Matchsticks: the Lives of Four Local Buskers

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This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, visit Loumag.com

During Christmastime 1995, Aim Me Smiley and Renee Ananda wrapped themselves in battery-operated bulbs, wandered New Orleans’ French Quarter, looking for a street corner where they could play music. The 20somethings became friends as teens at a Charismatic church in Louisville. With age they lost faith in religion, and after individual spiritual journeys, the two reconnected, wide alive, ready for adventure. The Louisville natives were new to New Orleans, and to their instruments. Smiley wore a Santa hat and carried her acoustic guitar while Ananda toted the accordion she initially played in a dream. They caroled, forgetting words and chords. The regular performers told them they needed a name.

They decided on Troubadours of Divine Bliss and usually played their Americana-Gypsy music for a couple hours after dinner, before folks got too NOLA drunk. They’d set up on the corner of Toulouse and Royal, try some originals, find their voices, share who they are. Strangers would sing along, provide percussion on a wrought-iron gate. The homeless would tip food stamps or 10-year anniversary Alcoholics Anonymous coins, swipe a buck from the guitar case (all good, considering the duo’s take-what-you-need philosophy). They would make 100 dollars, a rose, a nugget of weed. Christmases later, a veteran would trade the camouflage bandana he’d been wearing since the Vietnam War for Smiley’s Santa hat.

Since their initial three-year growth spurt in New Orleans, the two have busked the States, Canada, Europe’s cobblestone pedestrian streets; lived out of their car; gained some godchildren; returned to Louisville. On Sundays at the Monkey Wrench, they host Church on the Rocks, an open-mic night in its seventh year. Their friendship of 30 years has evolved into a creative and romantic partnership.

“We live in a shack without running water and have an outhouse,” Smiley says. “We are starvin’ artists, but the life experience and inspiration of doing what you love is rich in reward.” Their place sits on 30 acres lining the Hoosier National Forest, a quiet place to unload the road.

In celebration of 2013’s Blissmas” — their Christmas celebration — Ananda, now 45, and Smiley, 43, played to a crowd of mostly familiar faces at Cliftons Pizza on Frankfort Avenue. They floated around the room, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” crooning about Mr. Grinch, then originals, one of which promises that all you really gotta do is love.

Jeff Harper, 25, takes his acoustic guitar to NuLu for the Flea Off Market and Trolley Hop, where he’ll see a few others on violin or banjo. Harper wakes early to sing at farmers’ markets. Most often he’ll play on Bardstown Road, near his parents’ home on Bonnycastle Avenue, where he stays in the unfinished basement. Usually in a spotlight of afternoon sun, he’ll set up in the grass by the boutique Hey Tiger, surround himself with color — tie-dye shirts, sidewalk chalk, hula hoops — as a way to attract others.

Harper knows there aren’t any licenses or permits required to play publicly within the city. He’s learned other busking rules along his always-unplanned road trips to California: Don’t play too closely to someone else; Witty signs — “Traveling folk, hungry and broke” — grab attention; “There will always be a cop telling you to move on.”

There are days when Harper doesn’t make a dime. “I’ll be out playing for 12 hours in the San Diego sun, turning lobster-red, singing till my voice is shot, and nobody looks at me twice,” he says. It’s easy to draw people in, but hard to get money. They’ll give beer or cigarettes instead. He remembers these Navy dudes, fresh off the boat, who appreciated Harper’s music so much that they spent an evening together, bought him a bottle of Elijah Craig, tipped $50.

Harper does odd jobs in Louisville, now as a doorman some nights at his favorite bar, the Hideaway Saloon on Bardstown Road. He doesn’t often busk in winter. His fingers go numb. He tried once, putting hand warmers in his palms and taping his fingers together, a guitar pick in sticky grip.

Anthony Sutton hoots and hollers, intentionally straining his voice to abrasiveness. “By this time tomorrow,” he screams, “I’ll be hitchhikin’ down route infinity.” He quickly hits chords on his Harmony Patrician acoustic, his first and only guitar, worn with scratches, bloodstains from his fingers. All skinny five-feet-eight-inches of him dances the street corner wherever he is, Mississippi or Georgia or Third and Magnolia for the St. James Court Art Show, stomping booted or shoeless, sometimes stinkin’ to high heaven, his brown dirty curls shaking and sticking to his sweaty forehead.

Sutton, 22, tried the busking routine in a couple of Asheville, N.C., venues, joined by friends in his trio (aka Star Wars, aka The Mesoamerican God-Kings of Grable, aka many other names). On a stage, the show fell flat on its face. “It’s like hanging the Mona Lisa in a bathroom,” Sutton says. “It’s just not the proper setting.” That’d be the streets, playing over car music and hissing buses and passing conversations. “In the American roots tradition, the street corner is the venue,” he says. He thinks of soapbox preachers, minstrel shows, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lead Belly, both of whom began as street musicians. Harry Smith’s six-CD Anthology of American Folk Music and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass are his bibles.

The others in the trio are walking the West Coast sands to warm Mexico right now. After weird warnings not to travel, Sutton decided to stay in Louisville. Fine, because two of his best friends, practically his brothers, live here. (Besides Louisville, he claims his birthplace of Fort Wayne, Ind., and the mountains of Asheville as his other homes.) He crashes in their cleaned garage in Old Louisville — drums and street-found piano in one corner, mattress on the floor in another. It’s more comfortable than the rickety boxcars he’s slept in before. They’ve renamed it “The Parish” because Sutton recently became an ordained minister for the hell of it. (Thank you, Internet.)

Sutton doesn’t have a “real” job and hasn’t since he started supporting himself by busking two years ago. He wakes up whenever, dressed in the same outfit for days, recently a loose hunter-green sweater and black jeans. Drinks his morning coffee black, plays his guitar, ragtime and blues, eats whatever ditched food the boys bring home from the St. Matthews Rainbow Blossom, where they work and where Sutton last had a job in the produce section. 

Soon, he’ll go to the library, find a book by Woody Guthrie, another great street musician. “What was once a torch is now a matchstick,” Sutton says about busking. “But I will gladly carry a matchstick and run with it.”

 Amen, Reverend.

images courtesy of shutterstock
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