On a bench outside of South Congress Cafe, James Anthony Johnson sings and plays the guitar. He wears a uniform of jeans, ankle boots and a straw cowboy hat. He smokes Marlboros and greets passersby. A clean plastic jug of ice water sits at his feet, and he shares it with thirsty dogs who lap it out of the cap.
The 49-year-old has been playing on the streets of Austin since 1996. He started his street musician career on Guadalupe Street near campus but moved his performances to South Congress after someone threatened to have him arrested on the Drag. Threats like that might not happen in the near future, though.
The Austin City Council will consider a resolution Thursday that would launch the development of code amendments allowing street performers and buskers to perform in public areas.
“We do have a number of code provisions that make street performances problematic,” said council member Chris Riley, who is co-sponsoring the resolution. “The idea as suggested by the Austin Music Commission is to clarify the rules about street performances so that there will be a better framework for supporting performers in Austin.”
In August, the Austin Music Commission unanimously voted to present a recommendation that officially defined street performers and buskers and allowed them public right of way. According to Riley, current Austin code provisions are ambiguous on street performers’ rights to sit in public areas.
“Right now, we prohibit panhandling and solicitation under certain circumstances,” Riley said. “You won’t find anything in the code that recognizes the
existence of street performers, so they’re caught in a web of provisions that makes it difficult for people to know street performing is an activity acknowledged and embraced in Austin. It’s important to recognize this as something that has cultural value for Austin.”
Riley said the language of the resolution was being reworked after hearing concerns from stakeholders, including the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association.
“Overuse of certain locations, no organized rotation of performers, multiple buskers in close proximity — we need to make sure we avoid these problems,” Riley said. “We’re working out some additional language for the resolution that points out those problems. We hope this resolution will result in an ordinance that reflects best practices and clear legal framework that allows street performances but avoids potential problems.”
Stevie Cain, one of the managers at South Congress Cafe, said Johnson is a legendary figure of SoCo, and his presence benefits the restaurant.
“Our guests love him,” Cain said. “On our busy days, when we have a wait and people wait outside, he can play for them, which is excellent. James is here every day. We let him come inside and charge his phone. He never ever asks for anything, except maybe a glass of water. He’s so polite to everyone.”
Johnson distinguishes himself as a street performer, not a panhandler.
“I don’t like people panhandling, but, if you want to beg for you and lose your dignity and self-respect, you are allowed to do that,” Johnson said. “This is America.”
Originally from Nashville, Johnson said he loves Austin more because of its love for music.
“It would be awful silly to outlaw live music on the streets when you’re in the music capital of the world,” Johnson said. “In Nashville, everyone is concerned about the deal — ‘Can I land this deal?’ In Austin, it’s all about the song. I’m looking for the best song I can possibly find, as long as it’s a good song.”