The Street Performer’s Life

A Conversation with Guitarist-Singer Shawn Thomas

Shawn Thomas crisscrossed the northwest in his truck before busking in Santa Barbara.
Gabriel Guinn

I met Shawn Thomas on State Street Tuesday afternoon while he was playing “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” a song he learned after the election. “That’s a song by Robert Zimmerman, Nobel Prize winner,” he said, referring to Bob Dylan’s birth name.

Growing up in Los Angeles with music in his bones, Thomas could have pursued a high-profile career, he said, but he found the harshness of the industry off-putting. Now his passion is pursuing happiness. For him, right now, that means performing on the street in Santa Barbara. But let’s start from the beginning.

Years ago, Thomas quit his job as a cook/dishwasher in Oregon and wanted to hit the road. He read philosophy for a while and traveled throughout the state. Then found his true calling — performing with his guitar and singing along with it. He started off in Seaside, Oregon, and played guitar on the street. He told me the people were generous. He made “lots of money,” he said. But eventually he wanted to move on.

With the money he made in Seaside, he drove north to Astoria, taking just his truck, guitar, and harmonica. After earning money there, he went back home to Missoula, Montana. He called up a bunch of his old friends, but only one of them picked up. Shortly after, the two of them drove to Glacier National Park. A skin cancer diagnosis made him decide to return to Oregon, where he had health insurance, so he drove back for treatment. His next venture was down the Oregon coast to California. With no specific destination in mind, he drove the coast, stopping in Berkeley and Santa Cruz. He eventually found himself in Monterey, but he left pretty fast, he said, because the police were mad at him for playing above the city’s legal ordinance of 60 decibels.

Next was Los Angeles, where he performed on the streets every day. At one point he decided there was too much competition. He got in his truck again and drove up to Santa Barbara.

When asked what he liked about Santa Barbara, he talked about how it’s really clean and fairly crime free. He also said it was way different from other cities because there are so many nice, trustworthy people. At age 52, he lives out of his truck and performs on State Street almost every day. He makes do with the tips people give him during the day, usually making enough to eat a good meal, he said.

Regarding trouble with the police or the city, Thomas claimed he hasn’t had any bad experiences with the city cracking down on street performers. He has had a couple run-ins with the police when people called the cops for his amplifier. However, he said, the city’s ordinance allows street performers to play up to 60 decibels.

Thomas thought all the police officers are super nice and do not intend to arrest him. For right now he plans to stay in Santa Barbara, but who knows with life will throw at him next, he said.

Gabriel Guinn, a 7th grade student at Santa Barbara Middle School, spent a week working at The Santa Barbara Independent as part of the school’s annual Career Study Week. This story is his final editorial assignment.


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