Livening the heartbeat of Asheville’s sidewalks

By June Bunch – [email protected] – Staff Writer | Feb. 11, 2015 |
Asheville’s street musicians liven each season’s sidewalks with approachable talent, residents say.
Outside Malaprops, the sidewalk stages a duet of drum and banjo for Sam Boultinghouse, an Arkansas native busker. With a 5 o’clock shadow and a grin, he carefully plucks chords into his banjo’s acoustics.
Sitting atop a case for a bass drum, Boultinghouse taps his toes and plays. Meanwhile, the breeze carries fallen autumn leaves that dance with his melodies. Toddlers with their mothers stomp and clap.
“This region has a great old-time scene,” Boultinghouse says as he tunes his strings.
Boultinghouse counts as one of the many heartbeats of Asheville’s street performing scene. The scene compiles musical storytellers and entertainers on almost every block.
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Many acts play multiple instruments, like John Junior Ball, a street performer originally from Mount Olive, North Carolina. With a mandolin, drum set, violin, piano, guitar and a microphone at home, the tall and talented performer tinkers with anything producing sound, he says after performing at Pritchard Park.
“They’re all the same once you get the basic elements,” Ball says.
When Ball speaks of music, he lights up. His sparkle spreads, reflecting on regulars who interact with him between songs. He says the music buskers make on the street creates a sense of community, allowing everyone to relate on a raw level when they take notice.
“I just want people to listen,” Ball says.
Under an umbrella and a hat, Ball plays his Fender with a gentle nature, sitting and watching people’s feet shuffle past, sometimes stopping, sometimes dancing. No matter the walkers’ reactions, they exchange a moment with no stage separating them.
“Busking takes down a lot of boundaries,” says Luke Norton, guitarist for Drayton and the Dreamboats.
As long as enough room separates an act from another, harmony exists amid busking spaces.
These spots, according to Norton, define an interactive code of respect. This self-made code regulates simultaneous acts so performances avoid interrupting each other.
A lot of interactions happen between acts as well.
“You’ll often wait for someone to get done playing and that’s where a lot of the communication comes, during shift change,” Norton says.
Norton traveled from his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, to Asheville by supporting himself with his music.
“I would just bike around with my mandolin and bug street performers until they’d let me play with them,” Norton says, smiling nostalgically.
Eventually, he got the hang of it. Norton played with a few groups, seeing the micro-society of bands trading musicians and exchanging favorite spots to perform, and has since been an involved member of the music community.
Norton, for example, prefers secluded spots because people can hear him better. Depending on the day, regardless of the spot, a busker can spend three or four hours playing and make only a few dollars. This can get disheartening, and it makes for a struggle accompanied with the trade, according to Norton.
With the struggle, there also lies freedom, freedom of picking a schedule, a spot and a tune. Resumes go unneeded on a street corner, and the sidewalk always beckons, Norton says.
Each corner echoes rhythms people come from far away to hear, Boultinghouse says.  The performers themselves travel all different walks of life combining passion with work, according to Boultinghouse.
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“They’re co-workers,” says Erin Derham, the producer of the documentary Buskin’ Blues.
Derham says she noticed artists interact with and tip each other, showing compassion towards each other and displaying unity. When the city government began to propose additional busking regulations, the artists combined their voices, creating the Asheville Busking Collective.
“The perception that people have is that street performers are homeless or they don’t have any other option,” Derham says.
She says this rings far from true. Performers choose to play out of passion, and many store owners welcome buskers in Asheville because when artists perform well, they give stores business, which in turn births a strong, cohesive relationship, according to Derham.
After witnessing the underlying humanity of buskers, Derham enthusiastically says she planned to show others the comradery and importance of buskers’ impact on community.
“It looked like a subculture within the urban streets,” Derham says.
Planning to shoot for just three weeks, Derham instead spent 2 ½ months on the project, funding the film without any grants. Many groups traveled and collectively introduced her to their coming music, so she continuously allowed additional time for the concept to evolve.
When Derham completed the documentary, she says she wanted the first viewing to showcase an exceptional impression.
“I don’t want to show it. I want to have a busking event where buskers are on the most famous stage in Asheville,” Derham says.
This she did.
After completing the daunting task of rounding together traveling performers, Derham managed to create both a concert and film screening at The Orange Peel. Complete with a number of Asheville’s familiar electric violins, washboards, spoons, banjos and accordions from the street, she showed the diversity of the buskers’ talents.

“It shatters the mundane lifestyle people have,” Derham says. “Buskers stop you in your tracks if they’re good.”