Asheville buskers left in the cold
Abby Roach and Chris Rodrigues pulled tight to their coats as a strong gust of December wind bounded down Wall Street, rows of buildings on either side creating a blustery tunnel along the narrow roadway. Pulling open the door to a downtown coffee shop, the pair stepped into the warm, brick-walled space. Rodrigues adjusted his black felt trilby, while Roach pulled on the yarn sleeves of her crocheted sweater.
Usually, the two are accompanied by fellow musician Vaden Landers, a guitar, a banjo, a pair of spoons and a thick crowd of wide-eyed onlookers. But setting up shop on cold winter days wouldn't bear much fruit for the ragtag band of street performers, who rely on steady foot traffic to make a living.
"To be able to earn an income and keep a roof over your head as a street performer, you have to be able to gather a crowd," said Roach, known to most as Abby the Spoon Lady, for her unique choice of percussive instrument. "And to be able to gather a crowd, you have to turn people's heads."
"You have to catch their eye," Rodrigues interjected. "You have to be unique — do something they've never seen before."
"That’s the formula for success," Roach added, her face serious. She paused, then cracked a smile and laughed at her joke.
The trio, known as the Fly By Night Rounders, are well-known on the Asheville scene. On a warm and sunny day, they're almost always found somewhere downtown, playing the corner across from Vance Monument, outside the Woolworth Walk on Haywood Street or ringing bells to the beat in front of the oversized iron on Wall Street.
In December, January and February, though, the music disappears from the streets of Asheville, and downtown falls eerily quiet in the absence of impromptu performance. Limited to a seasonal source of income, buskers in Asheville often travel, take up odd jobs or book indoor shows to make ends meet.
In the case of the Fly By Night Rounders, one of Asheville's few full-time street bands, the money from playing indoors just doesn't compare to what they make on the street during peak season. Summer is best for crowd size and income consistency; fall is better for maintaining an attentive audience.
Winter, though, is a season of hibernation for the group — writing new material, coming up with unique new attractions and preparing for the busy season to come.
Though, Roach said, "I never bury enough acorns. I’m here all winter, and I come out when it’s warm enough — but spoons are not fun to play in the cold."
The spoon player has traveled for her music before, hopping trains from the West to East coasts, and she's been playing in Asheville for at least a decade — making the city her official home in 2013. And many other buskers, she said, have said they'd like to do the same.
But unless you're Abby the Spoon Lady — whose level of Asheville fame gets her stopped for photos in the grocery store — or one of the Fly By Night Rounders, making enough money to survive the mountain winter is tough. (And, as the trio will tell you, it's certainly not easy for them, either.)
In the cold months, many full-time buskers take their business South, playing where it's relatively warm on the streets — New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, the Florida Keys and up and down the coast of California.
"Everybody kind of does something different," she said. "There’s definitely a culture, you know, that kind of does some roaming that’s attached to our busking culture. I’ve been part of that culture myself, and some travelers are not only buskers but also migratory farm workers. They're folks who do the tobacco thing — or the beet harvest is real popular — or even hitting the West Coast and doing marijuana farming is growing in popularity."
Born in New York City and growing up in Charlotte, busker Tracy Hui swings by Asheville each time he crosses the country — sometimes, he said, that means up to three times per year.
"More than half of my money is from music," Hui said. "I also do seasonal farm work, ... and for six and a half years, I taught at an after-school program in East Oakland, California. ... When that work ran out, I had to hit the road. My partner (at the time) and I started busking so we could get by. We ended up traveling the whole country."
By talking to other travelers, roaming musicians hear news of the road by word of mouth: Where should we go next? Where can we make some money? Will we be fined for playing on the street?
"There are loads of places that do not want buskers or don't have the foot traffic," Hui said. "I was threatened with jail once in St. Augustine, (Florida), for example. ... I've been traveling perpetually for the past five years. Winters are always slow, inside or out, for me. Got to go where it's warm to keep busking."
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The warmer states — Southern California, Florida, the Deep South — often have their own set of problems for travelers hoping to make it through winter.
"New Orleans gets a flood of buskers every single winter, starting in October for the Day of the Dead parade, and they'll stay until after Jazz Fest" in April, Roach said. "A lot of travelers, train riders, backpackers and whatnot join in too. They’re not making a lot of money during that time, because there’s so many people down there. Folks are moreso going down there because they want to see their friends — they want to play music with their friends, you know?
"The more welcoming a town is to folks who are artistic, the more artistic people will come," she continued. "It’s kind of a symbiotic thing, and any time that you have a creative city, you’re always going to have that traveling culture. The presence of traveling kids means that your city has a healthy arts and music community. It’s not a bad thing."
Though, she added, she personally steers clear of New Orleans because it's so busy.
"I didn’t do as well there as I do here," Rodrigues added. "I busked almost every day and got rained on, and there were a lot of people doing what I was doing, so I just left."
While Rodrigues was born and raised in Asheville, graduating from North Buncombe High, he recognizes that he's a bit of "a unicorn," as he put it, when it comes to the assortment of street musicians in town. Most gravitated to the city after hearing about its thriving arts community.
After spending some time in Nashville, where she got her Spoon Lady moniker, Roach "ended up floating toward Asheville because the police department here was so kind," she said. "They didn’t seem to be picking on people," like is often the case for performers in other cities.
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Hui even called Asheville "a famous busking spot" for street performers. "It's a tourist town, and ... I also love the mountains and general ambiance. It just feels good in Asheville. One of my favorite towns anywhere."
After his summer in Asheville ended, Hui left town and headed to California, where he set up camp for the winter, taking care of a cabin and the surrounding property.
"It's nice to finally get some R&R," he said.
The reality for many full-time performers is that winter is a struggle, no matter what you do.
Back in the coffee shop, Roach paused, deep in thought.
"Wintertime just sucks," she said. "For the most part, I am sitting at home and budgeting down to every single penny, refreshing my email browser over and over, hoping that somebody has sent me a donation."
Rodrigues added, "I live on a prayer. I spent so much time busking in the freezing cold and not making much at all. Every penny I find, I pick it up and save it for winter. It's just hard."
Roach looked out the window, at the frigid wind swirling through the city streets.
"We were thinking about going out today, but it's 38 degrees with 20-mile-per hour winds," she said. "We decided maybe we'd see what tomorrow looked like. Pretty much, the moment it's warm enough and there are people out on the streets," the Fly By Night Rounders will jump at the chance to play.
"I'm hoping for tomorrow," she added. "Maybe we'll have a day this weekend."
Rodrigues replied, "I'll go home and restring my guitar for it."