A Conversation with Mandolin Mike
By Jim Hornsby
Mike Slusser estimates that over the past 12 years he has logged 18,000 hours busking on lower Broadway. “Twelve winters and 13 summers,” he says with a smile. His impressive talent and friendly, outgoing manner have made him a fixture on the local scene and an unofficial goodwill ambassador for the city. To see Mike playing and leading an impromptu tour of the art and history of lower Broad, visit www.youtube.com/user/nashvillesmandolin.
Tim Ghianni featured Mike in an article about Nashville buskers called Street Dreams (October 22-18, 2010 issue of the Westview Newspaper. It is an excellent article and after reading it, I decided to visit Mike at his favorite spot on the sidewalk near Gruhn’s Guitars and find out more about him.
Busk – v.intr. Perform (esp. music) for voluntary donations, usually in the street or in subways. Busker n. busking n.[ busk peddle, etc. (perh. f. obs. F. Brusquer-to seek)] – Webster’s Dictionary
In Mike’s Words
“My name is Mike Slusser – they call me “Mandolin Mike” – and I’m from Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. It’s a little town near the intersection of three major highways, and that may account for my yen to travel. I’ve been playing music since I was about 13 and played professionally around Pennsylvania and Maryland in the 90s. I had a warehouse job before that but music was the thing that made me happy.
I sing and play my own material and the country classics. I admire the old-time players like Jimmie Rodgers, Emmett Miller and the Delmore Brothers, and I came to Nashville to be closer to the heart of all that.
Take a Listen: Pig Ridin’ Dawg
“My mandolin was made in 1990 by Mark Bluett in York, Pennsylvania. I’ve had it for 20 years and you can see that it has had a lot of wear. I’ve gone through several sets of tuners and it’s been re-fretted. The pick guard is new; I wasn’t using one before and if you look under it, you can see that I had worn completely through the top. It’s a road warrior. It’s been autographed by a lot of famous musicians over the years but the ink has mostly worn off.
“The top is citrus fruit wood and the sides and back are Purple Heart, an African hardwood similar to maple, but very dense and difficult to carve. Mark said that the wood was too hard to work and that he would never use it again, so mine is one of a kind. The deep, rich tones make it a perfect busker’s instrument. Mandolins are usually built for high tones so they can cut through a lot of other instruments, but for unaccompanied mandolin and voice, I need a richer, fuller sound with a wider range.
“I sang with a guitar for a while, but the mandolin is more versatile. I can stretch songs with mandolin breaks and do instrumentals to save wear and tear on my voice. Playing solo has required that I change the way I play, so I’ve put a lot of effort into developing my own style. I use a different approach to making chords and getting in and out of scale runs leaving open, ringing strings.
“Another reason the mandolin works for me is that it stands out; I get noticed. You don’t see many street musicians using them, so people remember “the guy with the mandolin” — hence the moniker “Mandolin Mike.” Good weather or bad, this mandolin is with me. It’s my best buddy; my best friend.
“When I came to Nashville I found out, like a lot of musicians, that it isn’t easy to make a living here, so I began busking to make ends meet. I’ve busked in a lot of cities — Toronto, Boston, DC, New York, Seattle — all over. I can make more money in New York or San Francisco, but it costs more to live there. I like life in Nashville and it all evens out.
“There isn’t as much appreciation for busking as there used to be. It’s becoming a lost art. Traveling kids do it, but you don’t find many local artists playing the streets anymore. It’s a hard way to make a living; a life of sacrifice. I’ve let a lot of things go to be a busker. I stick with it because I love to play music and I love to meet people. Everybody comes to Nashville. I can stand here on this spot and play my music for people from all over the world.
“I want to preserve the old music, the old ways, and even if I’m only playing for one person, if that person digs it and learns from it, then I’ve accomplished something. If I can raise public awareness for street musicians as artists and help preserve the art form, I’m doing my job.”