Tomb Nelson and The Stillwater Hobos mashup “Take a Whiff on Me” and “Tell It To Me”

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Tomb Nelson and The Stillwater Hobos at Bele Chere 2012.

You might not think that a half-dozen clean-shaven young men belting songs from the 1930s about cocaine addiction would be a natural crowd pleaser in a street festival, but you’d be wrong. Maybe it has something to do with their mashup addition of the thematically similar Old Crow Medicine Show tune “Tell It To Me,” which certainly seemed to please many in the audience.

Or maybe it was the brigade of mostly female fans, many of whom made it very clear that they were enjoying the testosterone on display at least as much as the music. That, or cocaine use is just a heckova lot more popular these days than I realized.

Here, the guys from Tomb Nelson and The Stillwater Hobos perform the American folk song “Take a Whiff on Me” (covered by everyone from Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie to The White Stripes and Old Crow Medicine Show) to the passersby during Bele Chere 2012. Continue reading

Tomb Nelson and The Stillwater Hobos perform an Irish medley at Bele Chere

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Tomb Nelson and The Stillwater Hobos playing to a sizable crowd on the streets of Asheville during the 2012 Bele Chere festival.

What do you get when you combine Asheville’s most high-profile busking boy band with the largest street festival in the region? You get a great performance, that’s what. Playing this medley of Irish tunes “The Foggy Dew” and “Come Out, Ye Black and Tans,” Tomb Nelson and The Stillwater Hobos had drawn a crowd to rival acts on the actual Bele Chere 2012 stages.

For those of you who aren’t aware of Asheville’s Bele Chere festival, it’s very much like many street festivals across the world. There are vendor booths, activities for kids, tons of food (with heavy emphasis on local eateries in recent years) and several stages of live music. Continue reading

Mike Gray covers “Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right” on his Go-Box

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Mike Gray takes a smoke break from playing his Go-Box.

It’s a rare enough thing to harness one’s passion and dedication long enough to master any musical instrument. But to create a musical instrument, develop techniques for playing it, and then become a master of that instrument … it’s practically the stuff of musical legend. But for Austin-based musician Mike Gray, it was just something to do with a broken guitar.

Here, Gray performs the Blind Willie Johnson tune “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right” near the Grove Arcade earlier this year. Continue reading

Logan Mason performs “Carved Shaped Heart”

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Singer-songwriter Logan Mason performs in front of Malaprop’s in downtown Asheville, NC.

He’s more introspective and earnest-seeming, and far less bombastic than most of the street performers in Asheville, but that’s to Logan Mason’s advantage. His songs seem intensely personal, and his downcast-eyes style of performance makes him seem like an unlikely musician to be playing to strangers for tips. He’s almost the definition of unassuming, wearing a plain white T-shirt and a “Bass Pro Shops” cap that I’m fairly certain isn’t some ironic hipster statement.

When I asked why I hadn’t seen him play before, Mason told me that he’d only just moved to town a few months ago from Jackson, MS. “I just kind of ended up here,” he told me with a shrug. Continue reading

Logan Mason performs “Love Shall Fill”

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Singer-songwriter Logan Mason (aka Elk Tracks) performs in front of Malaprop’s.

There aren’t a lot of quiet, introspective buskers on the streets of Asheville, NC. And for obvious reasons. When you are competing with the rumble of engines, the sounds of construction, the incessant nattering of small talk from passersby and even the sound-diluting downtown wind, it’s hard for a quiet song to compete. And if your song is actually about something truly interesting, or even beautiful, it’s a rare person who will stop in their tracks and listen. Loud performers with simple, belting songs tend to attract the most attention, and the lion’s share of the tips.

But there’s something to be said for contrast, and in a town filled with performers who are more than content to be the center of attention, it’s a quiet performer like Logan Mason who really stands out. Continue reading

Banjo Ben Shirley plays “Sugar Hill”

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Banjo Ben Shirley performing in front of the Woolworth Walk in downtown Asheville, NC.

In the muggy heat after a week of rain, Richmond, VA-based busker Banjo Ben Shirley performs the traditional tune “Sugar Hill” in front of the Woolworth Walk in downtown Asheville, NC. You may know him from his previous appearances on Busk Break with Abby the Spoon Lady, but he’s not exactly a slouch when it comes to solo performance. With a clear voice, a tambourine on his foot keeping time, and no shortage of talent, there’s a lot to like in his take on a classic tune. Continue reading

Banjo Ben Shirley performs “Feast Here Tonight”

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Banjo Ben Shirley performing near the Woolworth Walk in downtown Asheville, NC.

“I’m going to play this song because your fuzzy microphone cover reminds me of a rabbit,” Ben Shirley told me as he warmed up. After a moment, he added, “It was on the Three Pickers record, so this can be a tribute to Doc and Earl passing this year.”

I first met “Banjo Ben” Shirley last year, when he came through town with Abby “The Spoon Lady” Roach on their never-ending busking tour. Continue reading

Dan Cioper and Shawn Bayley perform “Wheel By Wheel”

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Dan Cioper and Shawn Bayley perform in front of the Iron Sculpture in downtown Asheville, NC.

Austin-based folk musician Dan Cioper may not actually be on a formal tour, but he has been playing around the region with his New Orlean’s-based guitarist pal Shawn Bayley for the last few weeks. Here, the duo perform Cioper’s original song “Wheel By Wheel” in front of the Iron Sculpture in downtown Asheville, as darkening skies threatened rain. The duo had been packing up to move on when I encountered them, but it didn’t take much convincing to get them to play one last song, even as the clouds above began to drizzle. Continue reading

Caster covers “Your Biscuits Are Big Enough For Me”

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Caster performs the Bo Carter tune “Your Biscuits Are Big Enough For Me” in front of the Iron Sculpture in downtown Asheville, NC.

Recently unearthed from the Busk Break archives, Caster covers this classic “dirty blues” tune in 2011!

At the time of this recording, banjo-playing busker Caster had yet to write a song he felt comfortable playing in front of a camera. So I asked him, “Do you have a cover that you feel you really love? A song that you’ve truly made your own?”

He paused, stroked his thin chin beard, and thought. Then with a smile that seemed to indicate he was a little embarrassed, he said “I’ve become rather attached to a song called ‘Your Biscuits Are Big Enough For Me'”
Continue reading

The Archaic return to Busk Break with a trio of tunes

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The Archaic perform near Pritchard Park in downtown Asheville, NC.

It’s hard not to have a hint of prejudice when you encounter a guitar-and-banjo busking duo. Almost certainly, you’ll prepare yourself to hear some nasal-pitched bluegrass tune, or maybe some gritty, jazzed-up novelty blues song. What you probably won’t expect is to hear music that owes as much to Marcus Mumford and Thom Yorke as it does to Earl Scruggs or Lawrence Marrero. That’s exactly what makes The Archaic so interesting. Continue reading