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Buskers bring big-city sound, feel to Broad Street

Rebekah Wilson • Jun 15, 2013 at 6:23 PM

Kingsport natives Adam Lawson, 30, and James Duncan, 26, have been playing guitar outside of PD’s Records and in front of the empty State Theater in downtown Kingsport for about two months.

Lawson said the duo has received showers of gratitude, even from city officials and local vendors. They have been joined on occasion by local musicians, and Lawson hopes their performances inspire others to come out and play.

“In the past — when I was growing up — downtown Kingsport was boring, and people have told us [our performances are] really a breath of fresh air to downtown Kingsport,” he said.

Lawson has been playing guitar, writing and composing music for seven years. He and Duncan are currently members of separate bands — Lawson performs with Whiskey Incident and Duncan is a member of Strangers When We Meet. The two met last summer at an open mic night at Big E’s Sports Grill on Stone Drive.

Lawson said one day, they just decided to go play downtown and have continued the practice twice weekly — usually between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

They primarily play original songs in genres like folk, Americana, outlaw country and bluegrass. Some of their influences are Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, John Prine and Townes Van Zandt.

Street performers, also known as buskers, practice one of the oldest recorded art forms in human history. This impromptu trade dates back to antiquity and encompasses a cornucopia of artistic displays. They can be anything from musicians, comedians and magicians to contortionists, artists, puppeteers and storytellers.

Many now-famous musicians have played in street shows, including Woody Guthrie, David Gilmour, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Simon and Garfunkel, Bernie Mac, Bob Dylan, Kanye West and Dolly Parton.

It is a free and easily arranged exhibition, especially for newer artists.

Historically, buskers have faced opposition from officials and business owners, but they have also been sensational hallmarks of many prominent cities.

Though buskers typically accept tips, many perform simply to share their talents and to add live, accessible entertainment to bustling city landscapes.

Lawson said he is employed, and doesn’t perform to panhandle people.

“It’s for the love of music, and we love coming down here,” he said. “It’s a release ... my life is really enriched from coming down here to play.”

Lawson admits that not everyone has been appreciative of their spontaneous shows.

On June 4, Lawson and Duncan were playing in a different location, near the theater, when they were asked by a police officer to leave. When they asked where they should go, Lawson said the officer responded, “Somewhere I’m not going to get a call.”

Kingsport Police Department’s Deputy Chief David Quillen said he believes busking is a freedom of speech issue and that people do legally have a right to be on the sidewalk, whether they are protesting or holding signs or performing, but they cannot block the sidewalk.

Chapter 62 of Part II of the Kingsport Code of Ordinances states that a nuisance can be anything that “interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property or tends to depreciate the value of the property of others.”

“To have someone tell me I’m being a nuisance is kind of a slap in the face, especially when they have music every Thursday and Friday night in downtown Kingsport,” Lawson said.

Quillen said as long as the street performance does not interfere with business entrances, block the flow of pedestrians or traffic or stop people from going about their day-to-day business, it should not be considered a nuisance. He also mentioned that Kingsport has encouraged music for the last few years with the Thursday night Bluegrass on Broad and Friday night Twilight Alive summer concerts and said that music is becoming a vital part of downtown.

“We’re not trying to bother anybody,” said Lawson. “We’re doing this because we enjoy doing it.”

No one else is regularly busking downtown, but Lawson said that if anyone wants to join them, he wants them to be able to do so without being hassled.

“Maybe it will inspire people to open the State Theater and put music in there, who knows,” he said.

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