Over the past two-and-a-half years, Charleston native Mike Collins Jr. relied on tip money and the kindness of strangers to travel the world with his banjo. From coast to coast of the United States and through seven European countries, his act remained largely unchanged: Sit on a hard suitcase, kick it for a drum beat, and wail away on the banjo while singing with an Appalachian holler.
"Busking has definitely molded my sound," Collins says. "Playing really loud and engaging music, getting people's attention, playing with a suitcase and a tambourine, having rhythm, making people move. The tempo that I play at is a rock tempo instead of playing really slow blues."
The last time we saw Collins in Charleston, he was going by Outdoor Protestant Blues Band — a moniker he has since dropped since he is not Protestant and does not have a band. Posted up in a corner at the Mill, he tore through old-time country classics and originals with an energy that felt more punk than bluegrass.
It's worth pointing out that Collins' technique can hardly be called old-timey. Eschewing the more intricate clawhammer and fingerpicking styles of a true mountain man, he uses a pick and strums with abandon, partly because it's loud and partly because he never learned another way.
Currently living in New Orleans, Collins has hit the highway again, but this time in a more organized fashion. He's booking proper shows and planning more than a week in advance. He says he learned a few lessons out on the road.
In "Homesick Carolina Blues," a track from his forthcoming album Tryin To Stay Ahead (out soon on Fork & Spoon Records), you can hear Collins starting to question the transient lifestyle he chose for a time: "I know in Caroline, / there's a sweetheart of mine that won't do wrong, / but being the fool I am, / I done run up and gone."
Collins says he wrote that song after a particularly frustrating week in Spain. Against all advice from friends, he had attempted to hitchhike from Madrid to Barcelona and was having no luck. He was stranded between the two cities for two-and-a-half days before a girl he was traveling with called in a rideshare and got him to his destination.
"I'd done really well in Madrid, made a lot of money, so I was high on that," Collins says. "But getting to Barcelona took forever, so the first thing I did in Barcelona was busk at a really touristy strip."
But as it turns out, you need a permit to play music on the streets of Barcelona, much like in Charleston. Only in Barcelona, the police were less courteous than the ol' CPD.
"Three of them ganged up on me with their hands on their weapons and just started berating me. I had chosen the wrong spot, clearly," Collins says. "You need a permit to play there. They threatened to take my instrument." So Collins packed it up, relocated to a park, and sat down and wrote his homesick blues. He'd only been in Europe a month, and he had several more to go before coming back home.
Collins previously played in Say Brother, a country-rockin' act out of Columbia, for five years. He says he wants to get a proper country band together, but for now, he's just a thumping, chugging, one-man noise machine. Despite a few setbacks, he says the banjo act has served him well — particularly in Europe.
"I'm pretty sure I got money just for holding a banjo in my hand," Collins says. "A lot of people I'd met had never seen one in real life. Some people had no idea what it was."