Joel Mabus was born into a musical family that played hillbilly and gospel music mostly. It was backwater Southern Illinois in the 1950’s where He learned singing at home and in a small Pentecostal church. As he tells it, his first instrument was the family mandolin, handed to him at age 9 by his mother, because they were too poor to rent a band instrument in school. But, to be fair, he recalls there were always ukuleles around the house – considered musical toys by the family. He remembers an old one made of rough wood with strings of coarsely twisted gut, surely a pawn shop find. And also a shiny uke made of plastic with a certain cartoon mouse on it. Mandolin, guitar, banjo & fiddle – in that order – became his path to a music career, first with bluegrass, then blues, folk and swing. Shortly after college, Joel started his career as a touring folk singer, known for his quick wit and quicker fingers on any number of stringed instruments. He has played coast to coast, the major festivals from Philly to Vancouver, and teaching guitar, banjo & songwriting at the great camps from Elkins Heritage to Puget Sound.
Meanwhile, ukes and banjo ukes came and went in his life. In the late 70’s that included a beautiful old handmade Koa Hawaiian soprano that occasionally made it into his coffeehouse sets. (Unfortunately that one was sold to raise funds for a house payment!) Around 1990, a friend gave him a nice vintage mahogany Lyon & Healy soprano which has been his office companion for nearly half his life, now. He says it was something to strum while his computer stalled – and to test out a melody for a new song now and then. But with the ukulele renaissance in full swing these past few years, the large-handed six footer finally got his hands on a tenor uke, and started giving the instrument its due. Specializing in the great American Ukulele Songbook and writing new ukulele songs as well, a new chapter arrives with Mabus’ first uke album in 2018: Ukulele Crimes.
As Joel writes in the liner notes: “When everything just seems to be coming unhinged — Nazi parades on campuses, endless video feeds of slaughter and mayhem, non-stop firestorms out West and hurricane floods back East — the cheeky ukulele is my balm & refuge. The question becomes, ‘Is it a crime to play the ukulele when all the world is blue?’ “ His new album gives his answer.
“Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” from Joel’s upcoming CD “Ukulele Crimes”: