Playing banjo, ukulele, accordion and washboard, Aaron and Nicole Keim make back-porch music as e Quiet American
By Stu Watson
Aaron Keim is joking a bit when he says he and his wife, Nicole, have 90 jobs. Spend a little time with the couple, however, and it’s apparent they have more than a few irons in the fire.
The couple make and perform folk music, by themselves as The Quiet American, as well as teamed up with jug- band buddies. They also teach people to sing and play banjo and ukulele.
Aaron makes and sells the musical instruments they play: banjos, ukuleles and “banjo-ukes,” a hybrid with qualities of each instrument.
The Keims record and sell their music, produce YouTube videos to help people learn technique and songs, and maintain three web channels. To support all that, they produce a line of instructional books, all hand-lettered and illustrated by Nicole.
Nicole also produces a variety of embroidered products, from hair clips to wall hangings, which she sells online through her Marmalade Creations store at Etsy.
From their home-based headquarters along the Middle Fork of the Hood River near Tucker Bridge, the couple say they are somewhat amazed and amused by the whirlwind of activity that is their life. It gives them a sense of self-sufficiency greater than the precarious single-job career paths followed by people of their parents’ generation—the Baby Boomers.
Aaron is the son of a veterinarian and a farm extension agent. Nicole’s father ran a service department at an auto dealership, and her mother was a beautician.
If any of their parents had lost their jobs, it would have been a shock. It’s a different scenario for Aaron and Nicole.
“We’re ready for whatever happens,” Aaron says.
“If one thing changes, the other things we do are ready.”
“I could go back to teaching,” says Nicole, who taught elementary school after securing two degrees in music education and migrating to Colorado from the upper Midwest.
“If I couldn’t build ukes, I could repair,” says Aaron.
“Most people think this is neat,” Nicole says of their life.
“We’re doing old-timey things but using technology to connect with people,” Aaron says.
Also a child of small-town Wisconsin, Aaron studied music education before pursuing a master’s in musicology in Boulder, Colorado.
Nicole, who sang with the Ars Nova Singers in Boulder, joined Aaron and other musicians in the Boulder Acoustic Society.
While performing at a festival in Boulder, Aaron and Nicole met Gordon and Char Mayer, tech “retirees” who were making dulcimers and guitars in White Salmon, Washington, and later branched into making ukuleles under the Mya- Moe label.
A passionate ukulele player since 2004, Aaron had taught himself—with the advice of more experienced craftsmen— to build his own ukes. That’s where he developed the banjo-uke, and started the Beansprout brand in 2007 with Heidi and Rob Litke.
After he and Nicole decided to move seven years ago to the Gorge—and Aaron went to work with the Mayers—he folded his Beansprout models into the Mya-Moe catalog.
“We moved here because of Gordon and Char,” Aaron says. “We had three goals: build more instruments, play music and start a family.” They have done all three.
Their son, Henry, is 3 1/2 years old.
Aaron says his time with Mya-Moe has also boosted his craftsmanship.
“Going to work for Gordon and Char really upped my woodworking game,” he says.
Now, as the Mayers prepare to retire again next year, Aaron is preparing to absorb some of their business at his shop. But it isn’t the start of an expansive business model. He wants no employees. He wants only quality control.
“I’d like to work slower, make fewer but better, and charge more because I can,” Aaron says. “My goal is to make banjos and ukuleles under the Beansprout brand.”
Limiting his commitments will leave time for his other passions: making more music and spending time with Henry.
He and Nicole say the heart of their income stream is instruction.
“What pays the bills is adult learners,” Nicole says.
As demand grows for onsite instruction, books and videos, the couple relishes what they can impart to people of their parents’ generation.
“With every camp or festival, you make connections, expand your network of students, makers and performers,” Nicole says.
She tells a story about teaching singing at a camp two years ago. An 80-year-old woman came up to her after the class, in tears.
“She said, ‘I’ve never heard my voice before. Thank you for providing this.’”
Aaron says many of the people who attend their instructional sessions are retired—or about to—after years in which they shelved their creative sides. Now those people are diving back in, many of them to a latent interest in the ukulele.
“The uke happened to us,” Aaron says. “We didn’t pick it. A lot of adults pick it up because it seems easy. Yes, anyone can do it, but it takes a lifetime to master it.”
The Keims see themselves as tour guides to the past for these people in their 50s and beyond.
“We’ve become ambassadors to the uke world,” Aaron says.