Written by Marla Hardee Milling | Photos by Anthony Harden
Those banjo pickers, spoon players, human statues, and brightly-clad mimes dotting the local sidewalks aren’t just performing for your entertainment—they’re part of a bustling, under-the-radar economy.
If you’re not familiar with the term “busking,” it generally refers to performing on public sidewalks for tips. You might think the business of busking is pretty easy. Open a guitar case, sing and strum, or paint your face and pose as a statue, and watch people drop a buck or two as they pass by
There are some who travel through the Western North Carolina region, stopping in a town to play a few tunes in order to raise enough cash to carry them to the next town—fellow buskers call them “Traveling Kids.” There are others with a goal of supplementing their incomes, and others who are hoping to be discovered, along with random motivations mixed in between. In April searchers and rescue squad personnel were looking for two hikers who had gone missing in Pisgah National Forest, and after two days found them busking on the streets of Asheville. The pair was unaware that anyone was looking for them, even though they had been separated from friends in the wilderness.
It’s unknown just how many buskers are in the area, although Asheville clearly has the heaviest concentration of street performers. It can be very fluid, with buskers moving in and out of town on a regular basis, but it’s safe to say there are hundreds that pass through.
Few turn to busking as a full-time living, but those who do say they make a decent income and enjoy the freedom of doing what they love. Abby Roach, known as “The Spoon Lady,” arguably ranks as Asheville’s most popular and prolific busker, and even has a personal website, SpoonLadyMusic.com, where she bills herself as “professional spoonologist.” She’s self-taught on the spoons, teaches spoon lessons, hosts the “Spoonful of Tunes” program on WPVM-FM, and serves as head of the Asheville Buskers Collective, a group that formed to advocate for buskers’ rights amid city proposals to regulate where they can perform. And since we know you’re wondering, the answer is yes, she files a tax return on her busking earnings.
Potential Changes Afoot?
Towns in the region have had varied experiences with, and reactions to, buskers. In Waynesville, for example, busking is allowed, but via an annual licensing system that specifies times and other restrictions.
Hendersonville used to require buskers to obtain permits, but no longer does so, and while Blowing Rock has no specific ordinance on the books, street performers are advised by officials that they cannot ask or advertise for tips.
Meanwhile, in Asheville right now, the most profitable spots in the downtown area include Pack Square across from Vance Monument, in front of Woolworth Walk on Haywood Street, the Flat Iron sculpture at the corner of Battery Park Avenue and Wall Street, and in front of the Spiritex clothing store on Haywood. But those busker pinch points are in jeopardy as city leaders look for ways to reduce congestion in these high pedestrian areas.
The Public Safety Committee, chaired by City Councilman Cecil Bothwell, was planning to meet with Asheville Parks and Recreation in late June just prior to publication of this issue of Capital at Play. (See sidebar at end of story.) While nothing has been decided yet, Bothwell says, “What we’re probably going to do is reduce the crowding at certain locations. Because the buskers are so popular, they cause real jams on the sidewalk. We’ll probably limit the space in front of Woolworth Walk to solo performers only.” He says other changes likely will include marking off a box in front of the Flat Iron sculpture to limit the number of musicians who can play together there, and moving buskers who play at Pack Square to across the street at Vance Monument. “The idea is to not busk in front of the restaurants. There’s so many pedestrians there.”
While Bothwell says he doesn’t know of any pedestrians who have been hurt trying to move around a busking area, he does note, “The worst thing I’ve heard is that people in wheelchairs can’t get down the curb cut, so they bypass the crowd by going out into the street.”
John Fleer, award-winning chef/owner of Rhubarb Restaurant on Pack Square, says he has been actively involved with discussions about proposals affecting the buskers, and the last proposals he read vary greatly from the anticipated changes Bothwell outlined.
“I saw the most recent proposal that was presented in April,” says Fleer. “I know there have been some amendments, but that [removing buskers from in front of his restaurant and putting musicians in a box] is not at all what I understand the proposal to be. There was a lot of discussion early on about boxes and limitations on the numbers of performers. The Asheville Buskers Collective was eloquent in their defense of stating their case that the size of the group—within reason—was not the public safety issue. It really has a lot to do with the rest of what’s going on in that particular area. For instance, in front of Rhubarb, there are benches and there’s a directional station in front of the Noodle Shop. We did discuss moving that across the street because it sits right in the flow of pedestrian traffic. We love having buskers in front of the restaurant.”
Adds Bothwell, “The main idea is to be fair, to make sure people can still do busking, but to reduce pedestrian interference. The staff has talked with the buskers alliance and I think they’re going to be okay with it. We’re not trying to throw them out.”
“City staff keeps coming to us with pilot plans and proposals,” counters Abby. “They restrict where we can be or try to push us out of the main traffic areas. They have a new plan wanting to incentivize spots away from our busiest corners. The incentive is they’ll let us sell CDs in those spots.” The incentivized areas include a spot by the rock climbing wall and near the National nightclub, both on Wall Street; by the Rankin Parking Deck near The Vault lounge; and behind the Vance Monument between the monument and the fountain—areas that are more isolated and will, in Abby’s opinion, reduce the ability of buskers to make a livable salary, and that would force her to move out of the area.
“There’s a misunderstanding that people flock to buskers. It’s the other way around—buskers flock to people,” she says. “We really need to sell CDs, but we won’t make money playing in these spots. Leave it to the city to find a way for us to make less money.”
Billy Scribbles, a busker who plays banjo, spoons, and guitar with a group known as “Ain’t Nothing Much,” also fears the city’s proposals. “They want to change things about Asheville to better suit the mass of tourism, but they want to shave things down on the wrong end,” he says. “A lot of the time when I’m playing, a tourist will say, ‘This is exactly what I came to Asheville to see.’ If they take away the spontaneous street life, they will be shooting themselves in the foot. It will be the end of an era. We would have to leave town and go somewhere else.”
Interestingly enough, the Asheville Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (CVB) often showcases buskers in high dollar slick advertising campaigns designed to lure more tourists to the area. The most recent one, a response to the controversial HB2 bill that was passed by the state legislature in Raleigh in February, features a variety of business owners and community leaders who offer a welcoming message to all. This ad begins and ends with Abby the Spoon Lady. Other Asheville tourism ads have featured living statue Dade Murphy, who defies gravity by leaning in an impossible backwards motion, and Celestially Rooted, a husband and wife (Laura and Derek Graziano) hammered dulcimer-cello duo.
“No one from the CVB or tourist authority is invited to the city’s public safety meetings,” says Abby. “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. Communication is real important.”
She says other towns are noticing Asheville’s popularity and want to attract their own stream of tourists. “We recently went to Chattanooga,” she says. “They paid for us to come down there and play at Jazzanooga Arts SPACE. We spoke to a group from Sound Corp who are trying to pay buskers to go out. I have a love/hate relationship with what they’re doing, but they have a genuine desire to support the buskers.”
I think it’s definitely part of what makes Asheville unique,” she says. “It keeps the streets alive with music and culture. It’s also inspirational for people to be that close to musicians and artists and to be able to interact with them without being separated by a stage.”
Down On the Corner
While the City and the Buskers Collective work on negotiating a workable plan for everyone, Franzi Charen, director of the Asheville Grown Business Alliance, says that for the most part, downtown businesses are overwhelmingly supportive of buskers.
“I think it’s definitely part of what makes Asheville unique,” she says. “It keeps the streets alive with music and culture. It’s also inspirational for people to be that close to musicians and artists and to be able to interact with them without being separated by a stage. I hope the city listens to the buskers. I definitely think people working on the inside of a building shouldn’t dictate what the outside should be—it should grow organically. That said, I do understand the need for regulation. We’ve had people sitting in front of our doorstep [Charen also owns Hip Replacements on Lexington Avenue], smoking cigarettes and saying, ‘We’re busking.’ But they’re not entertaining anyone and they are blocking our business. There also have to be some rules to keep two musicians competing across the street from each other. Then you can’t hear the music, so I understand the need for regulation. I hope we can create something good out of this. I’m glad we have Abby as a leader who is looking out for musicians and people involved in the arts.”
The corner outside of the Spiritex store, located across from Pritchard Park, is a hot spot for buskers. Whether that’s a negative or a positive for Spiritex simply depends on who is playing, according to store owner Marilou Marsh.
“There are some that work with you, and others who think they own the sidewalk,” she says. “There are others who haven’t washed in three weeks. You can smell them 10 feet away, and that’s not good for business. I don’t want to hurt it for people who are good and cooperative and helpful, but I think they should pay a nominal fee for a permit. That would help regulate the musicians. It could be cheap—something like three dollars—but it could solve everything.”
She contends that the riff raff, panhandlers, and people faking being a busker to hustle for money would disappear if registration was required, and that reputable musicians would be free to continue entertaining the crowds. “We’ll get better music on the street,” she says. “Sometimes we just have to shut the door to mask repetitious bad sound.”
“There is talk of a registration process,” says the Rhubarb’s Fleer. “It’s different than a permit. It would just be registering as a performer. In these high traffic zones, it’s important to have some knowledge of who is performing.” He thinks that would clear up the population that masquerades as buskers and hang out in front of his restaurant.
Marsh specifically mentions Abby as a busker who is cooperative, professional, and respectful. “She has an awareness. She’s very intelligent, and she’s good.”
In addition to owning Spiritex, Marsh owns MIA Gallery on Lexington, but they never see buskers there. It’s a non-issue for that storefront.
There are procedures and regulations for buskers who want to play in the alcove in front of Mast General Store on Biltmore Avenue. Potential performers must come inside the store for approval. They are asked for ID, phone number, and have an audition. Mast only okays performers who are playing Bluegrass or similar music, in keeping with the Mast brand.
“We have a two-hour limit,” says Tina Carter, assistant manager. “They have to stand and they have to be performing. We had one guy out there the other day who was smoking and laying on a sleeping bag. That is not who we are, and our customers don’t want to see that. You have to work for it.”
The buskers we spoke to say they’ve never been hassled by officers. In fact, Billy Scribbles says one officer with the Asheville Police Department wants to join them some day. “He’s a fiddle player. He said one day when he’s not on the clock he’ll come down and jump in with us on a set. Other officers request songs when they see us. They’ll say, ‘Play Rocky Top,’ or, ‘Play Foggy Mountain.’”
Around Western North Carolina
In smaller towns around the region, where busking isn’t as common as in Asheville, the sight of a street performer can get police attention. Case in point: Ron Fitzwater, a retired Marine and former editor of the Ashe Mountain Times, was told to move along when he attempted to busk in downtown Blowing Rock. He went to the town manager to find out what the problem was. Without an ordinance on the books, the two agreed to let Fitzwater play music with his guitar case open. The town manager just told him he could not ask for money or have a sign asking for money.
With the open case, he does get tips. He also keeps business cards with him. That’s led to booking some fairly lucrative private gigs.
Busking is fairly limited in the North Carolina High Country. According to Jeff Eason, editor of Boone’s Blowing Rocket, “There’s really only one street per town that you ever see buskers on: King Street in downtown Boone and Main Street in downtown Blowing Rock. Old Crow Medicine Show established the sidewalk in front of Boone Drug as the premiere spot for busking in downtown Boone. It is centrally located, has a lot of foot traffic, and is covered in case it starts to rain.”
Hendersonville sees some buskers coming through town, but one of the only regular buskers there is guitarist/singer A.J. Pyatt. He’s a native of Hendersonville and started busking there in 2013. He says in the beginning, Hendersonville required a permit to perform on the street, but after he had been out regularly for about six months, they changed it. A permit is no longer required, but buskers must stay within certain designated areas on Main Street.
“There are little white X’s on certain corners, and it’s in that box where you should be playing,” says Pyatt. “There are eight or nine total, but there’s really only four that are actually useable. The good ones are in the center of town, near 3rd Avenue and 4th Avenue. These are near restaurants, ice cream stores, and a lot of foot traffic.”
Pyatt made his living busking full time for two years, and that led to other opportunities. He plays at a wide range of venues now and also has an album out. “I had to do the busking to get good at performing,” he says. “I was learning what songs work and learning how to perform.”
Even though his career has grown, he’s still drawn to busking on a sunny day. He busks many weekends in Hendersonville and loves the feedback from tourists as well as business owners. While he admits not every business on Hendersonville’s Main Street is keen on busking, he says Tempo Music and Dancing Bear Toys are two businesses that really encourage it, and they’ve told him it helps draw customers into their stores.
Street performing is also allowed in Waynesville, but there is a set procedure in place for those who want to take part. Phyllis Rogers, who works with the Town of Waynesville Administrative Services, says, “Performers have to fill out an application, and they have to come here to do that.”
Rogers pointed the way to a lengthy online ordinance detailing the process for buskers. Licenses are valid from July 1 to June 30, and performers must provide name, permanent address, phone number, and proof of identity. In addition, they have to give a detailed description of their act and any instruments or props used, plus two color photos of the applicant. Each applicant must also submit to a criminal background check.
The ordinance also specifies designated areas to perform between the hours of 11 AM and 9 PM. on a first-come/first-serve basis, and sets a 50-foot minimum space between buskers, unless they are playing as a group. They also cannot perform within 50 feet of a school, library, hospital, church, funeral home, or courthouse. The full ordinance is available online.
Busking is sporadic in town, according to Rogers, and happens generally when there is a big event like Art After Dark.
The regular crowd of buskers in Asheville rarely travels around to other Western North Carolina towns, but many of them do play in Charlotte, New Orleans, Nashville, Colorado, and California in order to keep their income going in colder months.
Buskers need to pay attention to etiquette and have respect for each other. “Don’t scream,” he says. “Don’t use profanity. Don’t play bagpipes.”
Finding Your Tribe
Groups often meet and form on the streets of a city; others form and then dissipate, only to form others. Abby has gone through transitions with her own playing crew. She’s played with different musicians in the past, including The Shifty Drifters last year. This year, she’s part of The Fly By Night Rounders with Vaden Landers, formerly of The Shifty Drifters, and Asheville native Chris Rodrigues. (Both have their own profiles and music samples posted at Abby’s website.) Like Abby, they make a full-time living from busking, but Vaden also admits, “It’s still hard for us to survive.”
Vaden says buskers will shake their fist at the word “rules,” but he also says he believes buskers need to pay attention to etiquette and have respect for each other. “Don’t scream,” he says. “Don’t use profanity. Don’t play bagpipes.”
The unspoken “rule” among buskers is to rotate from a spot every two hours. It’s pretty much by word of mouth. When regulars spot a new busker, they’ll tell them about the two-hour rule. “Some will say, ‘I don’t care about your two-hour rule,’” says Abby. “Eventually they have to give in. It’s inevitable. The two-hour rule also keeps it fresh for business owners. They don’t want to hear the same thing for six hours straight.”
Another big issue for buskers to keep in mind is keeping their volume knocked down. “It’s just having respect that we only have four major spots in Asheville, if your sound is taking up two, that’s not right,” says Abby.
Abby, Vaden, and Chris are just a few who busk full-time, but that requires strategic budget planning since the winter months are often leaner than the summer tourist months. “The majority of my income comes from street performing, but I have to be methodical about what I do and when I do it,” says Abby. “Chris is the same way, and so is Vaden. You go from making hundreds apiece, to making a big fat goose egg all winter long. You only have a good solid season for half the year. In the winter, I eat soup and watch the calendar.”
Sometimes they are asked to play indoors at area venues, but that poses income difficulties as well. Explains Abby, “The indoor venues in Asheville don’t pay much. There’s a continuous misunderstanding about buskers. [The idea that] you’ve been playing for free, so why not pay for tips in here?” On the flip side of that, they generally get tipped much less indoors because the crowd often has a perception that they’ve been paid well by the venue.
While this article was being prepared, the North Carolina Stage Company tweeted out what at the onset seemed like an inviting idea. They put out a call for buskers to perform before their June stagings of Sideshow and said they could perform to a “captive audience” before the show and possibly during intermission. The incentive would be that buskers could keep 100 percent of their tips.
However, some buskers we talked to gave a thumbs down to this idea, saying North Carolina Stage was simply looking for free music—wanting to entertain their own audience without adequately paying buskers for their time. The thought was that if they wanted music, they should officially book musicians to play.
Other buskers, like Billy Scribbles, move around the country in the winter months to keep the money flowing. This past winter, he and his bandmates traveled out west and spent time performing in California. “A lot of people think you just go out and try to busk,” says Billy, “but busking is a whole different game than regular music. You can’t assume you have a built-in audience. The audience is always changing. You have to catch them in a spontaneous moment. There is an element of psychology involved when it comes to busking. When you travel around, you see some buskers that are all gimmick and no talent, and you see others that are all talent and no gimmick. But it seems that the busking acts that always do best have a good gimmick-to-talent ratio. The gimmick is some aspect of your performance that people don’t expect to see or hear as they walk by, and that’s what catches their attention. And the talent is what keeps them there. Put the two together, and that’s how you put on a good show.”
Not to take away from his own band, who he says steals the show with their unique blend of rowdy mountain music, Billy gives a nod to Chris Rodrigues as an example of what he’s talking about. “He can put on a one-man show with a suitcase kick drum and license plate tambourine on his other foot. On top of that he has an amazing voice and he’s an amazing guitar player. He gets people to stop in their tracks.”
“When I just played guitar, no one cared,” says Chris, of why he added stomping on a suitcase and other tricks to enhance his act.
“That’s because everyone assumes that a kid with a guitar is just the same old, same old,” adds Vaden.
Playing an instrument or singing isn’t the only way to get people to part with money on the streets. Asheville has become home to some very clever human statues. They remain frozen in pose until someone puts a coin or bill in their bucket, and then they come to life in a variety of ways: The Silver Drummer Girl taps out a few beats on her drum; The Man in White strums a tune; Dade Murphy leans backwards and gyrates in gravity-defying poses; and the Bronze Fisherman casts his fishing line into an imaginary lake.
Wayne Lajoie, who transforms into the Bronze Fisherman by using a mineral based face and body paint and a special effects bronzer on top, says he has been busking since he was 15. He was introduced to the craft by a friend in California who was a white-faced mime, and he learned that it was a fun way to make some money while making others happy.
He hit upon the Bronze Fisherman a bit by accident. He had planned to have the same costume, but carry a banjo and strum when receiving money. When it was time to get his act started he didn’t have time to paint his banjo, so he grabbed a fishing rod, painted it, and became the Bronze Fisherman. “Everyone loved it and it kind of stuck,” he says.
Wayne, who is also a seasonal wildlife firefighter and Uber driver, says busking is a great way to make ends meet for his family. He’s married with three young daughters, ages two, six, and ten. “They love coming up to me on a Friday night at the drum circle and putting a dollar in my basket.”
He says he has a good rapport with the musical buskers and will stay in the same general area in order to have an audience. “It’s hard for me to draw a crowd by myself,” he says. “It’s my main source of income for a lot of the year, but it’s also a hobby—something I really enjoy doing.”
In addition to the living statues, other performance artists, including jugglers and balloon twisters, vie for attention.
Busking as a Springboard
Then there are those who perform on the streets who prove they are worthy of bigger stages. Leeda Jones, who uses the performing name of Lyric, was first noticed busking on Asheville streets in 2009. She moved on to clubs and regional festivals like the now-defunct Bele Chere. Her career is skyrocketing and there’s a chance to see her soul/funk band play for free in Asheville this month. She’s slated to take the stage at 7PM July 18 at UNC Asheville as part of the Concerts on the Quad series.
Old Crow Medicine show caught the ear of legendary musician Doc Watson in 2000 while busking in front of Boone Drugs in downtown Boone. He gave them a chance to play at his Wilkesboro festival, Merlefest, and that helped ignite their career. The Grammy-winning band is probably best known for their hit song “Wagon Wheel.”
Pokey LaFarge is another busker who successfully moved into the limelight. He met two of his bandmates on the streets of Asheville. Third Man Records released his self-titled album in June 2013. He’s currently on tour this summer, but far from the streets of Asheville—his concerts will take place in a variety of European locales, as well as Boulder, Long Beach, and the Minnesota State Fair, among others.
Laura and Derek Graziano busked full-time for about three years as the duo Celestially Rooted (CelestiallyRooted.com) before they branched out into other areas. “We used to busk as our main source of income,” notes Laura, “I’d say we busked full time from the spring of 2011 until summer 2013. Derek is building instruments more [now] and playing less. These days he only busks about once a week. I am mom most of the time now. I very rarely get out to play.”
Derek crafts custom designed hammered dulcimers as well as Native American flutes. Examples of his work can be found on his website (Sourceofsound.com).
The more we can promote performers on the street, the better off we’re going to be. The qualified performers are nothing but an asset.”
It’s unknown at this point when a city busking plan will go into effect. “It’s amazing how slow things move in a bureaucracy,” says Councilman Bothwell. “It seems like it could have been hammered out last fall so we would have a plan for this summer. I frankly think we’ll wind up with a plan for the following season.”
“To me, the buskers are a key part of the life of this city,” says restauranter Fleer. “I think, especially with the CVB’s emphasis on Asheville as a music city in the coming year, the more we can promote performers on the street, the better off we’re going to be. The qualified performers are nothing but an asset.”
CLOSER LOOK AT PROPOSED BUSKING REGULATIONS
Right before this issue went to press, we received a copy of the agenda for the upcoming June 22 meeting of the Public Safety Committee Special Meeting [Agenda notes: http://bit.ly/1XZkdpY] to discuss downtown public space management, including rules for where buskers can perform in Asheville. Proposed was a Public Space Management Pilot Program [Ordinance changes: http://bit.ly/261n9Xe]. There would be three high impact areas—to be designated by an artistic symbol—and other street performances would not be allowed within 100 feet of each marked location. Those locations:
HAYWOOD STREET IN FRONT OF WOOLWORTH WALK—a smaller sized performance area is recommended.
FLAT IRON AT BATTERY PARK AVENUE & WALL STREET—the flat side of the Flat Iron sculpture, with that performance space designated to ensure 6 feet of sidewalk passage in all directions.
PACK SQUARE NEAR RHUBARB RESTAURANT—a designated performance space adjacent to the Biltmore Avenue curb; the 100-ft. requirement would still allow performances on the east side of Biltmore Avenue.
There would also be three incentive areas where buskers could sell CDs; a registration and reservation web-based application and mobile platform could potentially be implemented to manage this. The incentive areas:
VICINITY OF WALL STREET CLIMBING—public space adjacent to Wall Street parking garage, stairs to Battery Park Avenue, and climbing wall.
SOUTH PACK SQUARE—paved public space north of the Asheville Art Museum, south of the Biltmore office building, east of the Vance Monument, and west of the water feature.
RANKIN AVENUE/COLLEGE STREET POCKET PARK—adjacent to the bus stop, in the vicinity of Rankin Avenue and College Street.
The original article is below. Click to open in fullscreen…