Bob Maddox and Esmond Edwards Busking on Market Square, Knoxville, September 2023
(Today’s article is by recurring guest writer Luke Frazier, a relatively new Knoxville resident who continues to explore the city.)
What do you get when you cross the sound of a Steelpan with a Singing Saw? Mostly smiles, a few head shakes, chuckles, and a good dose of delight. Sometimes the combo even produces arm motion in listeners, as in reaching for a buck or two to deliver to the donation box in front of the unlikely busker-duo Bob Maddox and Esmond Edwards, saw player and pannist respectively.
They perform most weekends down around Market Square, vibing up the air with unique musical stylings. Esmond hooks up his phone to blast instrumental versions of songs like Downtown, My Way, Ob La Di-Ob La Da, I’ll Fly Away, Margaritaville, and Rocky Top through a portable speakerwhile they both lay on the melodies over the top. There’s Esmond looking serious, fitting the notes in all the right places, there’s Bob grinning away while wailing across the sawblade.
It’s an off-kilter sound, the tinniness of the steelpan and the spaciness of the saw gliding from one pitch to another. It shouldn’t work, it has no business working, why in the world does it work? It’s a true gestalt effect produced by the creative mingling of Antigua-born Esmond and a tall Texan named Bob.
The folly of the whirling cosmos knows no bounds: the first time they played together it was because a downpour forced them both to run under the same awning. They decided they may as well play together as they sat there. According to Esmond, the first song they played together was My Way.
Bob is the veteran of the duo; he’s been playing downtown for more than 10 years. Said he was petrified the first time he did it—which came after his two sons encouraged him to take the saw playing out of his living room in Halls Crossroads and drive 25 minutes into downtown to play outside. He emphatically denies they just wanted to rid the house of the sound of his ethereal reverberations.
Bob started playing the saw when he was 13 and heard one played in a show in San Antonio. Now 87, he still enjoys it 74 years later, “I never got discouraged, my goal is to play until I’m 100.” He ended up in Knoxville and became a management professor at UT, retiring in 2001. Right now he has 8 or 9 saws, including a top of the line StradSaw.
Esmond has been busking for 7 years, and said he asked Bob for advice when he first got started. That began a nodding friendship that has blossomed into more since they started playing together about 5 years ago.
Esmond has played the steelpan since 1977, and came to Knoxville to play with a musical group at the World’s Fair in 1982. He left for New York for a few years, then did a stint in the Army and was stationed at Fort Knox. This led him back to Knoxville and UT for a bit as both a student and a member of a steel drum band. Now he makes his living in car sales and steelpan playing, including performing at retirement homes, which he loves doing, “Playing is just fun for me, lots of people enjoy it.”
Count me among those people. The first time I heard them play I’ll Fly Away was so weirdly mesmerizing, bordering on enchantment. I love that song and have a playlist of 15 different artists doing it, including Etta James, Johnny Cash, and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Maybe someday I can add Bob & Esmond’s recording to my collection. Until then, I know where to find them.