I was first asked to hand over my guitar on Nashville's John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge. The temperature was in the upper 90s, and Music City was flooded with tens of thousands of country lovers crossing the bridge from lower Broadway to Nissan Stadium for the Country Music Association Music Festival earlier this month.
Nashville was my second stop on my street performing tour of the U.S. and was, as expected, worth the trip -- especially with the sheer dumb luck of me hitting Nashville during the CMA Fest.
After setting up mid-bridge, I was stopped short by a tentative voice that I couldn't quite hear.
"Excuse me?" I asked, squinting.
Standing in front of me were two shirtless men -- one younger, one older -- both sporting goofy-looking sunglasses.
"Can I play your guitar?" the younger man asked again. His hand was resting behind his neck.
My first instinct was to grip my guitar tighter. It was, after all, my backbone this summer -- my main vehicle for carrying out this music project. Not to mention that it's not exactly a cheap model.
While safety was not even close to my first concern when planning out this trip, even with being a solo act, I'll admit that it was brought to the forefront of my mind in this moment. But not for long.
After hesitating for a few seconds, I loosened up my grip and began to hand over my guitar. The two men broke out into wide grins as the younger one secured the strap.
Nashville and my third stop, Asheville, N.C., had been two very different experiences on my tour except for a few overarching themes.
One of them being closing the performer/listener gap even further by sharing my guitar with passersby, many of whom were homeless musicians whose stories are more permanent versions of my summer-long project.
The act of sharing my guitar with other musicians began to unfold to me a hidden facet of culture -- although, I'm not sure of how hidden it is exactly. All it may take is a little bit of curiosity and a lot of openness. Kind of like busking in general.
Street performing puts you in a completely vulnerable place; it's a performance on equal ground as the listeners (and trust me, you begin to notice the lack of separation when people start to interrupt you mid-song). But this goes both ways: If you open up to the listeners, they open up to you. And in this case, me playing on the streets has opened the door to quite an interesting subculture.
Which takes me back to the pedestrian bridge. The two men who approached me in Nashville were homeless musicians.
Matt, who is 24 but was hesitant on providing a last name, said he had done more than 10 "laps" across the country. When I had spoken to him, he was spending his nights under an unspecified bridge in Nashville with a group of other homeless people.
But, for the large part, we didn't talk about that aspect too much.
What we did talk about was what piqued his interest in the first place: music. He was thrilled to play my electric guitar (traveling musicians rarely go the electric route because it's more maintenance) and would toss out advice every time he showed me a new technique. "Electric guitars are made for breaking rules," he said as he began to play an original riff.
Asheville was a similar story as far as other musicians asking to play my guitar and slowly welcoming me into their world. The word "homeless" was never discussed during my stay in Asheville, so it may have been different in that aspect, but I did hear plenty of cross-country travel stories from millennial musicians.
At one point, before an open mic, I wandered with a younger musician to a bare lot where we found a school bus that was home to a traveling band.
I did a lot of observing in those two cities -- admittedly, at times I felt out of place. But despite the vastly different backgrounds, present circumstances and, likely, futures I shared with some of the musicians I met, we were able to instantly bond over music.
A local musician in Asheville politely let me know that I should nail down my scales; an older gentleman was telling me of the songs he learned when he first started to play; even simple nods or thumbs up were brief moments of "I respect you," "I understand what you're doing" connections.
My documentation of these mysterious people is scarce. After all, I may have interacted with a lot of traveling musicians, but as far as city turnover goes, my time spent in each city is disappointingly brief.
My relics of these interactions are guitar picks they gave me because they couldn't afford to tip, a string of beads, song notes I copied down for a potential duet (I got a kick out of someone asking me if I could "read good") and my memories. I did panic at one point after leaving, realizing that I didn't even think of trying to give anything to them as well. But, especially with these bonds, it was never about the material.
With these new, brief friendships, loosening my grip with my guitar was enough. It was music, after all, that brought many of us so many miles away from our origins and music that would take us God knows how many miles forward.
Photos by Meghan McDonald