Knoxville has a long history of street musicians, with some of the earliest noted public performances of what became known as “country music.” This tradition took something of a hiatus for the last few generations, to the point where many assumed busking was illegal on Knoxville’s streets. But with the rebirth of downtown—and with a more realistic view of what’s permissible by the police—busking has returned. So who are these people who perform on the streets of downtown, and what are their stories? We asked a few of them how they came to be buskers.
Robert C. Maddox
I moved here 43 years ago and I taught business management at the university for about 30 years and retired 14 years ago. I’ve played the saw off and on for 65 years, I didn’t play it every day. I saw a fellow on the stage 65 years ago playing it. I liked the sound of it, so I went home and got my dad’s carpenter saw out and banged around on it until I figured out how to make a note and then I kept going until I could change notes. I played a carpenter saw for quite awhile and then started buying musical saws. This one I’ve had for about a month; it came from France. It’s kind of the Cadillac of saws. Some people don’t know what it is and some say they haven’t heard it since they were children, but it’s an old-timey instrument. It was popular in the country when people didn’t have money for musical instruments, so they would play the saw and they’d play the washboard and spoons. Anything they had around the house that they could make music with.
I used to play the saxophone and a little bit on the piano. My mother was a piano teacher and I wasn’t a very good student. I grew up in San Antonio and I was born in Birmingham, but we moved to San Antonio when I was about 2 and a half years old. I grew up there, worked at the University of Texas, and then taught at different universities for a few years until I landed in Knoxville at UT. I’m 78 years old, pushing hard on 79. I used to come down here and have lunch or get coffee and watch people, then I’d go home and play my saw. And my sons, they’d come over to the house and they’d say, “Why don’t you take your saw and go down to the Square? You can spend all day and watch people.” And you know, if you’re watching people, they don’t like you looking at them—unless you’re playing a saw. And then they don’t care, you could sit and stare at them all day long. So I started that last September and I couldn’t believe people were actually willing to hear me play, and I was enjoying it.
I come down for the farmer’s market and in the evenings when it gets a little cooler. I’ll be sitting home thinking, “What can I do?” And then I’ll think, “I’m going down to the Square to play.” It’s fun. You see the most interesting people in downtown Knoxville, and I enjoy it. (Liv McConnell & Jack Evans)
I’m reading my poems that I wrote myself as I grew up. I never knew they were really good until I read it to someone one day, and they said, “You should get your poems out.” And so I took the advice, I bought myself a chalkboard and chalk, and sat out here and started reading poems. I have nothing to do besides doctor’s appointments, I must do something with my spare time. I have epilepsy, neurofibromatosis.
I was homeless before. I recently just got in the YWCA, I’ve been there a month now. I had a place of my own, I had a mental breakdown in a group home and they kicked me out after they made me sign off my lease, and made me drop out of school, too, and I haven’t been able to get back into school and that’s really bothering me. So I ended up being homeless. My mom let me stay with her for a couple weeks, and my aunt let me stay with her for a couple weeks, but she wanted rent money and I didn’t have money then so I had to go to KARM and stay there. I was homeless for about three months.
[Selling poetry] helps me to not be isolated, and I have a habit of doing that. So for me to force myself to come out here and read poems, it makes me feel good because it makes me feel like people are liking what I wrote myself, something I created myself, and it makes me feel good that I made someone else happy, too.
I don’t sell my poems, I do it for free. If they want to give me money, its all up to them. I feel like they should be able to come down to a place and not be bothered by people to pay for something that they can find on their phone or at a store or a fancy restaurant, like you hear music there or a fancy poem there. It should be free and you should not make someone pay you to make you hear something you wrote, especially if you don’t know if they’re going to like it.
It makes me feel good that I can write these poems and that I have a talent even though I’m the youngest of my family. It feels good that I can do something. (McCord Pagan)
When I first came out to Market Square, I think people were just shocked to see an African-American cellist with dreadlocks. You don’t really see that that often, in a classical musician at that. I get all types of looks, I really do. You’ll have someone come by with their face snarled up at me, then you’ll have somebody come by and say, “Oh my gosh! That’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever heard.” I didn’t even know this was busking (at first). I didn’t know what a busker was. I just call it practicing. I had really bad stage fright, so one of my friends advised me to go outside and play. I needed an environment that would put a little stress on me, but one that wasn’t high-stakes. Now I don’t mind if a person stops because I just love practicing outside, I can breath, and I’m free. It’s really wonderful. Sometimes I’ll be out here when it rains—if I can find a good place to sit under one of the roofs so my cello won’t get wet—and I just play to see what kind of colors I can get from the rain. I get joy from watching people and I get peace from being in cool places, (and I think) “How can I translate that with the cello?” I come out here a lot just to get that type of experience and intuition, and that tangible instruction.
I was born and raised in Knoxville. I’ve been playing the cello for 10 years. I started off in the eighth-grade at Vine Middle Magnet School. By the time I got into high school I had joined the Knoxville Youth Symphony, and from there I got into the Cello Studio at the University of Tennessee. I got my bachelor’s in music, string performance with a solo concentration, so I’m a classically-trained cellist. My grandmother who passed away, her name is Sharon Welch, I used to be around her a lot and she would say, “You have to watch what you put in your ears,” and “You can’t listen to everything rap,” so I used to listen to classical and jazz (on the radio). I could just listen to it and it would just take me away, and now music just gives me a peace of mind. It’s kind of a cleansing things for me.
I just graduated from UT, but I don’t own a cello. I volunteer at The Joy of Music School, so they let me use their cello since I give lessons there. The cello I did have was a gift from a Knoxville Symphony Orchestra cellist. They gave me their old cello when I was in high school, but my junior year of college someone broke into my apartment and stole it. That almost made me give up. I was one of those under-resource kids who just happened to find my talent and be at the right place at the right time. Cellos are expensive. They range from a couple thousand dollars to $100,000. I talked to my professor about it and he told me that if I can get my hands on a $7,000-$8,000 cello I can grow on it. I’ll start in October giving concerts at the Emporium Center to help me raise money for a cello. There’s also a GoFundMe out for it: gofundme.com/jeremiahscellofund (Clay Duda)
Bodhi (aka, “Bo”)
I’ve only been playing banjo for probably two weeks. I played guitar for 10 years and then I got sick of it, decided I’m going to play something else. Right now I’m actually trying to save up some money to buy this banjo from my friend before I get out of town next week. Everybody and their grandpa nowadays plays the guitar. You come out here to the Square, you’re going to see 10 guitar players just about every day. It kind of doesn’t have much novelty to it like the banjo does. A lot of people, just cause I’m sitting here holding a banjo, they’ll come up and want to talk to me. If I was sitting here just holding a guitar, no interest, you know? Everybody’s bored with guitar.
I’ve been out traveling around for a good while now, pretty much since I was 17. I’m almost 27 now. I started off just hitchhiking, and then in my hitchhiking adventures I met some train-hoppers, and I didn’t know people still did that, and so I was like, “Wow, I’m gonna give that a whirl one day.” And so I started hopping trains, and then I became obsessed with the railroad, and then I got good at it. So now I can ride around the country for free pretty much anywhere I want to go. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to do this for the rest of my life, sometimes I feel like I’m ready to settle down and just be a farmer. I travel out of sheer contempt and resentment towards the way society functions today. I don’t really want much to do with it, you know? I’d rather just be young, dumb, and free. Just modern society, I don’t get it.
I think in my past life—I was probably born in the late 1800s—I was probably a hobo that got thumped in the head by a railroad cop and died right there next to the tracks or something, who knows? I was born in western North Carolina, the mountains. Growing up I lived all through the mountains, nowhere in particular. I was born right outside of Asheville, though. I don’t like going there no more. There’s too many other places to see. I’ve still got a few more states to check off my list. I’m hoping to go conquer the Pacific Northwest this year before winter comes around, go ride some trains out there, do bum stuff. From there I have no idea what I’m going to do. I’ve tried to do the 9 to 5, I’ve tried to stare at computer screens, I’ve tried to work factory lines, and I don’t know, I’d rather just find odd jobs farming and landscaping. (Jack Evans)
I’ve been coming out here for a couple of years; I know all the regulars out here. I love rock and roll, I love folk, blues, jazz, I write my own stuff. So it’s all a combination of everything. Right now, I’ve got the Rolling Stones right here, I’ve got Steve Miller Band, Replacements, some Kinks, the Beatles.
The cash helps, it definitely helps, but I’m also coming out here because I like to sit out here on a beautiful day and play music. I’m not worried about if I make too much money here—as long as I can make enough to get out of the parking garage, I’m fine. Here lately, Market Square has not been very generous to the musicians who come out here. I don’t know if it’s been overcrowded by too many people or what, but when I first started out here, I was making about $40 to $60 every weekend I came out here. Now it’s a little down. Hope they don’t complain when all the musicians are gone.
If you come out here with just the mindset of trying to make a bunch of money, you’re probably going to get disappointed after a couple of hours. I try to work on my own music and have certain personal goals, because right here there’s not as much pressure as ‘Okay, I’m going to get paid $300 for four hours here.’ It’s just whatever. I can experiment all I want and write all I want without having to worry about what they really think, because if they’re not going to pay, it doesn’t matter. For people who want experience playing in front of people, this would be a great place to come out. A lot of professionals started out that way. Chet Atkins busked on Market Square. Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash—they [were] just walking around playing. That’s all they did. (Jack Evans)
I’m originally from Ohio, but my family moved to Maryville in 1970. Save for one other fellow who used to play in the Old City, I’m probably one of the oldest ones here. I was in the Old City for a while, and I’ve played here in Market Square after they developed it down here, so it’s just myself and one other sax player who were the first ones to play down here. And I’ve fought court cases against cops trying to stop me, and in all the communities that I knew, there’s never been a law against playing. The first time the police tried to stop us, all the business owners got behind us and emailed the law department, and they emailed right back, “There’s never been a law against playing on the street here.” … Later on, two rookie cops tried to stop me, and we basically beat them in court several times. It’s very clear now that it’s legal to play music on the street in Knoxville. They don’t give us any problems anymore. The ordinance says you can’t block pedestrian paths, you can’t play past 10 o’ clock, and you can’t be plugged in. That’s the only thing the ordinance says. I’ve always abided by that.
I’ve always leaned much towards folk music. I like a lot of other kinds—jazz and swing and things like that—there’s a lot of other stuff, but I always lean much more towards folk music, because I’m very much into lyrical content. I say I do about 15 songs for the mundane minds that have only listened to commercial radio all their life, so I have to do songs that are familiar to them. But I always intersperse that with four or five songs from public-radio artists or even some 50-cent tapes from people I’d never even heard of that I bought at Goodwill and just has a great song, a great family-oriented song. I do much more family-oriented stuff—I don’t play bars, I don’t play big noisy places where no one’s listening at all anyway. The thing you don’t get in bars and other places like that is children. The children are the only ones aware out here anyway—everyone else is on their cell phone. But the children know what you’re doing…
It used to be, when I first started in the Old City 14 years ago, if someone’s reaching in their pocket as they’re approaching me, they’re reaching in their pocket to tip me. Now they’re reaching in their pocket to get their cell phone. It’s been a little harder, but it’s still enjoyable to me. It’s my way of serving the community. I’ve been playing music for 40-some years, and I’m still just basically a rhythm guitar player, but that’s why I incorporated harmonica into everything I do, so I have a lead. I’ve played harmonica longer than I have guitar. I’ve never played in bands. It’s funny—all the musicians I know in town, but no one ever seems to have a desire to start a band with me or anything, or even most of the time ask me to come up and play. Every once in a while I’ve sat in, but not very often. But that’s alright with me. I’ve pretty much got down what I play, and I play it my way anyway.
I’m a writer even more so than playing music. I hitchhiked all over the country for 15 years with nothing, basically, but I would sit up all night long in Waffle Houses, places like that, writing poetry. I’ve written well over 7,000 poems. For what I write, I have a lot of content—a lot of it’s based on how to live a peaceful life, a non-judgmental life, how to be broader in your thinking and explorative. Somebody doing their sappy love song, their personal life love song, it’s not that important to me.
When you’re playing on the street particularly, so many people pass you by. If there’s one line in that song that sticks in their head, it makes them think or could change their whole life. I look for songs that have a little philosophy in them but also make them think about their family, about their loved ones. I’m out here almost any time when it’s not raining. Like I said, that’s my way of serving the community. I’ve got a very, very minimum Social Security, and I just got housing after 15 years of homelessness. But I love this community. So many people have helped me here so many times along the way. I’ve never been to school, never been married, anything like that, but I go to the Downtown Grill and Brewery and I’m hanging out with judges, architects, professors, journalists.
I’m so proud of Knoxville, just the people as a whole for developing the downtown area and how it’s so alive now, compared to eight, nine years ago when it was absolutely dead. Now it’s fully alive, and I’m really proud. I brag about Knoxville anywhere I go. (Jack Evans)
I’m most recently from Carrboro, N.C., but I’m on the road. I’m headed towards Texas, so I’m just stopping different places, seeing what’s up. First time in Tennessee… I’ve just been around here most of today, got in pretty late last night. I like the vibe. I’m visiting my sister [in Texas], but I’ve also never really been out there. It’s time to explore, find myself, and play music. [Performing] has been a recent thing. My roommate’s a musician, and he was hosting an open mic recently, and he was like, “Christina, you should come out.” So ever since then I’ve been doing open mics, small gigs, stuff like that. This is my second time busking. It’s a hard gruel. It’s not really enough to pay for the parking. It’s hard, but it’s really good practice for me to just play for myself and not care about the audience or the reaction or the fact that someone’s actually listening to you. It’s just good practice to play in front of people.
I’ve been playing different instruments for a long time, but I’ve only just started to write my own stuff recently. When I was a kid, I couldn’t hold a tune, so that’s funny. I’ve obviously learned a little bit since then. I took piano lessons, like classical piano, and I was always good at the musical side of it but didn’t like to practice, so it didn’t really go anywhere. Now that I’ve been using it to write songs, it’s a lot more helpful.
I’m going to Chattanooga tonight, and Nashville after that—it’s a little intimidating, because everyone’s trying to make it there. I will definitely not shine at the open mics, so it’ll be interesting, And then Tuscaloosa and New Orleans, Baton Rouge possibly. It would be nice to get a little bit more change to help out with the travels, but it’s not really cutting it—$1.50 is not really where it’s at right now. (Jack Evans)
Do you have a favorite busker? Share your pictures of your favorite Knoxville buskers and we’ll put together an album at facebook.com/knoxmercury. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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