Name: Bruce Miller
Day job: College writing instructor
Venues: Strip District and Squirrel Hill
Instrument: Banjo, fiddle
Best day’s take: $65 in two-and-half hours. “There was a $20 and $5 involved.”
Weird tips: Pizza, biscotti, Christian literature
For Bruce Miller, a self-taught musician from Swissvale, the biggest hurdle of busking in Pittsburgh isn’t proficiency, or tapping his admittedly esoteric repertoire for crowd-pleasers, but “trying to find a place where you can make a little bit of money and not be run off.” Pittsburgh, he reckons, hasn’t yet fully embraced its street musicians.
Miller first took his instruments to the streets six years ago, joining some buddies as they riffed through jazzy improvs in the Strip. “One day,” he recalls, “they didn’t show — so I ended up playing alone. My banjo was horribly out of tune. But as I sat there for 15 or 20 minutes trying to get it tuned, I made $5. I was like, ‘Wow, OK. I’ll do this.’
“I went home with some money and the joy of being able to perform out in the street, which is where I think old-time music ought to be.”
“Old-time music”? Miller is glad you asked: “People mistake it for bluegrass because it involves banjo and fiddle playing. But it’s the traditional fiddle music that was brought over here from Europe mixed with banjo music, which has both black and white traditions. The banjo was an African-based instrument that ended up in the hands of mountain white people. Normally, the banjo player’s job is to complement the fiddle player, unless there is no fiddle player. Then, you just play the tune.”
Occasionally Miller works with fiddle-playing friends. But, undaunted by the public, he’s also used his street time to improve his own fiddle skills. “I can get away with learning to play the fiddle on the streets. If I tried that in Nashville or North Carolina, I’d be run out of town on a rail. There, [acoustic street musicians] are a dime a dozen. You can throw a stick and hit a shitty fiddle player — probably hit a really good one, too.”
Mostly, Miller frets over what he feels is a pervasive lack of respect in Pittsburgh for street performers. Usually the problem is intolerant businesses who feel proprietary about the space outside; what hurts most of all is getting booted from the sidewalk. “When that happens,” he says, “you realize how thin the difference is between we-love-what-you’re-doing and get-the-fuck-out-of-here-I’m-gonna-call-the-police.
“But they’re shutting down performance art, shutting down liveliness, cutting off something that makes this area vital and important,” he fumes. “They don’t see that, or don’t care. And that’s a problem that Pittsburgh is going to have to get over.”
The mentality baffles Miller. He’s busked in Charlottesville, Va., a place he says can be “hoity-toity.” Yet there, “[T]hey don’t look down on the dreadlocked dude playing electric harmonica, like would happen here.”
Even so, Miller and his old-time music aren’t without fans. “Kids really like the banjo music. They know the sound, and it’s happy-sounding, infectious, with a straight-up rhythm.”
But he acknowledges that his musical niche is pretty narrow, and not conducive to simple requests. “I don’t know ‘Old Susannah,’ ‘Rocky Top,’ ‘Turkey in the Straw’ … I think any string musician gets asked for those. Most people don’t know this music, so I can’t really get frustrated by those same requests. Nobody’s gonna say, ‘Hey man, you know ‘Forked Deer’?’”
Miller doesn’t play for money, though he says those few donations can matter. “If I haven’t made any, it affects my enjoyment and even my playing. When people are tossin’ money left and right, it seems like my playing just gets better.”
Mostly, though, Miller revels in the purity of the experience: “There’s nothing like the feel of walking into my spot with my instruments. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but getting out and doing it is the best thing about it.
“That,” he adds, “and having somebody appreciate it.”