Russell Copelin was a 20-year-old at the University of Maine at Farmington walking down the sidewalk with $30 in his pocket, intending to ask a buddy to buy him beer, when he passed a music shop and saw a $30 ukulele in the window.

The rest? Uke history.

Copelin, 35, with long hair, a bushy beard, a style he describes as unkempt-but-dressed-up-for-Alaska — his home base the past decade — performs under the stage name Ukulele Russ.

He has toured the past 13 years full time, last week coming off his fifth Australian tour.

He will play two Maine dates next week.

“I’m the farthest thing from a Hawaiian flowered-shirt-wearing ukulele player you probably can get,” Copelin said in a telephone interview during a stopover in, by chance, Hawaii.


“Everybody has this preconceived notion that I’m going to be singing songs about beaches and rainbows and playing all happy songs. That’s really what people think about when they think ukulele — ‘Aww, it’s that cute little guitar from Hawaii.'”

Instead, he brings rock, blues, tongue-in-cheek and a catalog as varied as “You’re the One,” a sweet song to his wife, Dixmont native Lindsey, to “Two Ply,” a Stevie Wonder-ish ode to toilet paper.

“I think the problems of the world could be wiped away if we all switched to two ply today. …”

Copelin, who grew up in Benton, said he had played the drums for 10 years, and had just bought a guitar two days before that fateful sidewalk stroll.

“(I) learned how to play both at the same time and kind of set the guitar aside,” he said. “I always wanted to be a comedian, but I didn’t see a route for me to do that. If you play music for people and you’re good, they’ll enjoy it, but if you can make them laugh, they’ll remember you.”

Copelin graduated from UMF in 2005 with a history degree.


“I thought I was going to be a history professor,” he said. “How life throws you a screwball sometimes.”

Instead, Copelin formed the funk rock band Gristlestick, with himself as the ukulele-playing front man.

For three years, the band toured back and forth between Alaska, living on a school bus for six months at a time.

“The third time I went up there, I told the guys I was staying,” he said. “I’ve played so many different gigs that I should write a book. Maybe someday I will.

“I’ve played everything from an elementary school to a strip club. The weird things I’ve seen over the years would probably make most people’s toes curl.”

He plays 14 instruments, including harmonica, piano, bass and guitar, and busts out as many different instruments as he can travel with during shows.


Songs tap into personal experiences, he said.

On the track “Wafflehouse”: “It doesn’t even matter if it’s 3 a.m., I love you, and everyone else does, too. …”

On “Bear Safety Techniques,” a musical walk through surviving encounters with three different bear species: “Pick up a stick, act real slick and get ready to defend your life. …”

Copelin’s next two Australian tours are already booked for spring and fall next year.

“There’s a big ukulele scene there,” he said. “I really think they’re more dialed into the humor over there.

“In the United States, I have to be a little more tempered. Over there, I can do whatever I want and they’ll laugh. Maybe the funny accent lets me get away with it.”


He spends summers playing in Alaska, where he and his wife have a dry cabin they built in Fairbanks. She does a lot of gardening and he hunts to supply most of their meat.

“I haven’t had running water in over a decade,” he said.

He tries to get back to Maine at least once a year to visit friends and family. Copelin will play Johnson Hall in Gardiner on Nov. 3 and The Dented Can in Thorndike on Nov. 4.

“I hope to have them leave (the shows) thinking that anything is possible with an instrument,” he said.

“If I can make someone forget about what’s going on in their life for just a little while and have them laugh, then I’ve won.”

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