Earlier this year, before he abandoned Facebook and retreated to a farm cabin in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, one-man band Mike Collins Jr. posted a philosophical rant on Facebook that caught my attention. He wrote about why he was leaving social media behind, justifying his decision with the writings of mid-20th-century Marxist theorist Guy Debord.
I'd been trying to keep up with Collins' world-rambling musical endeavors since December 2012, when he passed through Charleston and played a rip-roaring set at The Mill, my neighborhood punk bar. Seated on a hard-shelled suitcase that I imagined contained many of his worldly belongings, Collins — then going by the moniker Outdoor Protestant Blues Band — stomped a kick pedal to provide a backing beat as he wailed away on a banjo, bellowing his lyrics without amplification. He sang about slumlords, old-time religion, and hard travelin', and I got the sense that he had really lived out the things he sang about.
I caught up with him after the show, and my suspicions were confirmed. Formerly a member of Columbia bands Say Brother and Mercy Mercy Me, Collins had chosen a transient lifestyle for the time being, working as a full-time busker. We've spoken a few other times since then. Last time, we talked about his victories and tribulations traveling through Europe, where he was welcomed as an American-redneck novelty act in some places, chased out of public squares in others.
Nowadays he's working to earn his keep on a produce farm outside of Staunton, Va., and traveling into Staunton or nearby Charlottesville when he feels like busking. Before we caught up on the phone, I tried to plow through the treatise he had alluded to on Facebook several months back: Debord's 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle, a founding document of the Situationist art and social movement.
The writing was a little dense (or maybe I was), but I think I grasped the opening thesis, which reads as follows: "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation."
Debord might well have predicted the malaise some modern men like Collins feel when they're inundated with social media. When we build our lives around spectacles — photos, digital friends, human interaction without physical presence — we may feel robbed of genuine experience.
Philosophically, Collins defines his busking as a Situationist act. "I go straight to the center of the bullshit to make money. I have to go to the most touristy, flash-bangy part of the town to busk because that's how you find a good spot," Collins says. He's just traveled into Staunton to call me on his phone, since there are no cell towers near the cabin. "I've been busking in Charlottesville a lot, and it's a pretty conservative place, and it's interesting because I get a wide variety of reactions. Most people dig it, but some people think I'm a total bum," he says.
But in some ways, he says, Charlottesville is no different than the metropolitan Old World capitals he's toured. "Before I show up, usually, in any given town, it's dead quiet or it's just noise, people shuffling around on their daily grind," Collins says. "The situation that I like to think I'm creating is one that snaps people out of the daily grind for a second to remember that creativity and living and life is beautiful."
It's a fair description of what he does. As I remember that show at The Mill, the crowd hadn't paid much heed to the other artists, but from the moment Collins' pedal hit the suitcase, we were all transfixed.
There's a similar sense of immediacy in Collins' upcoming album, Tryin' to Stay Ahead (out Dec. 30 on Fork & Spoon Records), which he recorded in a single take on two microphones with Columbia musician and producer Aaron Graves. "If I felt like I had screwed up, I would have wanted to do it again," Collins says. "It was just me and Aaron, and his daughter was there dancing around ... It just got banged out."
The record features a few old-timey covers that have become staples of his busking act: The Carter Family's "Worried Man Blues," Doc Watson's "Walk On Boy," and Bill Cox's "Oozlin Daddy Blues." There's a song called "8th Ward Blues" inspired by his time in New Orleans, and there's a memento of his European travels in the song "Homesick Carolina Blues."
Collins says he intends to record again before too long, maybe with a slightly more complex setup — who knows, maybe even a third microphone. "I'm not totally dedicated to the DIY lo-fi sound necessarily," Collins says, "but I like the way I do it, and I'm proud of being able to bang it out in one go and make something listenable."
Sheepishly, Collins rejoined Facebook a few weeks ago. As a touring musician, he says venue managers usually ask how many Facebook likes he has and then demand that he create a Facebook event page for his own show.
"I think [Facebook] is inherently shitty, and maybe evil if I wanted to use the word — I don't really like that word — because of Mark Zuckerberg and their motives of trying to commodify interpersonal relationships," Collins says. "But I think if you can retain the earnest effort among you and your friends to actually have solid real relationships and spend face time together, I guess it's OK."
So he's part of the spectacle again. C'est la vie. But I like to believe he's still keeping it honest out on the farm and on the road, and I think he's made peace with the decision.
"The situation that I'm trying to create is embracing life and celebrating singing and playing music in the street," Collins says. "To me it doesn't get any more fun than that."