Spoon Player Went From Train Hopper to Trending Folk Star
Train hoppers are part of America’s cultural fabric. From the late 19th century through the 1940s, hundreds of thousands of itinerant people in America made their lives on the fringe of society, traveling the rails, picking up work wherever they could. The subculture developed its own mores and folklore. And while today there are far fewer “travelers” than a century ago, their influence on folk art remains, especially in evolving interpretations of traditional music.
Kansas-born Abby Roach rode the rails for several years. Today she’s settled in Asheville, and has become the surprise star of the city’s busker scene, weaving what she refers to as “modern hobo culture” into her music and storytelling. Branded by fans as Abby the Spoon Lady, Roach has transmuted a past full of hard times and edge survival into a genuinely optimistic art form embraced by the mountain city and nearby communities.
Living by different rules can mean that conventional notions of time are less important. Roach isn’t even sure when she first hopped a train. “I’d have to think hard on the year,” she says. “I was 23.” She backpacked all around the United States, writing, taking pictures, and developing a remarkable facility for playing spoons as a way to contribute to the early American folk music being made by her fellow travelers.
Roach ended up in Asheville by mistake. “I took a wrong train,” she says matter-of-factly. But the city’s character stirred something inside of her, so she stayed. And, too, “I already knew a bunch of folks here,” she says. “A lot of creative folks who used to travel had kind of set roots in Asheville.” Unlike in many other American cities, in Asheville street performing isn’t prohibited by law; for Roach, that added to its charms.
“Traveling minstrels are a little bit like migratory farmworkers,” she says. “They’re going where the work is. And when tourist towns outlaw [busking], a lot of times they’re outlawing it for reasons that don’t necessarily have to do with street performing.”
Teaming up with multi-instrumentalist Chris Rodrigues, Roach began playing on the streets of the city, corners like Wall and Battery with lots of tourist traffic. With her virtuosic ability on one of the world’s oldest percussion devices, and her startlingly old-fashioned affect — she is only 37 — Roach attracted national attention, appearing in documentary shorts, including filmmaker Justin Johnson’s Abby the Spoon Lady, released in 2017. Last fall, she was the subject of a long-form profile piece in The Washington Post Magazine, “Pain, Perseverance, and an Unlikely Journey to Viral Fame,” written by David Rowell.
Today, she and Rodrigues are asked to play bigger and bigger stages. But Roach still leads the Asheville Buskers Collective, a group that advocates for the unique concerns of the local street-performer community. And, for the past two years, she has hosted “Busker Broadcast,” a weekly program on AshevilleFM community radio.
All of those endeavors expand upon Roach’s treasure trove of songs and stories, archival gems she collected during her days on the rails. “I love the entire idea of musical anthropology,” she says. “I like to compile stuff so that other people can enjoy some of the things that I’ve collected. And I’d like to do more.”
Roach’s raised profile comes as a bit of a shock to her. “I don’t necessarily want to be famous,” she says. “I used to wear my PJs to Walmart, and now I can’t, as I usually end up taking a selfie or two with folks while shopping.” But she and Rodrigues still busk on the streets of Asheville. “We play on the street as often as we can,” she says. Roach hopes to build upon the notoriety she’s gained; she and Rodrigues are currently seeking management representation. “I have no idea if all of this will pass,” she admits.
Rather ironically, Roach makes full use of technology to bring this folkloric subculture to a wider audience. “In the Internet age, a lot of times folks are learning new” — or new to them — “music through YouTube and Spotify,” she points out. With more than 70 performance and how-to videos, Abby the Spoon Lady’s YouTube page boasts nearly 150,000 subscribers.
Roach and Rodrigues produce those videos themselves. “Chris does all of our recording, and I do the video stuff using Adobe After Effects,” she reveals. “We pretty much do everything DIY.” Coupled to current technology, that do-it-yourself aesthetic helps the music find a fresh fanbase. “Folks react pretty well to stuff that’s shot on the porch,” Roach says with a warm chuckle.
But it all began on the street. “I got hooked on performing when I saw just how satisfied everybody was with something so simple: us playing music with silverware.”
Abby the Spoon Lady & Chris Rodrigues play the Veh Stage at the Tryon Fine Arts Center (34 Melrose Ave.) on Saturday, June 22, 7:30pm. $20. For more information, call 828-859-8322 or see tryonarts.org. www.spoonladymusic.com.