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Summer Street Music Series: Boston

Eric Royer developed his One-Man Band in the streets of Boston, and has made a profitable business out of it.
Chris Arnold, NPR /
Eric Royer developed his One-Man Band in the streets of Boston, and has made a profitable business out of it.

Street musicians are kind of a mixed bag. There’s the drunk a cappella singers looking for change, or the earnest but off-key guitar players doing Joan Baez tunes. But there are also some remarkably talented musicians who choose to play out on the street. As part of All Things Considered's summer street music series, NPR's Chris Arnold has this profile of a favorite Boston street musician.

Eric Royer, 37, grew up playing in punk bands around Boston. But he says that eventually got old -- and too loud. Or, maybe he got old and the music was always too loud. Either way, Royer had always loved folk music. So one day about 10 years ago, he tried going out on the street to play banjo.

It didn't exactly work.

Royer plays a type of bluegrass banjo called "Scruggs style." The style "evolved in a band situation," says Royer, "so when you play it by itself, it doesn't quite make sense ... but I always really liked how a banjo sounds with a guitar accompaniment."

And with that idea, Royer set out to create and become what few musicians can really pull off: a one-man bluegrass band.

On the day Arnold caught up with Royer on a sidewalk in downtown Boston, Royer is wearing a farmer's hat and a plaid shirt, and is seated at a little table that's actually a slide guitar. He's got a banjo, and a harmonica slung around his neck. And at his feet are pedals, like an organist.

The pedals are connected to a contraption of copper piping, cables and whirling gears that allow him to play bass guitar chords, hit a cow-bell, and make a doll dance around on a string.

"There's something wholesome about it," says William Parker, a lawyer at a nearby firm who's stopped to listen. "I'd actually say there's something spiritual about it. It's him, it's his connection with the world. And I like that, I like it when I see an artist who can do that."

For Royer's part, he says he likes playing on the street because he gets to reach so many kinds of people. And enough of them respond to him so that between selling $10 CDs and collecting buckets full of dollar bills, Royer's been able to not only earn his living this way for past seven years, but support his wife and daughter.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.