Abby Roach, known as Abby the Spoon Lady, is an American roots musician from Kansas, specializing in playing the spoons. It’s a skill she picked up in her late twenties while hopping freight trains around the United States and staying in homeless encampments. (A Peruvian man named Gil taught her.) Since then she has made a living performing primarily on the streets, creating a variety of sounds and rhythms with the simple castanet-like instrument. Her repertoire consists of early jazz, gospel, ragtime, country blues, jug band, Western swing, and Appalachian folk.
Abby grew up in Wichita but left her hometown at age twenty-five to start a new life. “Homeless by choice,” she used Nashville as a hub for a while until the police started discouraging busking in 2012. She spent 2013 to 2019 in Asheville, North Carolina, where she struck up a musical partnership with singer-guitarist Chris Rodrigues. The two are featured in Erin Derham’s Buskin’ Blues (2015) (watch for free!), an hour-long documentary about the street performance culture in Asheville, and they recorded an album together, Working on Wall Street (2017), titled after the picturesque side street where they regularly performed.
In Asheville Abby hosted a weekly radio broadcast at WPVM 103.7 FM and became president of the Asheville Buskers Collective, advocating for the interests of the busking community to the city council and local businesses.
“The real reason that street performance is important, and the reason it should be preserved, is because it turns our sidewalks into our front porch,” Abby says. “Since the invention of the air conditioner, we have all gone inside. Nobody’s sharing anything anymore. Nothing’s raw anymore. And when you do experience any kind of culture, it’s through a lens of some sort—on a screen. What street performance provides is a live avenue where people can experience, witness, and even sometimes partake in these cultures, and have it put in front of them.”
In 2019 Abby moved back to Kansas, purchasing a little green bus that she converted into a mobile home and, more recently, a house in Winfield, which she is fixing up. She releases YouTube videos through what she calls Spooniversal Studios, sharing music and stories, and travels the US, performing outside in downtown areas, at festivals, and at small music venues. Besides Rodrigues, she has also performed with the Tater Boys (Tub Martin and Dusty Whytis), the Steel City Jug Slammers, Matt Kinman, Les Blackwell, and others. Though the spoons are her primary instrument, she also plays the mountain dulcimer and the musical saw.
Abby doesn’t romanticize the nomadic life; she says it’s dangerous (especially for women), dirty, tiring, and often lonely. People love to ask her about her train-hopping days, and while she does have tales to regale, she emphatically warns folks not to ride freight trains—you don’t need to do that to be free, she says.
Below are filmed performances of some of the traditional gospel songs Abby has done over the past five years, starting with “Angels in Heaven” (aka “I Know I Been Changed”), which went viral in 2017 and currently has over 59 million views! Her beagle, Willie, often appears in the videos.
“John the Revelator,” which intersperses a refrain about the apostle John writing the Apocalypse with verses about Adam hiding from God in Eden, Jesus in Gethsemane the night of his arrest, and Jesus on Easter morning commissioning Mary Magdalene to preach the Resurrection:
“Jesus on the Mainline,” about how Jesus is always available to talk to:
“Don’t Let the Devil Ride,” not giving sin a foothold:
“Soldier in the Army of the Lord”:
“Gospel Plow,” a call to perseverance:
“Laid My Burden Down”:
“Ain’t No Grave” (a version of this song appears on Abby’s 2020 album with the Tater Boys, In the Dirt and Thriving):
“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”:
“I Feel the Lord Stretching Out in Me” (“I feel the Lord stretching out in me. I cleaned up my house, and I kicked the devil out. I feel the Lord stretching out in me!”):