Local Chattanoogan sings his heart out atop the ‘Walking Bridge’

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Illustration by Matt McClane / James Abercrombie, the Walnut Street Warbler.

If you've ever spent any time on or around — or even several blocks away from — the Walnut Street Bridge on any given evening, you're surely familiar with him. Anywhere within earshot of the bridge, you can hear him, belting out tunes at the top of his lungs. His sound is recognizable, his voice is unmistakable and his presence is unforgettable. His name is James Abercrombie, and he's become a fixture up on that bridge, an iconic addition to the downtown cityscape.

Anyone in the area has come to not only expect him, but to eagerly await hearing his rendition of Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" or Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me," along with an extensive list of other songs.

Abercrombie has been making appearances on that bridge for years now, loudly singing along to a range of different CDs: REO Speedwagon. Billy Joel. Lionel Ritchie. Britney Spears. Guns 'n Roses. Elvis. Journey is his absolute favorite, and he starts every single set out with Bryan Adams' "The Summer of '69."

"When I sing his songs, it loosens up my throat. It stretches my vocal cords," he says.

A Bridge Between Past and Present

You'll see him up there in his usual spots on either end of the bridge — down by the Edwin Hotel or up above Coolidge Park. "This is my stomping ground," Abercrombie says. "This is where I first started, and I meet so many good people out here."

He has platinum-blond hair and is always clad in a black jacket with a kung fu dragon on the back. No matter how hot it gets up there on that bridge, he wears that jacket every single time he sings — for protection, he explains, because he believes that people won't mess with a martial arts master.

The jacket is a beloved relic of his background in karate. Abercrombie loves Bruce Lee and says that Lee inspired him to become a second-degree black belt who fought in the world championship years ago. He's a former mechanic who doesn't drink. He's never smoked. He once could do the splits.

The Band Wagon

Abercrombie stands aside a little red wagon — collapsible, so he can easily fit it in his car for transport — which is packed with everything he needs for a long round of singing: a stereo CD player; a portable electric box to plug it into, which holds a charge for 12 hours (perfect for extended crooning sessions); and five plastic containers stuffed full of CDs — most of which he gets used from McKay's, and virtually all of which he's committed to memory.

Abercrombie says that he can sing nearly every song on every CD (and there are several hundred, if not more) by heart. And the only time he misses a lyric is if he takes a second to put a cough drop in his mouth to keep his throat wet for singing. "I know 'em. I sing word for word. I'll hear this song, and I'll sing it," he says. "I just take the song, throw it on and start singing."

Rock's in His Head

Although Abercrombie sings everything from Judas Priest to Patsy Cline, he leans heavily toward rock in his music selections. He prefers that genre of music, and even though rock gets a bad rap sometimes, Abercrombie feels that good rock music is actually very meaningful. "Some of these people's songs come from their heart. And I love them, and I love that music," he says.

On the other hand, he mostly can't relate to that "the woman was cheating on him, there's a tear in my beer" country stuff, he explains. But really, almost anything goes: Willie Nelson. The Top Gun soundtrack. LeAnn Rimes. "Let It Go" from Frozen (and he prides himself on hitting every high note in that one, he claims).

"I just sing what I want to sing, and I always mix it up."

Abercrombie has played the guitar since he was about 17 and only fairly recently discovered that he could sing. "I wish I'd done this a long time ago. I probably could have been rich and famous," he says. His dream is to appear on "American Idol."

Music to Your Ears

Though Abercrombie accepts tips and has been known to make as much as $300 per night, he's not your ordinary bridge busker. Because he doesn't do it for the money. In fact, he swears that even if the tips stopped entirely, the music wouldn't. "I love singing. I love it," he insists. "I'm just doing it to have fun and let you all enjoy it."

For him, it's really all about the music and what it can bring to people. "It's amazing how music can relate to a person and their memories because they grew up with [certain songs]" he says. "Music touches people's hearts. It touches your soul. I've seen music calm people."

Changing His Tune

Abercrombie is working to extend his voice range, and he also attempts to take on the sound characteristics of the artists whose songs he sings. He changes his voice to emulate the musicians, whom he refers to as characters. And he says that his listeners always tell him that he sounds just like the original artist.

"I started singing all those characters, changing my voice to each individual character. I feel like the singer who's singing," he explains. "I turn the volume down, and I [can] sing like the person, without the backup. And that's what grabs so many people. This one guy said to me, 'Man, it was like the original singer was just standing right here on the stage singing. You sound just like him.'"


Loud and Proud

But what is truly unique about him is his unhindered, resounding, no-holds-barred approach to singing. He sings all out — fearlessly, unabashedly, forcefully.

"I just can't harness it. It's just gotta come out," he says. "I don't use a microphone. I sing at the top of my lungs."

Even without a microphone and without trying, he manages to outsing the other singers on the bridge — singers who do use microphones.

"Those people say, 'Man, we can hear you five blocks away! You sing so loud,'" he explains. "They say, 'We turned our microphone up, and it didn't do no good.'"

Go for the Throat

What's more, Abercombie manages to maintain that thundering volume for hours at a time.

"I ain't got no shift. I just sing until I quit" — which can be until 1 or 2 a.m., without a break, he says. "I've even had singers come up here, and they'll say, 'By God, we ain't never heard a singer sing that many hours.'" In fact, he gets so absorbed in his singing that he doesn't even notice the time pass, unless he keeps awake some Edwin Hotel guest who irritably points it out.

Of course, singing at that volume for six, seven hours straight can put a real strain on the voice. Abercrombie consulted a pharmacist and a doctor for advice. And now, Halls lemon cough drops are his go-to when it comes to maintaining his throat in singing form, and you can see him popping them regularly throughout his entire long set. That, or a little Chloraseptic throat spray usually does the trick. Or a bottle of Coke. Or an Energy drink. "I like Monsters, but people say those aren't really good for you," he says.

Singing His Praises

Abercrombie knows how to pack a house, even when the "house" is a 2,376-foot-long truss bridge high above the Tennessee River. He has something of a cult following. People stop and want to take pictures with him — he's been in wedding photos, prom photos. And his fans rave about him. They tell him that he's the life of the bridge, that they love every song he sings. "They say, 'Man, we think you're awesome. I just ain't never heard anybody sing like that,'" he explains. "And it just touches my heart."

He's now 69 and still not stopping. He says that he tries to come out every day, rain or shine (unless the weather is especially bad) and plans to keep right on singing indefinitely. He hates to miss even a single night on the bridge. "I miss it when I don't go. I really miss it," he admits. "Anything that takes me away from this, it just burns me up. I can't stand it."

"To me, it's like getting away from reality," he adds. "I feel like I'm a different person on that bridge."