Living Portrait series: Spoon Lady
For the month of November, local photographer Nick King is taking a closer look at Asheville's thriving busking scene. "I had always been fascinated not only by the tenacity of our buskers, who often perform for hours on end, but also by their sheer talent," he said. "I wanted to know 'Who are these people? What is their story?'" Find more of his work online at http://www.nkingphotography.com/.
If there was ever a busker in downtown Asheville that stopped you dead in your tracks and made you think "Am I really witnessing what I think I am?," it would have to be Abby "The Spoon Lady" Roach.
The immediate conjuring of video images and lyrics from the song "Spoonman" by Soundgarden are impossible to ignore. But was Spoonman even real? And if so, is it even possible for someone to really be playing the spoons like that, right here, right now, in the streets of downtown Asheville?
You suddenly notice her counterpart, Chris Rodriguez, gracefully strumming a guitar, singing, playing a harmonica and tapping two foot pedals all at the same time, like it's easy, and you quickly realize you are witnessing much more than just two people trying to make a dollar to drop into their bucket. You are witnessing something truly special and unique, perhaps something you may never see again.
For tourists and locals alike, it might be easy to assume these are just "mountain folk" who somehow learned how to play music on the front porch of their cabin and found their way into downtown Asheville.
What might surprise you, however, is that Abby the Spoon Lady is a full-time musician who has traveled the contiguous 48 states, recorded albums and been recruited by "America's Got Talent."
When asked how that one burning question that anyone who has ever seen her perform wants to know, she gives you an answer you might not expect, but also one that only the Spoon Lady could give.
"I've been busking for about 10 years, and I started while I was riding freight trains. Yeah ... I was one of those dirty kids with a dog and a pack at one point. I needed a way to fund myself across the country, and spoons was it.
"Hunger was the ultimate force that got me to pick them up. I spent about eight years floating on the rails, and have been in all 48 main states. I had no idea I had timing like that. My brother (Zack Roach) is a guitar player for a fairly famous band, Senses Fail, and my sister is a piano player and harp player. I, however, didn't really step into music until I hit the road. ...
"At first it was difficult. No one took me seriously. Most of the money I received at the beginning was 'sympathy money,' I believe. Eventually I started hearing, 'Oh, that's neat' and 'How'd she do that?' and then the tour bus in Nashville started referring to me as the 'Spoon Lady' ... and so folks started uploading me as such ... and so now I'm the Spoon Lady ... and one of less than five people that can do what I do in the world."
Asked about the spoons she plays, she says they are rare "antique 100 percent steel spoons that are discontinued. They are regular household serving spoons. The manufacturer is out of business, and so I've been looking for an American company that sells something similar ... but no avail. I've also looked into finding someone to make them for me, but it would be too expensive ... as working with steel usually is. Until then, I'll keep searching for these. I have backups."
If you've ever seen the Spoon Lady play, you've seen how fast she slaps the spoons together, sliding them through her fingers like magic. No matter how hard you try, your eyes can't keep up with the sounds you hear, similar to watching a drummer from a rock band give his signature solo performance.
Like most great musicians, she has created aids that help her to perform at her best.
"I grease my left hand to make them slide faster. … I basically put homemade ChapStick on my left hand while I play. I used to use actual ChapStick, but it was too moisturizing. Now I use a product that a friend makes for me (Grove Appalachia) called 'Spoon Lady Miracle Cream.' For the most part it cuts down on friction as they are going so fast.
"If I didn't use it, the spoons would literally scrape all of the moisture out of my left hand, and between my fingers would bleed. And the product itself is great. I use it as lotion too, as I have really sensitive skin and most products break me out. It's pretty much coconut oil and beeswax."
Abby now sells her "Spoon Lady Miracle Cream" along with stickers that read "I Love Spoon Lady" and stickers of her and Rodriguez on her website, www.spoonladymusic.com.
In speaking of Asheville, Abby sings a similar tone as most other musicians falling in love with the city. After playing in street bands primarily in Nashville for a couple of years, she says the sounds of the urban city, complete with other buskers performing on loud PA systems, got to her and she was "Asheville bound," but this time "permanently" moving here in June 2013.
She has performed with various other buskers around town since, and floated back and forth between here and New Orleans, as she tells me many other buskers do in the winter to make ends meet.
But not this winter for Abby. She and Rodriguez are trying to book shows together in venues in and around Asheville when it gets too cold to play outside. She, like so many others, seems to have developed a sort of a love affair with Asheville and is desperate to find a way to make it her home.
"I do not want to go to New Orleans this year because I want to set my roots here, and be here. It is and will be very difficult for me this winter, but I'm a bit tired of floating. Finding a way to fund myself here though the winters is a priority to me. It's time to have my feet grounded.
"Like I'd said, I'd played in Nashville for a while, doing a band there ... but it's even harder to make a living there as a musician unless you're a 25-year-old singing pop country. The ambient noise got to me, the bar speakers flooding into the street, buskers with whole PA systems. Asheville seemed like a better fit. Folks are more down to earth and art-minded. Most cities where you can earn an income off of busking are loud and busy places. ... Asheville is a gem."
So far, Asheville seems to be accommodating. She met Rodriguez while busking downtown in front of the Flat Iron in June. "Eventually we decided to play a set together ... and it stuck. I'm very fortunate to have found such a reliable and kind person as a musical partner," she says.
The feeling seems to be mutual. Rodriguez, who is also a full-time musician, says, "We decided to play a set together and have been playing together ever since. She is one of the most talented and smartest people I know. Thank God I met her."
They are working on a double album, "Workin' on Wall Street," the first half of which will be folk and blues, the second half gospel. They hope to have the first half finished this month. They also were featured in the documentary "Buskin' Blues," an independent film that takes a closer look at the busking scene of Asheville, and performed live on stage at the film's premiere at The Orange Peel in September. Not bad for a duo who had only been performing together for a couple of months prior.
This month they are playing on a mini tour that will take them from Charlotte to Nashville.
And although they may be recording and landing some gigs indoors, it's clear that busking remains closest to their hearts. Rodriguez got his start after "years of playing for nothing, (where) sometimes (he) would get a good gig like a wedding or a private event, but for the most part I was getting paid beer or a meal."
He is a full-time musician who writes and records music for various projects but also says "times were never easy and only gotten harder. I have been busking solid for two years now."
He says his favorite thing about busking is "making people happy. I want to see people dance and have a good time!"
Abby the Spoon Lady shares that sentiment, saying seeing the "children dancing" is her absolute favorite.
As they both have busked in cities outside of Asheville, I thought they would be great people to ask how Asheville compares, and what they think of the recent discussion to tighten regulations on buskers in Asheville.
"I have busked in some other cities but Asheville is my personal favorite, the police are always nice and the city is beautiful," Rodriguez says.
Abby agrees, saying, "Asheville is a gem. I get slightly annoyed with some of my busking peers with the volume of amplifiers, but compared to other cities, the people are nice here and the downtown police here do a really good job."
She also speaks of the "unspoken two-hour rule here," in which buskers will take two-hour shifts before taking a break so that other people get the chance to perform. She and Rodriguez usually do two or three "shifts" in a given day.
In other cities, where there is no such "unspoken rule," like New Orleans, she says "performers will sleep at spots to make sure they have one." And in Nashville, she and her band were often forced to stay in the spot from 6 a.m. until midnight just to ensure they had a spot.
For the most part, they seem to be happy with the way things are except for one small caveat — the ban on allowing performers to sell CDs and other merchandise. As they are in the process of recording an album, it's hard to blame them.
Abby says, "A large majority of buskers, especially this time of year, sell CDs anyways. It's hard to make ends meet and keep coming out busking if you don't. ... Plus you need to promote yourself. The tourists seem to really love it too, having the ability to take home a piece of Asheville to share with friends."
When asked about plans for the future, Rodriguez's answer is as simple and straightforward as you would expect from any dedicated musician: "Writing, recording and performing."
Abby's answer, on the other hand, is a little different. Due to the physical demands of playing the spoons, as she has done for an entire decade, her wrists are starting to bother her. Knowing the rarity of the art form of spoon playing, she is starting to focus on how it can be passed down from one generation to the next.
Although she gives lessons in person and via Skype, she next hopes to create an instructional DVD. She has started an online fundraiser and hopes to have it complete by March.
"Let's face it. There is no humanly way that someone could do what I am doing for the rest of their lives. It's impossible. I've realized this, acknowledged it, and I'm OK with it. I stretch, eat lots of bananas and listen to my wrist. If it starts hurting at all, I stop. Folks ask me if it hurts. I tell them, 'It looks like I'm hitting them harder than I am,' and I am, but yeah sometimes it hurts.
"I get bruised in the strangest of places, like the middle of my palm. This is one of the reasons, though, that I wish to get this DVD done so badly. As years go on, I feel myself getting tired a bit quicker than I used to; my hand not gripping as tight. One day, someone else will have to play the spoons here … There is no real resources on spoon playing. It would be nice to have it before the art form is gone."
She hopes her story can be inspirational for others who might be able to identify with the young, confused kid she once was, searching both literally and figuratively for the answers and finding herself in the process.
"I hit the rails ... to find myself, to find my salvation, to let the world show me what it needed to. The universe took care of me, showed me that that beauty lives beyond the traditional norms of clear skin and pearly whites.
"Traveling taught me so very much about human-kind and the personalities involved ... opened my eyes and made me proud to just be myself. … Now it seems that the importance for me lies in preserving the art form that saved my soul and (spoon)-fed my heart."
For more information on her fundraising project, visit www.fundrazr.com and search for "Spoon Lady." More about her and Rodriguez is available at www.suitcaseandspoons.com.
About this series
Each month, a local photographer hosts the Living Portrait Series, choosing a theme and different subjects to photograph and interview each week.
The goal is two-fold: to share and champion work by local photographers, and to foster a greater understanding of the people and perspectives in the community.
View past Living Portraits at CITIZEN-TIMES.com/photography. To learn more or ask questions, contact Jess McCuan at firstname.lastname@example.org.