As official days go, National Play Music on the Porch Day seems to occupy that unsettled space between National Submarine Day and National Periodic Table Day — but as working musicians, Abby Roach and Chris Rodrigues were willing to do their part. The duo, who had been playing together for several years, decided to film and upload a video. On this Saturday in August 2017, musicians from some 400 cities around the world were reportedly doing the same. Fellow street performer and dulcimer player Lyle Rickards was there at Abby’s trailer, on the outskirts of Asheville, N.C., ready to hit the record button.
In the video, Chris sports a red mustache that twirls upward at the ends like two sea horses on their backs. He’s wearing the outfit he wears pretty much every day, unless he’s mowing the yard: black coachman’s hat; vest, pants, boots and suspenders, all black; a bolo tie and a white dress shirt. For Chris, white represents the light of God, black the evil all around. Abby is in her usual garb, too: camel-colored overalls, barefoot. With a white wall behind them hellbent on turning gray and wooden planks as weathered as an ancient pier, the clip could easily be making the case that the two have time-traveled from a 19th-century Appalachian tintype straight into YouTube.
Holding his resonator guitar, Chris sits on a suitcase that he uses as a bass drum; a foot tambourine is strapped to his other boot. He picks off the opening lines of the traditional song sometimes called “I Know I’ve Been Changed,” but which he has rearranged and called “Angels in Heaven.” Abby, seated on a metal chair, waits through a few instrumental verses, then, with her industrial-style spoons ensnared in a tight fist, she launches a clattering that, to behold it, appears to be as much circus trick as musicianship. As she bats her spoons, they snap at each other like castanets; she isn’t controlling the tempo but weaving in and out of the vocal melody. Tap dancing with her hands.
Though Chris is playing guitar and singing — his delivery dyed in the blues and dipped in gospel — it’s impossible to take your eyes off Abby. Her lean arms float across her torso as she smacks the spoons from above, below, against her thigh in a hypnotic fervor. But there is this, too: Abby has no teeth. As such, there’s an engrossing animation playing out across her face: She looks skyward as her mouth becomes a small button; her face balls up slightly as she locks in again on Chris. With her hair the indiscriminate color of an old pot, guessing her age is futile. (She is 36.) At the halfway point, a collarless dog breezes by. After four minutes, the performance draws to a close, which Abby punctuates by striking an old service bell with her foot.
In reviewing the video, they weren’t thrilled with what they saw, exactly — but then, they never were. Abby posted it, and almost immediately it began finding its way to computers and smartphones throughout the world.
There is an endless sea of musical performances on YouTube: precocious kids showing a flash of early talent; passionate amateurs belting out cover songs and earnest originals; iconic bands captured in some tender, unscripted moment between fan and singer. And it’s no more possible to predict which new clip will attract attention than it is to foretell the individual fish that will end up on your hook. But almost every video on YouTube, especially those that go viral, offers some fragment of a story for viewers to latch on to. With this one, attuned viewers could pick up on the broad suggestions of both perseverance and hardship. There were other questions, too. Had an ethnomusicologist just discovered this “Spoon Lady” playing her arcane instrument in some mountain holler? Or was she a Brooklyn hipster injecting some Li’l Abner-style authenticity into the modern folk scene? And what was Abby’s relationship to Chris? Sister and brother? Mother and son?
Inside Abby’s crowded trailer are two 52-inch computer screens side by side — a gleaming, imposing information-command center that is so unexpected, given the environs, that the first time I stepped in, this past spring, I had to wonder if she was really a CIA operative instead of one of the few full-time spoons players on the planet. The evening of the video, the duo played a gig at a nearby venue called White Horse Black Mountain. After their gig, Abby was back in her trailer sitting at her keyboard and tracking the video in amazement as it snaked around on social media in multiple countries. Abby, well-versed (and self-taught) in data analytics, could see that in addition to blanketing the United States, it was reaching people in Ireland, Scotland, England, Australia, Brazil. She learned it had been seen by a million people — a rate of success that infinitely surpassed anything else she’d put out. Today, it has had more than 10 million views on YouTube and has been seen on Facebook more than 20 million times.
In particular, many women were inspired by Abby’s rejection of glamour. She was “real,” she was “down to earth” — I’d hear those descriptors and so many variations throughout my time with Abby. Many of these women could, perhaps, see something of their own hardscrabble lives in her — or celebrate her for eschewing what they had not been able to. En masse, they were moved by the unabashed display of being comfortable with who you are.
Still, there was a deeper story lurking in the shadows of the video. It helped if you could read the tattoos on Abby’s arms. That story was about the pain music can erase, and also the pain it can’t.
On a cloudy spring day, Abby and Chris were pulling their suitcases through the streets of downtown Asheville; they weren’t traveling but going to work. Busking is their chief means of income and preferred musical setting, and they start up in the early afternoons. Eventually they passed Lyle playing his dulcimer in front of Mast General Store and asked how business had been without breaking their strides.
Not bad, he reported.
When they arrived at one of their favorite sites — on the western edge of Pack Square, close to the restaurant Rhubarb (which, in full disclosure, is owned by my brother-in-law John Fleer) — a performer had already claimed the street corner. No matter. Abby, who is president of the Asheville Buskers Collective, promotes a practice that has a performer rotate to another location every two hours, allowing the waiting busker to take over.
“Everybody follows it,” Abby said, so “it kind of perpetuates itself. … But the best part about it is, it gives our performers out here a chance to listen to each other and get to know each other.” Asheville has the most vibrant busking scene in the state, and Chris, 28, said that overall it “feels like a good community most of the time.”
“We’ve been down here a long time,” Abby said as a nearby homeless man began shouting at the heavens; near him a shirtless young man rose from a bench in a stupor (both common activities downtown). “Our crowds were spilling into the street long before we had any kind of viral video. I mean, people kind of knew us even before all of that happened — people who were regulars in Asheville. They come back to see you every year, so we were used to having large crowds.”
As we waited, I asked Abby if her prominence on the scene brought any resentment. She said it did occasionally and remembered a recent interaction with a fellow street musician, who confided to her that she couldn’t make as much money as Abby and Chris. “ ‘Some of us aren’t a novelty act,’ ” the musician told her. “ ‘We actually have to make money off the quality of our music.’ I genuinely respect her, so that kind of hurt me.”
Not all musicians who serenade on the streets can make it, but Chris said the best ones learn how to survive; it was akin to “putting somebody in the woods. If they’re hungry, they’ll figure it out.”
Thinking about the elements that make up a musician’s success, Abby mentioned that she had 400,000 Facebook followers, and her explanation for that remarkable count was simple: “We seem normal and accessible.” (As a point of context, singer Daniel Powter — whose 2005 song “Bad Day” topped the pop charts in multiple countries, earned him a Grammy nomination and essentially infiltrated every aspect of American life for months — has fewer than 70,000 followers.) “We’re not this thing that you’re following,” Abby explained. “Instead, you’re like our friend.”
Abby and Chris didn’t have to linger long on their corner; the young woman playing her guitar finished up in 15 minutes and skedaddled. The darkening sky was worrisome, but after they unpacked their equipment — including a case of harmonicas and a case of service bells — and got situated, Chris started up their brand of what could be reasonably called Appalachian gospel blues. As soon as Abby, perched on the edge of her folding chair, began working her spoons, the modest crowd of bystanders scrambled to get their phones out.
In conversation, Chris’s voice is soft, but the husky kick of his singing easily cuts through the hissing brakes of city buses and sirens and car engines in need of a tuneup. When they unfurled Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago,” an older man and woman were ambling by, and at the very sight of Abby the man was spellbound. Twenty feet later, his wife turned and was surprised to see her husband stuck in his tracks.
“She’s playing the spoons!” he called out in wonderment. When the wife expressed no interest, he fished out his wallet, baffled that she could be so indifferent. When his money floated to the bottom of the open guitar case, Abby hit one of her service bells, as if signaling a deposit. The man was instantly transformed into a 5-year-old boy, beaming and giddy.
Then lightning started tearing across the sky and became the main attraction. “Don’t hold your spoons out too high,” warned Lyle, who had moved on from his station. A half-hour into their set, the downpour began. Abby and Chris scampered to gather their equipment, and John Fleer emerged to offer shelter under the tarp of his patio seating area. The wet musicians were grateful for the protection, but Chris and Abby couldn’t see waiting it out and soon took off.
Lyle stayed back, though, and amid the driving rain he told me about how Abby had affected his life. He’d owned an antiques store and also an art gallery in Bucks County, Pa., for 12 years, and he played his brand of old-time music around the area and in regional festivals. Then came the turn: The 2008 economy wasn’t kind to the fine-art business, Lyle said. His father became ill, and the more his father went downhill, “the more it became a full-time job” to take care of him. When his father passed two years later, there was an inheritance — modest by some standards, but enough for Lyle to start a new, and bold, chapter. With no spouse or children to care for, he bought a motor home, parted ways with his Range Rover and vowed to put music at the center of his life. “I wanted to get down South,” he told me. “I kind of wanted to go to the belly of the beast for this kind of music I play.”
He headed to Asheville with his string instruments, but once in town he ran into automotive trouble. He called Abby, whom he’d gotten to know, for help. She offered him a place to stay as he got his mechanical complications sorted out, and for two months his motor home stayed parked outside her trailer. But she would help him in larger ways than that.
“She taught me how to do it right,” he said of being a street performer. “Timing. How to get people’s attention. ’Course, she taught me all the rules” of the Asheville busking scene. She tutored him in the intricacies of networking, how to boost his social media posts. And, he said, “she taught me a lot about vanity. … Somehow the media has turned fame into a beauty contest.” Lyle lifted his hat to reveal his balding pate, then chortled at his insecurities. He remembered when he lost a tooth and lamented to Abby how that looked.
“Really?” she said.
Lyle believed Abby’s rise ultimately came down to her determination. “You play, you’ll hopefully get famous. You hope someone discovers you. Abby discovered herself.” Sure, she’d experienced enormous luck with the viral video, but, he was quick to point out, it had “no cuts, no intro, no special effects. It caught the attention of maybe some disfranchised folks. … Something caught fire.” And the lesson in that part of her story, he decided, was that “you don’t need a lot to make it in this business. Abby is Abby. She’s not putting on a persona for anyone. She’s exactly who she is. … People look at her [missing] teeth and tattoos” and her skinny frame “and think she’s on meth. She’s anorexic or alcoholic or a hillbilly.” He could only marvel at the assumptions she drew. “I’m standing here because there’s something she’s teaching me every day.”
His connection to Abby had helped make him more visible, too. He told me that if he posted a video and it had 1,000 hits, that was pretty good for him. But when he posted one that featured Abby alongside him, it got more than 200,000 hits.
On good days, Lyle makes $200 to $300. (Together, Abby and Chris can make $800.) Given that Lyle pays only for gas, food and insurance, he gets by comfortably. “I’m confident I could travel the country and know I’m not going to starve,” he said. “I definitely attribute that to Abby. I think all of us in this city, all our buskers, have kind of looked at what Abby does and gained a confidence. … I’ve played on stages in front of 5,000 people, and I’ve never felt like I do here.”
Whether Lyle, 57, would make that trip across the country was unclear, though. He had melanoma and had undergone numerous surgeries, along with rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. He said he wasn’t willing to go through that kind of invasive treatment again. “I’m probably not going to last long,” he said. “I’m fine with that.” Then he flashed the smile of a man who had discovered life’s more elusive satisfactions.
He didn’t quite have the luxury of missing an afternoon’s busking, though, and he’d wait to see if the weather would reverse itself. Lyle knew more than most how dramatically the situation could change.
Inside Abby’s trailer, besides the giant computer screens, the narrow space is crowded with more than 50 service bells — of various sizes, styles and tones — most of which are gifts from fans and friends. And, naturally, plenty of spoons.
We were seated at her kitchen table and started talking about her childhood home in Wichita, where music was all around her. Her mother played piano, her brother guitar, her sister the harp and piano, and her father did some theater work. But none of that held much appeal for Abby. She grew up in an affluent neighborhood — her father was and continues to be the president of Rage Inc., a Pizza Hut franchisee — and attended private schools. She was the middle child, and the only one who was adopted, but her parents never made any attempt to keep that from her. She was mostly a happy kid, she told me, and also aware of the high expectations of her.
And then she got pregnant while in high school. That “was a huge deal” for the family. She eventually obtained her GED, but by the time she had her first child, a boy, she was 18 and married to the father, living in a trailer in a part of Wichita her parents hadn’t envisioned for her. She found work as a forklift operator and also, eventually, as an administrative assistant. Before long, her husband went off to jail, the first of several stints on theft or burglary charges. A girl was born in 2001. But by that point, the marriage had descended into grim territory. Abby told me some of her teeth had been cracked by her husband’s fist. He struggled to hold down a job, as cars in various states of repair dotted their property.
It was her mother, Cindy Roach, who suggested that it wasn’t in the children’s best interest for Abby, then 20, and her husband to raise them, proposing that she and Abby’s father, Dale Roach, take over, since the children had spent so much time at their house and were comfortable with them. “I definitely couldn’t care for them as much as my parents could,” Abby said in a choked voice. She and her husband agreed, and they made regular visits, but Abby still believed that her marriage — and the fate of her family — could turn around. Her parents tried to be supportive, though they were dismayed when the couple had two more children: a boy in 2004 and a girl in 2005. (I talked to Dale Roach on several occasions, and also Cindy, and he reiterated this to me when we talked about Abby’s life today: “We are so extremely, extremely proud of what she’s done.”)
Other patterns continued as well. On one occasion, after Abby had gotten a restraining order against her husband because of more violence, he visited her place of work, pulling up in the parking lot. “I walked up to the Suburban,” she told me. “I remember reaching in to grab my phone, and he grabbed my hand” — pinning her in place — “and hit the gas and drove me through the parking lot.” She could have been killed, she said. He was soon back in jail on more burglary and theft charges. (Years later, as a declaration to herself that she would never again go through what she went through with her husband, she would have “No wolf can blow my house down” tattooed on her left arm.)
Now Abby was on her own with the two youngest children. This time, her mother offered to arrange for them to be adopted, since she and Dale felt, at their ages, they couldn’t raise any more children. Abby told me she didn’t think she would have ever had such an idea on her own, but she was also overwhelmed and emotionally broken. Eventually she relented, and this time the goodbye to her children was permanent, as Abby never learned any details about where they ended up or what their childhood has been like.
The loneliness — and all the pain — was too much to bear; she had to get out. But before she fled Wichita, she would experience loss of a different kind: She wanted all of her teeth extracted. “I think I was just embarrassed by me,” she explained. She had low self-esteem about her appearance, and “part of that was just not taking care of myself.” So between the teeth damaged through abuse and the teeth that were neglected, she decided that removing them was a way to start anew.
“I was glad I did it,” she said, but that didn’t mean it was uncomplicated. “I’ve had to get used to a lot of things around it, just people assuming things about you,” she said — mostly that she’d been on crack or meth. But not all the reactions have been negative. “I get a lot of messages from people that don’t have teeth, like, ‘Go get ’em.’ It’s weird how things have gone full circle for me, because I went from not being able to stand myself — being in a terrible relationship, not being able to keep my head out of water — to just saying, you know: ‘Screw it, here I am.’ And that’s when finally things started working.”
With $200 to her name, Abby, then 25, left Kansas by way of courier: A friend who drove for the Postal Service delivered her to Colorado. There, she spent time sleeping in a tent. In those nights under the stars, she felt lost, scared not knowing what would happen next. Soon, though, she fell in with a crowd of other young drifters who were planning to hop a freight train. “I didn’t know at the time that people still did that,” she said. But she was eager for the prospects of traveling, however unconventionally. “It’s a huge adrenaline rush getting on trains.” It was also, considering she had no home, a way to escape the elements. She learned the ways of train travel quickly — the good and the bad. “If you’re in a [train] car in Jacksonville, Florida, and it’s December, and you’re all nice and toasty and you’re going north, how do you think you’ll feel when you get past Washington, D.C.?” When you’re riding a train car, she said, “There’s no way for you to tell someone you’re freezing to death.”
Traveling by freight train can be dangerous in any number of ways. Train yards, she said, are “in the worst parts of town, and so I’d make it a point to wear baggy clothes all the time to make it so if you saw me walking around at night, you couldn’t be able to tell if I was a man or woman.” There were similar, more subtle survival tricks, too. She was careful never to stop to study street signs, which could telegraph that she didn’t know where she was. “If you’re walking and you look like you’ve been there a thousand times before, folks are less likely to mess with you.”
The issue of money, though, or the lack of it, wasn’t easily solved by shrewdness. At some point she had to create a cardboard sign asking for a handout. That, she said, was “very, very humbling.” She was determined to not rely on charity as a daily existence, and about a year into her train riding, a fellow traveler — “Gil, Peruvian Gil” — would show her another way. They were both crashing at an empty house in Savannah, Ga. “We were talking about ways to make money, and I said, ‘I really wish I could just play music. Maybe I should learn to play guitar.’ And he says, ‘You don’t need a guitar.’ ”
Gil showed her his pair of spoons, which he’d been playing over the years, and instructed her how to hold them. She slipped one between her ring finger and pinkie, the other underneath her thumb and on top of her pointer finger. The back of the spoons faced each other. “It felt like something I could do,” she said, “so I just kept messing with it. He had his own spoons, and the next day a couple of kids stole some from an outdoor seating area at a restaurant … and said, ‘Here’s your set of spoons.’ ”
The origins of the spoons as a musical instrument go back not to the earliest days of man using spoons to eat, but to man trying to not get eaten. “We’ve got claves, we’ve got spoons, we’ve got castanets,” says David Wegehaupt, associate curator at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. “All of those are usually traced back to just having been animal bones clacked together, probably in prehistoric times.”
Spoon playing has a history in many countries — including Russia, Turkey, Vietnam and Bosnia — and there have been other noted spoons players before Abby, of course. Deb “Spoons” Perry, of Australia, has been seen by millions on “Australia’s Got Talent” and NBC’s “Little Big Shots: Forever Young,” a variety show that featured performers of a certain age. Horace “Spoons” Williams, who was born in 1910 and honored by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1985, was known for his spoons work as well as his dramatic and comic monologues. Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin had a fondness for the spoons and, in something of an international incident, once played them on the bald head of the president of Kyrgyzstan.
When I asked Wegehaupt if he thought spoons had a peak moment or heyday, he quickly pointed to the band Soundgarden and their juggernaut song “Spoonman,” which was inspired by the Seattle performer Artis the Spoonman. “I was contacted to do a show as a little ’tweener, to do about 15 minutes, between [Soundgarden] and a band,” Artis told me recently when I reached him by phone. “And while I was there [Chris Cornell’s] wife at the time and manager of the band told me that Chris was writing a song and would I like to play on it. I told her, ‘Yeah, let go of my arm.’ ”
The song — Feel the rhythm with your hands / Steal the rhythm while you can / Spoonman / Speak the rhythm on your own — came out in 1994. “I don’t have the words for the gratitude,” said Artis, who at 40 legally dropped everything but his first name. “I didn’t make a whole lot of money directly related to the ‘Spoonman’ song. I got a lot of gigs.” In the ’80s, he said, he’d played a lot of folk and renaissance festivals. “What I got was a whole lot more popularity and respect. I still don’t get the respect [some other musicians get], but I get the respect a novelty gets. … I was a novelty in a Grammy Award, multiplatinum, hit rock, global song. That was respect.”
“Now,” he told me, “I’m kind of tired of ‘Spoonman.’ ” He’s 70 and plays few shows these days. His has been a very physical playing style, and his body is slowing down. He has, though, taken great interest in Abby’s videos and followed her development. “She’s the bomb,” he told me. “Her ability to play is right there. She doesn’t miss anything that I can tell.” He noted the differences in their styles: Abby sits, while Artis could work himself into a conniption, doing windmills and banging the spoons off his head and jaw. “She doesn’t play hardcore rock-and-roll,” he said, “but she plays very dynamic music.”
Wegehaupt has followed Abby’s videos, too, and his perspective was informed less by being a musician, though he is, and more by his day job, which is rooted in the preservation and legacy of instruments. “It’s one thing to know it exists,” he said of spoons playing, “maybe see some old video, but to get to see someone doing it in real life, see a viral video of a brand-new recording of a really great guitar player and singer who has this amazing spoons player with him: It stands out.”
Jessica Tomasin, manager of Asheville’s Echo Mountain Recording, was talking about Abby’s influence on the busking community when she recalled an April music festival she produced in town. While there, she “walked from one venue to another, probably four blocks. I saw three different spoons players.” Before then, she wasn’t used to seeing any spoons players besides Abby. But “they were not very good, you know. I mean, Abby’s Abby. She’s in a class all her own.”
Through experimenting, Abby learned that the bottom spoon needed to be in a firmer position, but she could slide the top spoon in slight directions to make variations in the sound upon impact. She learned to hear the difference in cupping the spoons with an open palm vs. a more closed one, learned how blisters and calluses came and how to avoid them. And, eventually, as she sidled up to guitar players and other musicians, she learned how to complement what they were doing without taking away from the music. How and when to add more complex rhythms, how to get that drumroll effect by stiffening all fingers on her free hand and letting the spoons bump against each one. How, in effect, to envision her hand as a drum set.
As her confidence grew, she tried busking in New Orleans, in San Francisco. The first time she gathered a crowd on her own was in Nashville. “I was sitting in this little awning and it was raining. … I was just making rhythms on this washboard, which I’d nailed a bunch of bells and knickknacks to. … The spoons were on the washboard. … And out of the bar came a bunch of Chippendales dancers. I guess they were doing an event in town or something, and they started doing their thing. It was like, Maybe I’m onto something here . … I could make money at this, more than just scrape by. I started looking up other spoons players, to see what the limit was, so to speak.” And she decided: “There is no limit.”
She searched out more cities where she could perform, but Nashville became the place where she had the largest success. The city, though, had complications. Abby said the police were uninformed about the busking laws and kept telling her to move along from her positions on the streets. Nashville offers lots of tours, and even the tour guides were telling her: You’re too close to this. You’re too close to that.
Tired of the interruptions and the inconsistency, she hatched a plan. “I said, ‘Hey, I want you to add me to your tours.’ … That’s what they started doing. I didn’t start calling me the Spoon Lady. I said, ‘Add me to your tours,’ and then, somehow, that translated to: I’m the Spoon Lady. Everybody’s calling me the Spoon Lady. … I’m supposed to be there. And now the police weren’t messing with me. Problem solved.” Or, as she summarized it: “I was hungry, and then I was playing music to some people, and then people were paying attention, and now I’m the Spoon Lady.”
One day, she hopped down from a train thinking she was in Chattanooga, Tenn. It turned out to be Asheville. She’d never been there, but “I liked it immediately,” she said. The busker scene was busy and far-ranging, and Asheville was more affordable than other big cities. The police treated her well, she said, and, being a mountain town, there was plenty of folk music around, which had always appealed to her. Banjos, mandolins, fiddles. Abby wasn’t yet ready to settle in one place, but a couple of years later, in 2013, after nearly six years of hopping trains and enduring the accumulated exhaustion of that kind of living, she found herself headed back to Asheville with the idea that it could be home.
Playing by herself, she could scrape up enough money to get by, but she knew the right partner could be a boost, both musically and financially. About a year and a half after she began performing in Asheville, she met Chris. Chris’s mother, who was always with him when he performed, had been paying attention to Abby, and it was she who suggested the two play together. It clicked immediately.
One key decision they made early on was to split all proceeds 50-50. Chris writes all the originals and comes up with the arrangements for the rest of their material; he also does all the singing and plays the guitar and harmonica. But Abby is the one people fixate on. She handles the online aspects of their business and does all the driving when they play out of town (usually they stay in the southern states, though they’ve had invitations to play as far away as Lithuania and Bolivia). They don’t have an agent or a manager, so Abby mostly acts in that capacity.
Around the time her collaboration with Chris began to bloom, the Asheville Buskers Collective formed. The City Council was about to consider new regulations on street performing. The buskers wanted a voice in what was going on and began to hold regular meetings with the police department and city officials to open a dialogue and produce reasonable guidelines. Abby created the website for the group and became president almost by default, since the buskers tended to bring issues to her.
We’d been talking in her trailer for hours, and we walked out to her porch so she could smoke and let out her dog, Willie. (Willie is the dog that makes a cameo in the viral video.) The conversation circled back to why Asheville has been such a natural fit. “I fully understand that there is something stereotypical and novel about coming off the Blue Ridge Parkway and seeing some toothless spoon lady,” she said. “I do honestly think that I’d make less money if I had teeth — I do. I’m not necessarily trying to pull off an image, like, ‘I’m from here.’ In general, people look at me and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s some real hillbilly s—.’ … This is just how I am all the time.”
She knows that the focus on her appearance, for better or worse, will likely always be there. But the vast majority of messages Abby receives are heartening to her. “We get lots of emails from women, middle-aged women, and I think a lot of that has to do with: I’m not a Britney Spears. And people are still following. And so I think for a lot of women that’s a thing of hope. I don’t have to fit into a cookie-cutter mold. I don’t have to wear six tons of makeup. I don’t have to wear the latest clothes. I can just have a really good time being me. And people can love that. That makes me feel good. … I want people to look at me, and then when they hear about me to know that they shouldn’t be judging a book by its cover. And hopefully that keeps them from judging other people, too.”
At the Willow Tree Coffeehouse and Music Room in Johnson City, Tenn., tickets for Abby the Spoon Lady and Chris Rodrigues were sold out — 200 of them. The big chalkboard in the cafe, though, which announced upcoming shows, read simply: “Abby the Spoon Lady.”
Teri Dosher, the Willow Tree’s owner, has been an ardent supporter of the duo, and this was the fourth time they were headlining a show here; the first two times, attendance was “decent,” Dosher said. Now they were playing their second sold-out show, and what had made the difference was not surprising. “It’s that Facebook viral video,” she told me. “The last time they were here I asked from the stage, ‘How many of you are here because of that video?’ And I bet you 80 percent of the crowd raised their hands. They’re not people who support live music for the love of music. It’s more because they’re fascinated with Abby and what she does.”
Usually, Chris and Abby’s shows are straightforward music sets, but sometimes Abby incorporates more storytelling elements, and Dosher had been particularly enthusiastic about that. In those shows Abby talks about hopping trains, though she doesn’t allude to the events precipitating that. Still, since she’d been booking them awhile now, Dosher seemed to know a fair amount about Abby’s tribulations. “Even with everything she’s been through, she still has faith in humanity,” Dosher said.
Before the show, a reporter and cameraman from WJHL in Johnson City came over to film a short segment. All the questions were directed at Abby, a routine Chris had grown accustomed to. The reporter asked Abby about street performing, and she mentioned playing in all 48 continental states by way of freight train; there was also the question of how Abby came to play the spoons in the first place. When the reporter wondered if Abby was constantly recognized because of the viral video, Abby said, “Yeah, Chris and I can’t go too many places without someone stopping us, which is pretty interesting. We get stopped a lot at Walmart.”
Chris interjected, deadpan: “We used to hang out at Walmart a lot. It’s different now.” That sent Abby howling. (Not surprisingly, this didn’t make it into the TV segment.) By the time they’d gone through sound check, ticket holders were gathered at the locked front door, peering in to see what they could. Abby, who was wearing a yellow shirtdress, thought it would be nice if she and Chris went out to say hello. Immediately the crowd, featuring a notable number in their 60s and 70s, swarmed as women positioned themselves to take selfies with Abby, and sometimes with the both of them.
Susan Batterton had seen them in Lexington, Ky., two nights earlier — she’d driven from Hot Springs, Ark., to catch the show — and now she had traveled another 200-plus miles for this performance. In fact, she had driven all this way without a ticket, in the hope that Abby could get her in. (She did.) Batterton, too, had become aware of them through the video on Facebook and said, “I just thought: What neat, neat people. I love music of all types, and I just knew I’d like their music.”
When Lynne Tull, from Appalachia, Va., got close enough, she felt compelled to give Abby a hug. “It was fascinating when I found [the video] on YouTube,” she told me. “I guess I’m an old soul, and I love the spoons.” The video had moved her because of “the down-homeness of it. It’s on an old porch in the woods or mountains, it looks like. That’s where I was from, and I guess maybe takes me back to my grandma’s, older people like that.”
After a few more minutes of greeting folks, Chris and Abby slipped back inside and settled in a room off the side of the stage until the show began. Based on what I’d just seen and heard, I asked Chris about the way people responded to Abby. “I think Abby’s an inspiration for women,” he said. “You look at a magazine, you look on television, and you see all these women, and they don’t even look real.”
“So I don’t have to look like Britney Spears to have a following,” Abby said.
“Yeah, and you’re just as beautiful,” Chris said.
Chris told me that his spending so much time with Abby had proved a sore spot for his former fiancee. Around 2015, Chris began crisscrossing between Asheville and Jonesborough, Tenn., for about six weeks to be with her (they’d called off the engagement by then but had reconciled the relationship). The girlfriend, he said, was looking to have a normal life and thought he should have a stable job and paycheck. In fact, she got him to apply for a job at Toys R Us, but to his great relief he failed the assessment test they gave him. Before long the love affair was over. “If God is leading me to have a relationship, then the girl is going to have to be all right with Abby,” he said. “Abby’s like my sister.”
Then, in a quiet moment of reflection, he said, “One of the hardest things about this job is keeping my mustache up.” He’d grown a full beard and mustache many years ago, but the mustache and harmonica kept getting tangled. “It hurts!” he said. “Pulled right into the reeds of the harmonica.” Now, through the way he blow-dried it, and sometimes with the aid of wax, having it twirl proved to be a deft solution.
All this cogitating steered his mind back to the problems he had after high school, when he was dealing with a sometimes crippling depression and anxiety. “I’ve just always had trouble,” said Chris, who grew up in Asheville living with his mother in a trailer he described as perpetually falling apart; his father left the family when Chris was 5. “I spent four or five years barely leaving the house, going to a doctor all the time. And they drugged me up, kept me on medicines, different pills. I don’t remember a lot of it, and then one day I was like, ‘I’m not doing this crap anymore.’ It was the hardest several months, just stopping all that medicine cold turkey. I was on a bunch of stuff that the doctor said I needed, like antipsychotics and stuff like that. … I was sick for a while, and after that, I was like, God, what do you want me to do?” He has stayed off the meds ever since, but the struggles have persisted.
I asked if he thought one of the triggers for his depression had been the dire poverty he’d always known. “We have to go through hard things,” he said. “I woke up this morning, as I do just about every morning, and I just cried. And I prayed. I don’t know why I feel so bad.”
Abby, who was listening, told him, “I try to remind myself that very often the things that are bothering me and are at the top of my mind now, a year from now, five years from now, those things will be different, and life continuously moves on.”
A few minutes later, Dosher came back to tell them it was time. Once they stepped onstage, the frisson was immediate. When Abby got her spoons rolling, smartphones filled the air like neon signs. Women whooped. “You go, girl!” someone shouted between songs. The revelation for me, though, as the show went on, was that with the exception of a quick riff from Abby on the power of putting your hands on your hips, and an explanation of the difference in degree of difficulty between a man relieving himself from a moving train and a woman, it was Chris who commanded the stage. In a set that lasted 1 hour 45 minutes, Chris did most of the talking between songs, telling funny stories, teasing Abby when she did speak and leading a birthday singalong for a boy turning 13.
Early on Chris introduced an original composition — he had penned about eight of the songs in the set — by explaining how the lyrics were “written in the middle of the night on the side of the bed,” and as the show went on he kept using that same intro and the crowd began to finish the line for him, cackling in their togetherness. If they’d heard Chris talking so openly about his depression just hours earlier, though, they would have realized this was no jokey stage patter.
After a rowdy run-through of the staple “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord,” Chris said to the audience, “Let’s sing one I wrote about a woman who didn’t treat me right at work. Y’all ever had a boss that don’t treat you right?” The audience laughed knowingly. “So I worked for this woman with my mom — she worked for her, too — just me and her cleaning up her house, and doing things for her, and she started cussing at us and calling us horrible names. ‘Get me my effing water. Get it now!’ ” He described how once, when his mother made the woman a glass of tea, she took the glass and poured it on the floor. He described other acts of nastiness and explained that out of respect, he’d changed the woman’s name in the song but nothing else. Then he commenced “Mean Old Mrs. Jones” (Well she calls me names and treats me like dirt / I swear I’d walk out now but I can’t find no other work) with a riff so exceptional and beguiling it was easy to envision another young performer, 75 years from now, trotting it out in the same way Chris had roused so many other classic anthems for the evening — just as he would do shortly when he and Abby took an airy spin through Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right,” itself a cover of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s song.
For one of the last numbers Abby brought out a saw, which had been a newer pursuit, and played a series of wavering, mournful-sounding passages, as Chris accompanied her with a skeletal melody. It was a quiet way to wind down an otherwise raucous night of music, but also a reminder of how Abby could extract, from pieces of equipment, musical possibilities that few others could see.
After the last song, a long line of fans formed to say hello to Abby, to share something of their own stories or to ask more about hers. There was a shorter line for Chris, and when he finished he mostly just stood against the wall and waited for the last woman to speak to Abby. But for all the exuberance around her that evening, it seemed to me that the night had been his triumph. I stood next to him as we observed Abby and her admirers, and I remembered another thing she had said to the TV reporter, who wanted to know what had been a highlight in Abby’s career. “Definitely one of the highlights is playing music with Chris,” she said, “because I think I’d be lost without him.”
Few mothers relish the idea of their 28-year-old son living at home, but then, most mothers and sons don’t refer to each other as their best friends, the way Chris and his mother, Terry Rodrigues, do, or laugh at each other’s jokes so heartily or finish each other’s sentences without an ounce of irritation. They live in a rented house on a generous plot of land in Alexander, just outside of Asheville; inside, a banjo and ukulele hang on the wall of the living room. As Chris, dressed in his usual outfit, picked up the uke and did a few fleet-fingered runs at the bottom of the neck, Terry, her graying hair cascading over her shoulders, shook her head with motherly pride.
“Chris had looked for people to play with forever,” Terry said, “and nothing ever really — there was no chemistry.” Meanwhile, he and Terry co-wrote some songs, with Terry providing the lyrics. (She has copyrighted 47 compositions, some of which she has sent out to Nashville music publishers, and she won third place in a Nashville songwriting competition.) She even played with him on the streets — on washboard. They performed twice, she said, “and then he fired me.” Both of them laughed at the memory.
I told Terry how impressed I’d been by Chris in Johnson City, and I asked him how different the show might have been if he’d been onstage alone. He said maybe three or four people would have shown up. “People want the visual,” Terry said. “They want to watch Abby. She’s mesmerizing.”
Throughout our conversation, Terry kept mentioning an old video of Chris, and given how much a video had affected his life, I was all for seeing another. We went back into Terry’s bedroom, where on one of the walls was a poster of a 30-year-old Terry, around 1985, in a kind of Rambo-esque bikini, complete with a bandanna and camouflage grease paint across her face, clutching an Uzi. (This came from a rare modeling assignment for a gun manufacturer.)
The video in question was on videocassette, and hooking up the VCR proved to be tricky business. Chris kept tinkering, then the screen turned jumpy; there were two videos, in fact. The first showed Chris when he was in eighth grade in his middle school auditorium with his friend Luke on drums, carrying out a Hendrix-inspired take on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That cut to another piece featuring the voice of an ultra-polished narrator that reminded me of Kent Brockman from “The Simpsons.”
“Chris Rodrigues plays with passion and adrenaline,” it began. “This North Buncombe Middle School student has a beat on big-time dreams. All he wants is to be a rock star.” Then the voice asked a chubby-cheeked Chris, “Are you in this for the chicks and the money?”
Chris: “I’m in it for the playing. Chicks and money are pretty good, too.”
“Chris’s guitar teacher, Mike Barnes, played professionally with artists ranging from the Allman Brothers to the Black Crowes,” the narration went on. “It’s too early to guarantee his protege platinum records, but the teenager does have uncommon dedication to his craft.” Barnes was interviewed for the piece, and he said, “He has a feel, a natural feel for phrasing.”
“The hard work may really pay off someday if he becomes a professional hit man,” the voice-over went on, “and then Christopher’s mom will really have it made.” Then it cut back to Chris: “If I get famous I’m going to buy a real big house.” Here Chris groaned and told me, “Don’t listen to this.”
“Me and my band and my mom are going to live in it, and we’ll be rich.” Terry roared, as if she’d never heard this before. The segment signed off with, “In Asheville, John Le, News 13.”
Now tears were rolling down Terry’s cheeks. I asked her how many times she’d watched this. “A thousand,” she said. “And I cry every time.”
Why was it so emotional, I asked, and the question hung in the air for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’m just seeing that he’s making his dream come true.”
Say you’re getting married, and it’s time to figure out the music. Maybe you’re content with a traditional wedding DJ spinning the latest hits from Drake and Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, and who will say more than once, “Okay, y’all listen up. We’ve got two very special people in the house.” Or maybe having live music is important to you, and you hire a band that can play Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” or Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” and who will announce only once, “Folks, I know I don’t have to tell you that this evening we have two very special people in the house.” But say you want something more original, more surprising — not just in the music the act plays, or the way the musicians look, but in the very authenticity they represent and the way you relate to that. Then, as Hannah Daniel-Beck did for her wedding, you might just book Chris and Abby.
That’s why the two were headed back to Tennessee on Saturday evening to play Hannah’s wedding, in Knoxville. It wouldn’t pay as much as the Willow Tree Coffeehouse, but they also weren’t expected to play for as long. It was the rare event that Chris had handled; the bride got in touch with him a year ago.
Wearing a green plaid dress and chain-smoking, Abby was at the wheel, and a half-hour into the drive the mood turned tense. Abby, who enjoys a great deal of respect from her fellow street musicians, had been singled out by one who had no shortage of complaints about her, which he’d made public on his Facebook page. Among many accusations, he maintained that she ruled the Asheville scene but ultimately cared only about herself. (In January he posted, “I am being threatened and harassed by Abby the spoon lady!” In March, he wrote, “Abby has been calling and using the police to ensure she gets her performance spot for years. Everyone knows how manipulative you are Abby. Ouch.” Both posts were later deleted.)
There was a warrant out for his arrest; in 2017 Abby pressed charges against him for spitting on her and Chris in a restaurant. Now, during the drive, word was getting back to her, from texts and calls, that after being out of town for a while, he was on the streets of Asheville again. So far the police had failed to pick him up. Even stranger: The taunting street performer was a mime.
Abby put on Sister Rosetta Tharpe, then some gospel recordings by Sam Cooke, and as we motored along the uneasiness began to dissipate. At a rest stop, Chris ran to the bathroom and Abby stood in front of the vehicle and had another smoke. When he returned, two bikers in orange Harley-Davidson T-shirts gingerly approached. You’re from that video, right? (In truth, since Chris wears the same outfit from the viral clip, he’s just as easy to recognize, if not easier, than Abby.) Chris said that was right, and so the two bikers signaled the okay to their female partners, also wearing orange Harley-Davidson T-shirts, to come over. The women, too, gushed, and then it was time to get back on the road.
It was more of the same when we pulled into the parking lot of the wedding reception site, the Ijams Nature Center. Within seconds of Chris and Abby getting out and popping the trunk, a woman shrieked at the sight of them. She said to her young daughter, “Look at her. Do you know who that is?” The girl was unsure. “You’ve seen it before,” she said of the video. “Hey, we got to take a picture for Memaw.”
The wedding ceremony had finished a couple of hours earlier, and at the end of a wooded trail a luminous white tent hovered over two long lines of tables covered with white cloths. Only remnants of the dinner remained. The groom, Andrew Nossiter, was at the edge of the tent and the first to greet them.
With so many guests having slunk off, the long dinner tables resembled half-eaten boxes of candy. Andrew and Hannah sat at a table for two on the opposite end of the musicians. There were no microphones, but in the quiet night air Abby’s spoons clacked with extra clarity. Wanting to change the stiff arrangement of guests watching the performers from such remove, Hannah and Andrew got up and stood so that they were directly in front of Abby and Chris; that gracious gesture prompted a group of family members and other guests to do the same, and the looser vibe prompted a dozen or more to engage in that carefree state of half-dancing, half-swaying wedding revelry.
As a stranger constantly writing in his notebook, I had to explain my presence throughout the evening and after yet another recitation, one member of the wedding party offered me a glass of wine. He was interested in Abby’s story, so I told him about the train riding, the street performing. I mentioned how women responded to her, and somehow we ended up on the absence of her teeth.
“Meth?” he asked.
Before driving off with her new husband, Hannah, who grew up in Knoxville, told me why, out of all the options, she’d picked Chris and Abby for this special night of her life. “I lived out of the state for a very long time, and when I came back to get married … I really, really wanted something that had the essence of Appalachia. And I did all sorts of research.” When she came across Chris and Abby’s video, she said, “I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.”
On the drive home, Chris and Abby talked about the challenges of performing at a wedding — there’s less energy, for one, because people aren’t there for the music — but they weren’t sorry they’d come. They were always grateful to be wanted.
It was well past midnight, and there was still another hour or more before we’d reach Asheville. The drive had put me in a drowsy state. I was thinking about Hannah and her new husband, wishing them good luck in some distant way, and that got me ruminating on what can bring couples together and how life can tear them apart. I thought about Chris and his fiancee, Abby and her husband, the marriages I knew that ended in divorce — or should have. And then, with a jolt, I realized Abby and I had started up a conversation on the way to Johnson City that we hadn’t been able to finish, and the next day I’d be making the long drive back to Washington. When she and I first talked, months earlier, she told me there were times when making a fist for six hours a day, as she did on a typical day of busking, caused her so much wrist pain she couldn’t open the lid of a jar. There was a grievous unfairness in that — the end of her performing already on the horizon at such a young age, after persevering through so much and obtaining this level of success — and I was startled that after all this time with her I hadn’t gotten her to tell me more. All I knew, really, was that she felt like she couldn’t afford to see a doctor. And that, in a way, her wrist was the epicenter of all her pain, since tattooed just above it were the names of her children: Alexander, Charlotte, Samuel, Penelope.
Now she said, “Every year it’s back to building more stamina in the spring.” Because of the cold winter months in Asheville, they didn’t busk nearly as much then, and playing regularly hurt as she was ramping back into shape.
Does that pain make you nervous? I asked her.
“Oh yeah, sure. It makes me nervous. But I have things I’m working on I feel like I could still do. I could still do storytelling, public speaking, inspirational speaking. I could still talk to people about street performance and public-space law. … And I also feel like, if I wanted to fall back on other things, I think I would honestly be a hell of a band manager.”
That answer should have buoyed me more than it did — her planning for the inevitable, her resoluteness — but the idea of her not being able to play the spoons, or play with Chris, left me dispirited. I asked Chris if Abby’s pain made him nervous, and he said quickly, “Oh yeah, of course.” It was quiet for a moment as the Great Smoky Mountains, with their own music and stories, loomed over us in the dark. And then Abby the Spoon Lady, who knew all about the power to believe, said, “I think everything’s going to be all right.”
In music, as in life, timing is its own formidable, mysterious force. Two months after I said goodbye to Abby, she and Chris professed their love for each other. They’re talking about getting married now. As I’d originally seen it, the story — their story — was about music and pain, but that was only part of it. What transcends pain was the other part. The bigger part.
David Rowell is deputy editor of The Washington Post Magazine. His book “Wherever the Sound Takes You: Heroics and Heartbreak in Music Making” will be published in March. Staff researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.