MEET 7 OF THE SOUTH’S MOST POPULAR STREET PERFORMERS
Photos by Jonathan Wade, Sarah Watlington, Travis Dove, Erin Adams, Steven Gray, and Meghan Medlan
Long before the Dixie Chicks harmonized over wide open spaces and Ed Sheeran teamed up with Beyoncé for the perfect duet, they were buskers. The Dixie Chicks belted their refreshing brand of country music on Dallas streets, while Ed crooned along London’s avenues. They did it for extra cash, but the practice and exposure didn’t hurt either.
Busking dates back hundreds of years, perhaps even as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. During the Middle Ages, minstrels and troubadours traveled from town to town, playing the lute or harp and telling lyrical stories. In the U.S., medicine shows, circus acts, and one-man bands made the rounds in the 19th century. Performers collected donations by passing a hat.
It’s not much different today. Street players across the country still toot their horns, hoping to score quick cash while doing what they love—entertaining others. For some buskers in the South, playing for tips is simply a side gig, something to do in the evenings or weekends for fun and a little profit. For others, busking is a way of life.
Abby Roach — Asheville, NC
Abby Roach sets up on her front porch wearing a pair of tan overalls rolled up at the ankles. Her feet are bare, and her arms are long, thin, and muscular. With her hair pulled back into a short ponytail, she takes a seat and gets ready to record a YouTube video with her occasional music partner Chris Rodrigues.
Chris starts playing the guitar and belting “Angels in Heaven” with enough grit in his throat to make you wonder if he eats gravel. His approach is raw. He sings the lyrics, “I know I've been changed . . . the angels in heaven done signed my name,” with the conviction of a Southern Baptist preacher. But of the two performers, it’s Abby’s musical skills that have driven over 28 million people to watch the YouTube video. Her instrument? Spoons.
Thirty-nine-year-old Abby was born in Wichita, Kansas, but she spends most of her time in Asheville living out of a small bus with a seven-year-old beagle named Willie. She started playing the spoons 15 years ago “because I was hungry,” she says.
She train-hopped and hitchhiked the country back then, crossing paths with musical travelers who busked for a living. One of those travelers “borrowed” spoons from Paula Deen’s restaurant in Savannah. He used them to teach Abby how to hold spoons and run them down her fingers. She slowly figured out the rest on her own, practicing marching cadences while walking down highways thumbing for rides. Over time, playing for tips put food in her belly and a dream in her heart for all cities to welcome street performers.
Today Abby meets with city councils to share her thoughts about the economic advantages of busking communities. She goes by the professional name Abby the Spoon Lady and makes a living off paid events, music sales, and her YouTube channel. Her 270,000 subscribers love her videos, such as, “So what if I don’t have teeth,” and her solos in which she strikes her spoons like a professional tap dancer. But when she can, she busks.
“Busking isn’t about the money anymore,” says Abby, even though she’s gotten tipped as much as $300 by a single fan. “It’s about performing on the streets. I will always busk as often as I can.”
Chris Rodrigues — Asheville, NC
For Chris Rodrigues, a license plate isn’t just a license plate. Attach jingle bells and a strap, and it’s a foot tambourine. Throw in a resonator guitar, harmonica, and his raspy vocals, and Chris is a one-man band.
“I knew music was all I ever wanted to do since I was four and my parents bought me a guitar and drums,” says Chris, now 30 years old.
Chris started street performing in 2013 because he needed the money. He cleaned houses for a couple of years, but for many buskers, other jobs just don’t last long. He’d rather be outside playing.
When he’s not performing with Abby, he sets up on his own in front of the Flat Iron Sculpture on Wall Street in downtown Asheville. He perches on top of a suitcase, wearing his signature top hat, vest, and sunglasses. His red beard is full, and the tips of his handlebar mustache curl upward like the tail of his ginger cat Elliott. He mostly sings old-timey gospel songs, such as, “Don’t Let the Devil Ride,” and, “I Know I’ve Been Changed.”
“I make the arrangements myself, but the words are always about God and Christ,” says Chris. “I wouldn’t want to play if the songs didn’t have a Christian foundation. God gave me this gift and it’s my way of praising Him.”
Sadly, he’s unable to busk as much as he’d like. His mother underwent reconstructive spine surgery in 2019 that left her in a wheelchair. Chris lives with her to help her get out of bed in the morning, back in bed at night, and everything in between. Still, he dreams of making music full-time.
“I want to bring joy to someone’s day when I busk,” says Chris. “I want to make music that makes people smile.”
Trinity Sharpe — Chattanooga, TN
Trinity Sharpe is an off-the-charts beauty with almond-shaped eyes, pouty lips, and honey-brown skin. But when she raises her soprano sax to her lips and starts blowing, she’s not just a pretty face—she’s a gifted artist who bares her soul with every note.
Trinity started playing the viola at age eight. She picked up the saxophone at age 11. By age 12, she’d written her first song.
“I remember it was a happy song and I couldn’t get it out of my head,” says Trinity, 30. “I decided then that the world needed to hear my music.”
Today she writes songs about Jesus and plays in two churches on Sunday mornings. By night, she transforms into a jazz and blues diva, jamming with other musicians at Songbirds on Monday evenings in downtown Chattanooga.
One chilly night in January, Trinity takes the Songbirds stage wearing a black leather jacket and leather pants. She’s surrounded by an all-male band.
As another sax player wraps up a short solo, he gives her a nod. Trinity starts wailing on her soprano sax, her fingers improvising runs with the speed of an Olympic sprinter. It’s sexy and sultry, but more importantly, it’s skillful. It’s no surprise her cousin is legendary jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.
When she busks on the Walnut Street Bridge overlooking the Tennessee River, she’s like a siren, mesmerizing passersby.
“When people and tourists walk by, they smile, sing along, dance, and exude pure joy,” says Trinity, a single mother of three. “Once I even got a marriage proposal!”
Even with a master’s degree in business administration, Trinity’s heart and soul are wrapped up in music. “Just like when I was a small child,” says Trinity, “I still dream that one day I will tour the country and the world, spreading the sounds of my soul to the ears of all people.”
Stephen McCrory — Pensacola, FL
How did an MIT graduate with a degree in physics end up juggling? It all started with a Christmas gift in fifth grade.
“I’d been pogo sticking in the fourth grade and was looking for a new challenge,” remembers Stephen McCrory, 28. “My parents gave me a unicycle.”
Throughout middle school, he competed nationally in races and obstacle courses and played basketball and hockey—all while balanced on a unicycle. He picked up juggling along the way. Then, at MIT, he joined a juggling club and spent one summer performing in Faneuil Hall’s summer street show.
Today Stephen works as a software engineer for IHMC Robotics Lab. That’s where he met fellow engineer and juggler, Sylvain Bertrand, who hails from France. Together they formed the Black Tie Jugglers. Schedules and a lack of appropriate venue space make it tough for the two to perform together.
“Pensacola has an established music scene and growing comedy scene, but variety shows like mine are almost non-existent,” says Stephen. “The challenge is to find venues that fit the show.”
Busking on the streets of historic Pensacola gives Stephen (and Sylvain when he’s available) a chance to perform freely in open spaces. Stephen draws crowds with his boyish good looks and showman’s personality. He doesn’t make much in tips, but he’s not in it for the money.
“Juggling is currently a hobby, but it’s been a huge part of my life since I was 12,” says Stephen. “If I can ever take time off to perform full-time, I’d really like to.”
Ashley Rose Kent & Mala Patterson — Huntsville, AL
Mala Patterson remembers playing “Sweet Home Alabama” during a Trail of Tears motorcycle ride in Waterloo, Alabama. She was set up with her musical partner Ashley Rose Kent, the other half of Honeysuckle Blue.
“When the main convoy with police escort arrived, they all gave us a thumbs-up,” Mala says. “We still get chills thinking about it.”
The two women met when Mala was working at a music store and Ashley came in looking for fiddle lessons. Between the two of them, they play guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, piano, cajón, drums, spoons, washboards, and cups. “Anything that’ll make a racket,” says Mala. Unfortunately, they both feel like they have to prove themselves every time they perform.
“We struggle to be seen as skilled musicians, not skilled girl musicians,” says Mala. “We can’t count how many times someone has asked us, ‘Who’s going to play the instruments?’”
She recalls a guy backstage at one of their gigs saying, “Why don’t you sit down and be pretty, and I’ll play.” She quipped back, “Why don’t you sit down and be pretty, and I’ll play.”
It’s tough for two young women from small country towns to be taken seriously. Ashley, 16, lives in Speake, Alabama. Not much happens in Speake, “but we have a stop sign,” she muses. She’s homeschooled, volunteers at the elementary school, and dresses as Minnie Mouse for local events.
Mala, who’s old enough to be Ashley’s mom, works as a postal clerk, unloading mail trucks, getting carriers ready for their rounds, and selling stamps. She lives in Broom’s Pond, barely a dot on Alabama’s state map.
To play for tips, they pack their gear and head to Huntsville, home to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. Along downtown’s entertainment district, they burst into songs such as Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and originals such as “Gypsy Soul,” a song that won them a songwriting contest in 2018. And, they always play all their own instruments, thankyouverymuch.
“We want to inspire others—particularly young girls—to pick up instruments and play, sing, move, sway, smile, and dance,” says Ashley. “We want them to love what they do and celebrate who they are.”
Carlos Ivey — Atlanta, GA
Carlos Ivey plugs in a small amp outside The Woodbury Shoppe in Senoia, Georgia, about an hour’s drive southwest of Atlanta. He’s wearing bright red thrift store jeans, an oversized black and white button-down, and sneakers too big for his size-10 feet. “They’re my roommate’s,” he says.
He lays his case on the sidewalk and takes out a viola. Then he reaches into his pocket and drops a few dollars in the case—seed money. He taps each string lightly with his bow, and tunes. He’s ready.
Carlos leans into the viola and begins to play a bit of classical-sounding improvisation. The music is fluid and graceful; the viola itself expresses emotions like a woman in unrequited love. She laughs, weeps, flirts, then relents. He is the master, and she, his mistress.
People slow down to listen. Some stop in their tracks. One by one they drop money in his case. Singles and fives, mostly. Carlos nods in appreciation but keeps playing. It’s another day of work for the 23-year-old.
Carlos started violin lessons at the age of six and since then has taught himself to play “anything with strings,” he says. At 19, he moved in with friends in Atlanta and has busked ever since.
“I remember taking a trip with my girlfriend and meeting up with a friend in a tiny country town in Florida,” he recalls. “We drove to the local Dollar Tree. He played guitar and I played violin. We made over 100 bucks in 45 minutes. That showed me you can make good money as a busker.”
More recently, he remembers scoring big on the Atlanta BeltLine.
“Somebody dropped $180 into my case,” he says. “He was riding a bicycle and didn’t look over 22 years old. He rode past me and then turned back and came to a stop in front of me. Without listening for more than five seconds, he opened his backpack, pulled out a wad of cash, dropped it in my case, and took off.”
Carlos was lucky the cops didn’t run him off. In Atlanta, busking is considered “soliciting” and most areas enforce a “no soliciting” policy. To make ends meet, he picks up paying gigs at coffee shops and weddings, plays hip-hop shows with his roommate (a rapper), and occasionally works for a CBD business.
But like the Dixie Chicks and Ed Sheeran before him, he’s got bigger dreams. “I want to tour the world and release a lot of great music,” says Carlos. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life.”