The Valley Ukulele Players bring the tropics to the mountains with their upbeat tunes

Story by Marissa McCormick

Photos by Tori Riss

Walking into The Bridgewater Retirement Community, the usually quiet atmosphere is interrupted by the unexpected tune of ukuleles playing. It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Wednesday and The Valley Ukulele Players are having their weekly practice in the activities room. 

The sunny room, with crafts posted on the walls and the latest game of bridge still written on the whiteboard, is a perfect size for the 11-person ukulele band. Today, they’re practicing for their next gig at a fair later this month. Seven of the members sit in a circle around Sandy Cryder, a former JMU voice coach, and the The Valley Ukulele Player’s leader.

The group talks shop as they tune their instruments. Most of the conversation revolves around a band member’s granddaughter being born, and the talk spirals into more talk of grandchildren. The average age of The Valley Ukulele Players? 75 years old. Cryder clears her throat, ending the proud grandparent remarks. “Let’s start with something upbeat. Turn to ‘Under the Boardwalk’ on page 245.” The group flips to the page and starts. The classic doo-wop song, when played by ukuleles, transports the listener to a sunny beach on the coast of Hawaii. The group sings in harmony as they strum, tapping their feet at the same time. Each of the members, with their own style, brings something different to the sound.

Neil Palmer sings along to “Back In The Saddle Again.”

There’s Brenda Kauffman, who, when she’s not playing her ukulele, plays her harp. Then there’s Neil Palmer, who bought a brand-new bass ukulele. His strings are twice as thick as the others and brings a deep sound to the group. Next, there’s Rosemarie Palmer, who’s wearing a bright blue Hawaiian shirt today. She’s young at heart, and since she’s in charge of the group’s social media accounts, urges every newcomer to “like us on Facebook!” Then there’s Charlie Rainer, who doesn’t play ukulele, but blesses the group with a deep baritone voice that sounds like Bing Crosby. Rainer sits with his legs crossed and eyes closed as he focuses to harmonize with the other voices.

The next song is “Blue Hawaii.” As the group flips pages, Tom Enders, who’s next in the circle, claims he’s “really not the best singer.” Enders is also donning a Hawaiian shirt, complete with blue flowers and bright yellow surfboards. Harry Kellam, who’s next to Enders, agrees, and the two decide to leave the singing to the others. The group shifts out of Hawaiian songs, and plays “You are My Sunshine.” Sitting next to Cryder, Dianne Hartley breaks out her banjo-lele, a hybrid instrument between a banjo and a ukulele. Her musically inclined fingers pick away as her soprano voice leads the group. Without Hartley, The Valley Ukulele Players wouldn’t exist. Cryder, in a serendipitous event, ran into Hartley’s husband as he was buying a new ukulele for his wife. Cryder explains, “I saw [Hartley’s husband] buying a ukulele and I went up to him and asked if he wanted to start a band,” Cryder laughs. “He looked terrified and explained that his wife was the musician, not him.” Hartley has been playing the four stringed instrument for over 30 years.

Dianne Hartley picks while harmonizing with the others.

“I picked it up when I was in college,” she says. “I wanted to look like a hippie, although I definitely wasn’t one.” Hartley, originally from Montreal, taught ukulele in her children’s elementary school. “The ukulele is the Canadian equivalent of the recorder in American schools, except much easier to master, and much less annoying,” Hartley says. Chalmers Doane, the Nova Scotia superintendent at the time, wanted kids to learn an instrument they could play for the rest of their lives. Thus, the ukulele was brought from sunny Hawaii to snowy Canada.

Ukulele isn’t Harley’s only talent; she is a jack-of-all-trades. She grew up as a competitive ice skater, earned a psychology degree from McGill University and worked as an officer of official languages in Montreal. In 2010, she met her husband on vacation in Cancun. She retired and moved to the United States where she could focus on her true passion: music. In total, Hartley has 13 instruments: six ukuleles, one brand new banjo-lele, one guitar, one autoharp, a pair of bongos, a drum and two dulcimers, a three-stringed instrument that sits on one’s lap and emits the distinct twang of Appalachian folk music. The dulcimers have maple leaf-shaped sound holes. “They’re usually in the shape of hearts or birds, but I wanted something that reminded me of home,” says Hartley.

Hartley doesn’t let anything stop her from playing her music, not even a broken hand. Earlier this year, while letting the dog out, she ran into the doorframe, effectively putting her right hand in a cast for four and a half months. The cast enveloped her hand, covering all but her pointer and middle finger. “I couldn’t finger pick, but I didn’t let it stop me,” Hartley explains. “I could still strum, so I would strum!”

Charlie Raison (left) and Rosemarie Palmer share a songbook.

Hartley eventually met with Cryder and the group took off: Seasoned players mixed with beginners, creating a tribe of musicians. This past December, the group had one of their biggest shows, playing at Walkabout Outfitters during the annual Christmas parade downtown. At Walkabout Outfitters, Hartley looks like a natural. While she sings, her face spreads into a wide smile as her healed, expert fingers play the tune.

The group played a full set of holiday songs, including “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” to which Raisner, while singing in his deep voice, strapped on a glowing red light bulb over his nose. Passersbys entered, intrigued by the island sounds, and were urged to sing along. The group looked polished and confident. Back at Bridgewater Retirement Community, Cryder thinks they could use a little practice. “We have a long way to go to be like our Christmas concert,” she says. But to the untrained ear, they sound perfect.

The group finishes up their hour-long practice with “Back in the Saddle Again.” Written in 1937, it was a cowboy and dancehall anthem. As the campfire tune goes on, a resident of the retirement community pokes her head in and smiles. The woman, while tapping her wrinkled feet, explains, “This was my favorite song growing up! I used to dance to this for hours!” Soon the room is filled with spectators, singing along just like the cowboys did. The Valley Ukulele Players are much more than a retiree band. It’s a group of people that have realized it’s never too late to find something you love. It’s a chance for these members to get back in the saddle again.

Rosemarie Palmer (left), Dianne Hartley, Tom Enders, Neil Palmer, Charlie Raison, Hary Kellam, Susan Clarke, Brenda Kauffman and Sandy Cryder are nine of the eleven members of The Valley Ukulele Players.