A Tale of Two Buskers
Conversations with Salt Lake City Street Performers Andy “Ammonite Andy” Connolly and Paul Boruff
It’s no secret that it takes both talent and grit to step out onto a stage to sing, play an instrument, dance or act. We submit, however, that busking—a la street performing—requires even more chutzpah. Curious about what it takes to be a sidewalk entertainer, THE BLOCKS sat down to chat with two local buskers—one new to the craft and one a seasoned veteran—to find out what fuels their fire to engage in this centuries-old artform.
Though he didn’t know it at the time, Andy Connolly’s seasons spent as a ranger in Grand Teton National Park likely help pave his path to busking. “I was an interpretive ranger,” he says. “It’s being on the front lines of the park and is one of the park service’s best seasonal jobs. I gave tours, handed out guides and answered guest questions.” Connolly landed this high-profile gig due in part to his education—he holds a master’s degree in geology from the University of Kansas—but probably due more so to his infectiously extroverted and go-above-and-beyond personality. “I loved getting to talk to people from all over the world every day,” he says. “And I would constantly come up with new ways to start up conversations with people, like the wildflower board I made about the flowers people would see out on the trail.”
After spending several summers in the Tetons, Connolly’s quest for year-round work nearby the mountains he’d come to love focused his sights on Salt Lake City. In September 2019, he landed a job with the Utah Museum of Natural History as a school outreach coordinator. “I love it. I get to travel around to fourth grade classrooms all over the state teaching science. What could be better than that?” And then, a month after moving to Salt Lake City, he and his fiancé got married. “Everything seemed great,” Connolly says. “Until March 2020. The pandemic was rough on an extrovert like me.”
So, armed with his stimulus check, Connolly resolved fight his lockdown-induced funk by either getting a tattoo or buying and learning how to play the accordion. “I’m a dork and the accordion is kind of a dorky instrument and so I went with that,” Connolly says. “Plus, it’s really hard not to smile when you hear accordion music.” He took lessons and practiced constantly, building quickly on his experience playing the piano and singing while he was growing up.
Then one day while he was sitting outside of his apartment building playing his accordion, two passing cyclists stopped to listen. “That made me really nervous,” he says. “But they said how good I sounded which made me think about trying busking. Also, as an educator, I don’t make that much money and it seemed like a great way to make a little extra cash.”
Connolly made his busking debut at Liberty Park in May 2021—just two months after taking up the accordion. “Admittedly I was nowhere near as prepared as I should’ve been but, because of that, I think I learned really fast how to be a performer and what my audience loves to hear,” he says. “It was definitely nerve wracking at first, but the positive comments I received from my first outing gave me the courage to keep at it and get better.”
Connolly has since honed his performer persona with a stage name (“I use the same name I’ve taken when I’m teaching—Ammonite Andy,” he says.), has built a performance wardrobe around his personal bow tie collection and regularly asks for and takes requests. “When I take requests, I get a lot more tips in return,” he says. Not surprisingly, a few of Connolly’s most frequent requests are accordion classics most people know, including “La Vie en Rosé,” the theme music from The Godfather and Fiddler on the Roof’s “Sunrise, Sunset.”
This summer represents what Connolly’s describes as a “brave, new world” for his budding busking career. He recently performed at the Busking Bus Theatre, a mobile stage featuring performers in multiple genres. “That was the first time that people actually sat down and listened to me play,” he says. And, most exciting to him: he’s booked to play every Saturday morning from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the Downtown Salt Lake City Farmer’s Market. “As an educator I do a lot of public speaking, but that’s science, which I talk about all the time. Busking is nothing like that,” he says. “I still get nervous every time I go out to play, but I love busking now because the accordion is such a fun instrument and I’ve made so many people smile. The accordion just has this power to give people good feelings and nostalgia.” Learn more about Ammonite Andy on his Instagram page.
With his straw cowboy hat, wire-rim glasses, salt-and-pepper beard and mad guitar skills, what you see with Paul Boruff—the quintessential embodiment of a Western singer-songwriter—is what you get. From the time he was a teenager, Boruff has lived the music life. He’s performed at venues ranging from far-flung officer’s clubs and cavernous symphony halls to exclusive resorts and county fairs, and everywhere in between. Throughout his long and storied career, however, he’s always come back to busking. “Busking is a way to get in touch with people. It’s a way to keep the entertainer in you alive, not just the musician,” he says.
Boruff fell in love with music when, as a boy, he’d listen to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett on his transistor radio. He grew up playing music with his family and, after spending four years serving in the military during the Vietnam War, returned to his native Arizona to study art and music. “Thanks to the GI Bill, I attended almost every college and university in Arizona,” he says with a chuckle.
After studying for a few years, Boruff got the urge to travel and took only his guitar when he hit the road for Alaska in 1973. “Those were rich times,” he reminisced. “I’d walk into a bar, ask the bartender if he could sit down and play. Next thing I knew, I’d be leaving with a pocket full of cash.”
Buoyed by Alaska’s late-1970s oil boom, Boruff’s career flourished in the so-called “Land of the Midnight Sun.” One of his fondest memories of that time occurred at what he describes as a “few tables in a bar kind of a venue.” When he arrived for his booking, he started up a conversation with a group of “musician-looking” guys playing a game of hacky sack outside. Boruff and the group engaged in a smack-talk conversation about who was the evening’s headliner. “Then I realized I was talking to [legendary blues singer] Taj Mahal,” he says. “I figured out pretty quick I was the warm-up act.”
From Alaska, Boruff migrated to Montana to play the guest ranch circuit. There, in Yellowstone National Park, he met his wife, the writer Nan Weber. Soon after, in 1985, he and Nan settled in Salt Lake City, for both its proximity to the mountains and its centrality to Montana, California and Arizona. “From the beginning, we’ve loved Salt Lake City’s sense of community.”
Though his musical style is most often described as folk, Boruff says there’s more to it than that. “I take the stylistic songs of artists like Sinatra, Bennett and Mel Tormé and bring them into folk and jazz. By changing the approach to a classic song, you can make it sound fresh and new. But you can pull that off only with songs that are mathematically sound, like ones written by those great singers.”
Small, intimate venues is where Boruff prefers to play now, places like Salt Lake City’s Anderson-Foothill and Millcreek libraries (“I love playing amid all the books and art at libraries,” he says. “You get elevated to this certain level of consideration without having to do anything but show up!”), Poplar Grove Park and, of course, on the street in THE BLOCKS. Find out where Paul Boruff is playing next at paulboruff.com.
Still curious about busking? Join the Salt Lake City Arts Council June 24 – 25, 2022 for the return of Buskerfest, when buskers from a plethora of genres will perform along Main Street, Regent Street and Gallivan Avenue in downtown Salt Lake City.