Island Street Performers Liven Up Summer Nights On Nantucket

JohnCarl McGrady •

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Head downtown just as the sun starts to set, when the sky is painted with brilliant pastels and the water shimmers with golden light, and you can’t miss the buskers. There’s one on nearly every street corner, plucking the strings of an old guitar or dragging a bow across the neck of a violin.

Street musicians are nothing new to the island. But it seems there are more than ever in recent summers, as performers of all ages—many as talented as any professional—flock to Nantucket’s cobblestone streets.

“I love the amount of freedom that comes with [busking] and playing the songs you want to play,” said street musician Merrick Brannigan. “It’s just fun and an opportunity to have a good time.”

Brannigan is new to the scene, but has already made a name for himself as a street performer on the island. A high school freshman and stage actor with a beautiful singing voice and a refined speaking style that makes him sound far more mature than his age would suggest, Brannigan first rose to local prominence on Nantucket when he won the Dreamland’s “Nantucket’s Got Talent” competition in 2019—before he even knew what ‘busking’ meant.

“I was actually drawn into busking by one of my closest friends, Cole Corper,” Brannigan said. “We met summer of 2021, and he asked if I wanted to go busk with him, and I didn’t even know what the term meant at that point.”

But once he started, he knew he wouldn’t stop. “It was just amazing,” he said.

Since then, Brannigan has staked out the corner of Broad and South Water streets, across from the Juice Bar, as his turf, performing on many a summer evening for customers in the Juice Bar’s long line, which often winds well past him down the side of the Town & County Building .

“I think we’ve worked hard to make that spot our own,” he said of himself and Corper. “Everybody has their own spot.”

This is one of the unwritten rules of busking on Nantucket; certain musicians perform on certain corners. “There’s a sense of location and who plays where,” Brannigan said.

Of course, there are also the written rules. Buskers need a permit that costs $50 per year and must remain 75 feet away from other performers. They also must maintain a volume below 80 decibels—about as loud as an old vacuum cleaner.

But these rules are simple, and many buskers see Nantucket as much more welcoming to street performers than other communities, including multi-instrumentalist Sarah Krohn.

“When I was around 14, my dad made me [busk] in Suburban Station in Philly, and the crowd is very different there. People enjoy the music a lot more in Nantucket, so it’s mainly in Nantucket that I do this street performing thing,” Krohn said. “Nantucket is such a welcoming place...It’s a very accepting atmosphere to just plop myself on the street and start making noise.”

Krohn is instantly recognizable by their shock of red hair, which they say was inspired by Indie-pop singer Cavetown. “I saw him in concert a couple months ago...I knew who he was, but I hadn’t really listened to his music that much,” they recalled. “But after that concert, I was hooked. So much so that, I used to have really long hair, and after the concert, I was like ‘yeah, I like his hair,’ and so I cut [my hair] off myself.”

Krohn’s covers of Indie-pop stars like Cavetown and Phoebe Bridgers may draw the most attention, but they are also a talented songwriter in their own right. Their debut album, the hauntingly reflective and poignant 81., was released in 2020.

“I am so drawn to music. I love writing it, recording it, producing it myself, and performing it. I just love everything about that. Just striving to make whatever is in my brain and presenting it to people,” Krohn said.

Krohn made 81. almost completely on their own, recording every instrument except the drums and handling the mixing and producing themself. Krohn even filmed and edited their music videos.

But busking gives Krohn something that recorded music never can.

“It’s so fulfilling to see the faces of people as they walk by,” Krohn said. “Because most of the time, I’m posting my music on the internet, and you don’t really get to see the faces of people reacting.”

Grant Sanders, a local musician who just started busking this summer, agrees. “It’s pretty simple for me; I enjoy playing, and people’s reactions are great.”

An ad executive, Sanders grew up in a family of musicians and was in a band in college but always wanted to perform in public and get back to his love for music.

“I’ve always wanted to do it, and I believe in addressing your fears, you know? It’s not an easy thing to do,” he said.

Nantucket’s busking community isn’t particularly tight-knit, but it’s impossible to perform on the same streets as dozens of other musicians night after night and not make a few connections.

“I know a lot of buskers on the island, we’re all very supportive of each other and what we’re doing,” Brannigan said.

Krohn agreed. “There have been a couple people who have come up to me and told me that they also busk. So I’ve met them through that, and so that’s been cool,” she said.

In the summer, Nantucket’s streets are filled with music, and the pedestrians who frequent them are more than happy to listen—and tip. Brannigan and Sanders both emphasized that busking isn’t about the money, but they didn’t deny that it was a nice bonus.

“There’s such a draw to Nantucket,” Brannigan said. And that, he added, leads to more money.

Sanders agreed.

“Nantucket’s a good place if you need to busk for your livelihood,” he said.

At the end of the day, when the sun sets and the streets go dark, Nantucket is still the artistic sanctuary it was at the beginning of the 20th century, drawing musicians of all kinds to perform on its sandy shores.

Go ahead, take a walk down Main Street this weekend. Get an ice cream cone from the Juice Bar. Listen to someone play the violin like a maestro and wonder why he isn’t famous. And if you’re in a good mood, maybe drop a five in his violin case.

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