Photography by Todd V. Wolfson
This story must begin with an apology. Two actually. And no, despite what you think you might know of Folk Uke – a duo who have been known to sing songs of effortless country/folk charm and comfortable filth, such as Motherfucker Got Fucked Up, Shit Make The Flowers Grow and, a favourite of radio stations all around the world from time immemorial, BJ To A DJ – not for language.
The first of the apologies is from me, to Amy Nelson, one half of Folk Uke with Cathy Guthrie, and it is a social faux pas which warrants me getting smacked about the head with mayoral chains of office.
After our call I belatedly realised that we had spoken the day after Folk Uke Day – first celebrated in 2016 by the mayor of Austin, Texas, Steve Adler (no, not the Guns ‘N’ Roses drummer, sorry) – and I had neglected to mark the event.
The fact that I am still not certain what one says by way of greeting on Folk Uke Day (“Happy Uke!”? “Let’s all get Folked!”? “Pass the tanning butter”?) is no excuse. So, Ms Nelson, Ms Guthrie … I am profoundly sorry.
The second apology, or maybe it is a correction/addendum, is from Nelson, in an email sent some hours after the interview. “I thought about our conversation and I have one thing to add,” Nelson wrote. “When I said ‘I'm tired of living with humans’, I should have followed that with ‘they carry too many diseases’.”
Well, she’s not wrong.
Still, while it has been a shit year, it has not been completely bad for Nelson.
“I’m a bit of an introvert so when the lockdown initially happened, I was like, cool, the world stops so I can get my shit done and I won’t have to be invited out, and I won’t have to spend any energy telling people why I can’t go out,” she says. “I’m someone who can stay entertained at home for very long periods of time and I haven’t burnt out on that yet.”
Even when people were heading back out from the lockdown homes, Nelson very carefully did not, staying close to family rather than friends and strangers.
“There are so many people in my family, everyone I know, is high risk. I want to be able to see family members, help my mum, and do things for my aunt who is almost 90 so I pretty much stayed quarantined,” says Nelson.
“It’s funny, this whole lockdown thing is reminding me of high school because a lot of my friends are being risky - going to restaurants or whatever, things that I consider very risky - and I’m like ‘no I can’t because of my mom’. It’s like high school all over again.”
God yes, if they remake Risky Business now it would involve Tom Cruise dancing around without a mask, rather than without pants.
It’s not that Nelson is without work anyway. She’s been working on a documentary for several years, now almost completed, called Lovey: King Of The Roadies, about the oldest working roadie, Ben Dorsey, aka Lovey, who worked into his 90s for artists like Nelson’s father, Willie (yes, that one) and Elvis Presley, was a figure skater, a delivery man for famed couturier to country music, Nudie Cohn, and served as John Wayne’s valet.
A valet. Yes indeed. Surely Nelson has one too.
“I probably should have one: I’m not a very good driver,” she laughs, confessing that early this year she had three accidents in 33 days, though “not my fault”, and not interrupting too much the release of two singles from Folk Uke which while musically unexpected, you could say sum up the spirit and even the letter of the duo.
First up was Don’t Bite Beyoncé, and more recently, recorded remotely during lockdown, Small One, a song they flagged four years ago in interview with me as their response to the election of the now soon to exit 45th president of the USA, with its kicker line the not exactly subtle but hard to argue with “in the debate you were so proud/you bragged out loud about how well you are endowed/But you must have a small one to act like such a big one”.
“When I started writing it I had the hook in my head and I thought, oh God that’s so cool, but then I talked to my dad about it and he said maybe you should take a realllllly long time to write it. In between the lines I think he was saying, don’t ever put this song out,” Nelson laughs. “But then 2016 happened and by the time kids were being put in cages I went out of my mind and all of a sudden all those words came to me.”
It was a contentious song within the group with a resistant Guthrie - whose father Arlo and grandfather Woody after all have a long history of socio-political commentary in folk songs - reluctant to directly attack anybody and arguing that she didn’t think it was funny enough. At least until Nelson came up with the last line,“Do you mind if I don't have this dance?/Keep your VIP-ness in your pants”.
The only other issue was one part of the potential audience. “I was concerned about all the children who are listening to our crass music,” Nelson giggles. “As if we have a child crowd anyway.”
I don’t know, Knock Me Up and Shit Makes The Flowers Grow should be in every Sesame Street show (“Yeah, maybe one day. Once they lighten up a little.”) and there’s still time for Amy and Cathy Muppets to be made.
“That would be so cool,” says Nelson, excited. “I got to watch my dad on The Muppet Show, and Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge. A lot of people that I know and love have been on The Muppet Show, and that would be us making it right there.”
Once they made it they really might get to hang out with Beyoncé. Unless of course the story of Don’t Bite Beyoncé is not actually true.
Inspired by the modern world horror story of an actor who bit the R&B superstar at a party (“we thought we better do something to stand up for Beyoncé before this shit gets worse,” says Nelson), the song turned into a bit of a celebrity love song.
“I bit Beyoncé/And she was tasty/Then her bodyguards/Tried to waste me/But she stopped them/She said ‘It's no problem/If I was you/I'd wanna eat me too/Cause I'm so sweet/And low calorie.”
I have to ask, do Folk Uke believe that Beyoncé would be a low-calorie nibble?
“She would be super sweet but she hasn’t got a lot of fat on her. She is pretty lean you know and I think she would be pretty lo-cal,” Nelson says. “And gluten-free. With vitamin D.”
Well, yes, that’s because the sun shines out of her … anyway, maybe that’s another Folk Uke song. More importantly, who knows, the next time Folk Uke run into Beyoncé, maybe backstage at the Grammys, who’s to say their fellow Texan wouldn’t take a bite out of them.
“Oh my God, I would totally let her,” says Nelson. “She can have it.”