictures and information. There is so much wonderful ukulele goodness here that I'm going to put these together for you in a post of their own real soon... promise! Until then, you can admire Russ's ukes... just skip past the Kamaka ;-)

Here are a few shots I've cobbled together of  the "Ukulele Russ Model"
Far North Uke. It's a looker! But check out that head. Russ had the hole
 put in so that he could carry his ukulele like a 6-pack of beer! Fantastic!
Perhaps the next build should incorporate a bottle opener too? See
the wear on the front... This is one well-played uke!

Talking of well-played ukes... here are a couple of Russ's practice ukes.
See that trademark wear on the front? That's from battling with bears!

Time to stop. Once again - thanks to Ukulele Russ for sharing all this with me. It's been a pleasure! And you kept quiet about this, but happy birthday mate. I can honestly say that I don't know anyone else who would get a chainsaw for his birthday! It suits you! :-P

I'll leave the final words to Ukulele Russ:

"Peace out cub scout."

Update 11-Mar-2013: There seems to be some confusion as to whether or not bears uke in the woods. I hope this clears things up...

Do bears uke in the woods?

Update 16-Apr-2013: Russ has started up a blog!


  1. Do Bears Uke in the Woods ?

  2. They were obvisouly great performers.

  3. Daz - picture added... mystery solved?

  4. i love that ron is wearing a shirt with his face on it. Great post keep up the hard work. Check these out IStillGotMyGuitar.

  5. Thanks Simon. There was me thinking that he had a Ukulele Russ t-shirt on ;-P Better find my glasses...