Oct. 17, 2003: Mike Slusser, the Mandolin man of Lower Broadway

Editor’s note: We remain in Gillette, Wy., where we awoke around 5 this morning and lifted the blinds to enjoy a thunderstorm that passed above the Walton Family General Store. It rained pretty good, enough to make a pond of the adjacent lawn where Max and I frolicked yesterday. I looked out the window to behold our temporary waterfront home. A mallard drake floated blithely in his new playground.
My mind wandered back to the morning of Aug. 13, 1989, the day after my first wedding. (As for my bride, Elizabeth Blandin, well, she deserved better. That’s all I’ll say on the subject for now.) The wedding and reception went off in my parents’ backyard in Paoli, Pa., in the midst of a torrential downpour. I recall rivulets of water running down the overhead canopy and splashing on the bald head of our resident Methodist preacher as he courageously performed the ceremony.
As for the morning after, well, my mother was in a foul mood. She had become inflamed by the lateness and loudness of the celebration. I’m not sure she slept much, if at all (Sorry, Mom. I love you.). She arose with payback on her mind and began extracting assorted plates, bowls and flatware from the dishwasher with a clangorous flourish that ensured no one in the house would still be asleep when the machine had been emptied.
There were plenty of awful nights of sleep to go around. Perhaps the worst befell Scott Matlock, an old friend from Penn State and a new friend of this journal. Scott pitched a tent behind the hosue in a low-lying patch of grass which turned into a roiling river overnight.
This is the thanks he got for honoring my last-minute request and performing “Singing in the Rain” on his fiddle as we walked the aisle. I can still see him and his then-girlfriend emerging from the tent that morning and turning it upside down to allow several gallons of water to pour out. It’s lucky they didn’t drown.
I am humbled to discover my old friend Matty is squandering some of his nonrenewable leisure time poking around in these tawdry climes. He stumbled upon a reference to Mike Slusser recently and asked if I had ever posted anything about our Nashville visit. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that Mike and Matty are old friends and musical confreres. Thanks to his prodding, here’s a slice of the remarkable wit and courage of the guy they call Mandolin Mike nowadays. 
While I never got around to posting a Mike Slusser story, I did transcribe a tape of our 2003 run-in last summer during our interregnum in Gig Harbor, Wa., where we baby-sat our house as it creaked along the path to foreclosure.
I just wandered through the fractured post, and I’m pretty sure I never finished transcribing the tape, which sits in a desk drawer in Berwyn, Pa. Still, what’s here gives you a pretty good idea of what Mike Slusser is all about. That was nearly a decade ago, and he’s gotten a little notoriety since. You can look him up on the Google machine. I could post links, but then you’d have no reason to read this.
I hoped we’d have a chance to look up Mike in Nashville on this leg of the journey, but we never made it. I sure hope he’s doing well.

Mike Slusser in a characteristic setting, posing genially with a young couple on Lower Broadway. Photo courtesy of Brad Hardisty and The Nashville Bridge.

Mike Slusser in a characteristic setting, posing genially with a young couple on Lower Broadway. Photo courtesy of Brad Hardisty and The Nashville Bridge.

*****

Nashville, Tenn. – We had stopped in Robert’s and a couple of other joints (there are no cover charges on Lower Broadway, and every joint has an aspiring band honky-tonking for little more than tips), then wandered back in the direction of the car.
Mike Slusser was chatting with a couple passers-by, talking about some hybrid of Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” and something else I didn’t catch that he’d worked out.
A woman beckoned us to linger, so we stopped a while. Mike turns 40 in December and hails from Boiling Springs, Pa. (Like “Monkey” and “Bearded Monkey,” trail names of the Central Pennsylvania gnomes who harshed my trek through the Maine’s Hundred-Mile Wilderness last August, a trip I undertook at the behest of my spiritual adviser, Jefferson Pepper.) Mike is a whole lot friendlier and reasonable than the bearded simian or his glabrous gal.
Mike played his mandolin in front of Nashville Gifts in a little recess next to a soda machine. He came to Nashville in ’98 and has been hanging on since. Says he lives in his Ford Escort. He’s done with corporate America. He has driven a forklift and worked an array of soul-killing jobs. Now he lives in his car and subsists on the appreciation of passing strangers.
His mandolin, bought in York, Pa., for $1,000, is all he’s got left. It is covered with signatures of more-famous mandolin players, familiar names who don’t live in cars and busk for change. One is that of his hero, Sam Bush.  Others include Chris Thile, Ricky Skaggs, Drew Emmett and Tim O’Brien.
Blessed with a resilient spirit and an abiding sense of humor, Mike played on the street here on the night of Dec. 31, 1999, a hand-crafted sign protruding from his case heralding the dawn of a new “mandolennium.”
Despite all outward appearances to the contrary, including advanced decay that has left a yawning gap where his two front teeth are supposed to gleam, Mike Slusser is intelligent, reasoned and articulate. Says he’s been sober for 13 years. Has never smoked a cigarette.
I asked him to play one of his songs. What do you know? In the ain’t-it-a-small-world department, he played  a tune from his album called “Enjoy the Ride,” written by a Pennsylvania musician named Mike Banks.
Mike Banks. I remember a party near Pittsburgh, me half-drunk, trying to play the guitar with distressing results in between sets. Probably something like Robert Johnson’s humiliation in front of Son House and Willie Brown in that Tunica juke joint so long ago.
Except, in a slight departure from that narrative, Robert Johnson transformed himself, with legendary effect, into a guitar-playing wizard. That he became so adept at his craft gave rise to the legend he sold his soul to the devil.
I still can’t play the guitar worth shit, and Mike Banks’ music has traveled at least as far as Lower Broadway, Nashville. I retain the acute sting, the memory of him offering what seemed a patronizing bit of encouragement that night, but what the hell was he supposed to say?
And so the name “Mike Banks,” like so much else, still evokes in me a sense of abject failure. The failure, as always, is all mine. I suppose my sense of envy is rooted so deep in my blackened soul and cannot help but thwart any effort at self-realization.
And I am sorry.
Possibly I should see a shrink. As a friend once told Mike Slusser, she doesn’t trust anybody who hasn’t be in therapy or rehab.

I’ll never feel anything but admiration and best wishes for Mike Slusser. He made an absurdly difficult life choice. Maybe it came naturally to him. He said he has not had an address to his name for more than a year. He has been sleeping in his Escort at truck stops off I-40 since May. Before that, he was staying with a friend.
“There’s a very thin line,” says Mike, “between integrity and a loss of common sense.”
How can you not like a guy who can parse his predicament with such pithy aplomb.

******
Where is this going? The narrative again has been sacrificed to a scrambled, panicked, incoherent attempt to record the essence of the welter of accumulating imagery. Mike Slusser served in the Army for six years as a linguistic specialist, trained in Korean. Where does this slip into the story in a meaningful way?
The minutes of cassette tape are winding into hours and hours. Mike Slusser, Guy Coleman and King David one day, Elvis and Wayne Jerrolds the previous one, H.D. Dennis, Pinetop Perkins, Big Eyes Smith, Willie Kinard, Charles Cox, Sue Bell. It has been a confusing, strange, enchanting week.
When I begin to plow through the chaotic procession of faces and stories and images, I am depressed by the lack of atmosphere, of melody, of rhythm in my prose. I read a snatch of Alan Lomax, and I am at once impressed by the poetic clarity of his voice and depressed by my pedestrian prose.
Mike Slusser is not hounded by such concerns. His life has been reduced – by choice – to utter simplicity. He keeps his music collection and books at a friend’s house. The rest is wedged into his small automobile.
He battles daily to disregard the scorn of passers-by and maintain a healthy sense of self. A well-dressed man walks past and drops a dime and two pennies into Mike’s mandolin case. Mike grabs the 2 cents and gives them back, unabashedly challenging such boorish behavior.
Guy gives him a dollar. That’s all I gave him, one dollar. Becky had given him a handful of change earlier. Were the roles reversed, I would be annoyed. Not Mike. While I am besieged by self-loathing and narcissistic fancy, Mike is strangely, insistently idealistic.
He’s not worried about sunken living rooms or raised bedrooms or music libraries. He does not have reason to contemplate the ideal listening environment for La Traviata.
He suggests you do something nice for someone, but says it must be anonymous. This pollyanna-esque bit of virtue has the ironic effect of getting me off the hook visa vis my distressing parsimony.
The cynical wheels inside my head are always turning, urging me to succumb to the lesser angels of my nature. And I’m always finding reason to heed their call.
I could stand a dose of Mike Slusser.

******
Editor’s note, Part 2: Mike was quite generous with his time and thoughts that night as he worked Lower Broadway for a few greenback dollar bills. More generous than I deserved, but I guess it’s just his way. He said a lot of thoughtful things, too many for me to squish into the framework of a jerry-rigged narrative. So here’s the world according to Mike Slusser in a question-and-answer format:

I know you love Sam Bush. Then again, who doesn’t. Who else do you listen to? Who inspires you?
I listen to a lot of different players, everybody from Bill Monroe and Jethro Burns in the early mandolin days to Chris Thile now, and Mike Marshall and Sam Bush and David Grisman. They’re some of my heroes. I love the Seldom Scene, and John Duffy was a hero. Even though as a mandolin player he was real hit and miss but his singing was incredible and his energy on state was unstoppable. A real force in music.
Sam is the coolest by far as far as being a human being and a player. He’s 100 percent about music all the time. He never turns it off. And he just lives what he believes. That’s a great example to go by. And he’s the most down to earth and approachable guy I’ve ever met. So you can’t go wrong with that combination.

Next to you.
Well (he laughs), I’m still nobody. He could cop an attitude and he doesn’t. That’s my point. I meet a lot of people down here who are clingers and think they are somebody, and I know Grammy-winning musicians, bass players and drummers and dobro players and whatnot who played in Grammy-winning bands. They have Grammys on their shelves, and they’re the nicest guys in the world. They treat me with respect. They ask me how I’m doing. They know me on a first-name basis. You can’t get that staying home.

Nashville has a legendary reputation for shattering dreams and breaking hearts. Knocks you back, kicks you in the nuts. This ring true for you?
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I’ll tell you how it is for me. I’m currently living in my car. And I’ve had ups and downs and jobs and apartments. I came here with a lot of equipment, and now I’m down to just this mandolin. And that’s all.

Where do you play, beside the street of course?
Western Beat, Cafe Milano, I also play the street as often as I can. I look at it this way: The thing about the street is it’s the most honest living you can make. I don’t solicit people to stop. I don’t ask them to tip me. I play and I give away my music. What God gave me and what I developed with my own sweat, I give away and I take back only what comes back to me. It’s the most honest and spiritual living that I can make.

How did you come to the point of making such a daring, courageous and, perhaps, foolhardy decision?
I turn 40 in a couple months, in December. I decided last year that I’m not going to work for Kroger. I’m not going to work for Target. I’m not going to work a job just to get by and put money in some greedy company’s pocket while my dreams are of no importance to them. I have 20-year-olds coming in there walking over me to get up the ladder because I don’t care to be anything but an entry-level employee. I decided I’ve had enough of that. That’s why I do this full-time and take whatever living it brings me. That was my decision and I’ve stuck with it for over a year now. If it means tough times, it means tough times.

Sounds easy when it rolls of your tongue. Still, that’s a hell of a decision to make.
It is idealistic, but I don’t have a wife or an ex-wife. I don’t have any kids out there. I don’t have a mortgage. My decision to do that affects me. It doesn’t affect other people other than my friends who care about me. They’ve offered me, they don’t want me to stay in a car, they say, “We’ve got a place to stay if you need it.” So I’m not worried about the winter. I played last year through the whole winter out on the street. I played when it was 19 degrees out here. Somebody took a picture of me down here.

Follows a break for music. Gotta earn his living.  He serves up the standard “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” laced with ripping, shimmering mandolin runs. (As I listen to the tape, I hear somebody singing out of tune. Sounds disturbingly like me.
Here’s a bit of Mandolin Mike culled from youtube:

How long have you been living in your car?
Since about May of this year. All summer basically. I usually go to a truck stop, and I usually don’t go right in town. There’s a TA. If you go an exit or two exits either way out of town, on 40 or 65, you’ll be fine. The nearest decent-sized truck stop. That’s what I do. I have my car. I get out of here at 2 in the morning or 3 in the morning. I get in the car and drive out to the truck stop. If I need to take a shower, I take a shower. If I need to do my clothes, I do it there. They don’t care. People are traveling all the time. And I’ve noticed some cars are there every day. I’m not the only one doing it. There’s quite a few people doing it. They had last winter, the mission had, on the coldest day of the year, they had 1,700 men set up there. So that tells you how many people are out on the streets in this town. And you’ve also got the Salvation Army. There’s probably 3,500 homeless population in this town. I think that would be a conservative figure. They’re not counted. The census doesn’t count them. Unemployment counts people who are drawing unemployment. You can’t count the unemployed. That’s why they kick people off the unemployment, so they can make the statistics look good. Hey! The unemployment rate when down. They just kicked everybody off.

What a world, eh?
It’s still the best place to be, though. I’ve been around the world, and I’d rather live in America than just about anywhere else. For all its faults, it’s still the best alternative we have. I haven’t been to Australia. I still think I’d rather be here than anywhere else. Still, it’s a constant battle. For respect. For the most part people will view you as, if you’re out here on the street, you must be a drunk. You must be a bum. I’ve been called a drunk before, and I’m 13 years sober. I’ve never had a drink in this town. I’ve had people go by and say, a buddy of mine we’re standing here playing one night and these two guys walk by and say, in their conversation but loud enough for us to hear it, ‘these two guys are begging for money.” And we’re playing music. We didn’t even have a sign out. We were just playing with a case open. That’s an ancient tradition. Busking goes back through Europe, way, way back. And it’s a shame that in Music City it’s probably less respected than it is in New York or Toronto or D.C. I’ve been around the country and played in other places. Boston, New York and Toronto  are much nicer to people who busk than they are here.

What do you make of the troubling indifference and lack of compassion we have for our fellow humans living on the streets? Where do you find the resolve to keep coming out here and playing for a parade of ingrates?
Part of it is panhandlers and people get tired of people hitting them up for a dollar all the time. They just lump everybody together. You know. You’re just another panhandler with a different dodge. I don’t consider it that. I’m proud to play on the street in Nashville. I know some great musicians and stars who played on the streets. They’ve slept in the cars in the alleys around here. Before they had their chance.
Townes Van Zandt used to live right over there above Wolfy’s. And he drank and he played on the street. Now they consider him, now that he’s dead and gone, one of the greatest songwriters that ever was.
Steve Earle slept under the bridge down there. I know that for a fact. So, to be a part of that tradition is not so horrible a thing. I don’t mind that. I play songs for those who have passed on when I’m down here all the time. Play one for Johnny. Play one for June. One for John Hartford or Townes Van Zandt. There’s a lot guys who made this town what it really is, the part that matters, and it ain’t gonna be Toby Keith and Tim McGraw that are gonna be remembered. It’s gonna be those guys.

End, for now. Thanks to Mike Slusser. And thanks to Scott Matlock for prodding me to unearth this piece, because it gave me the chance to appreciate Mike Slusser all over again.

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2 Responses to Oct. 17, 2003: Mike Slusser, the Mandolin man of Lower Broadway

  1. smatlock1 says:

    Thanks for posting this. Laurie and Emma and I visited Mike on Broadway in 2007 when we were in Nashville, brought our instruments and jammed with him on the street, then bought him lunch in Tootsie’s. I truly admire your skill in posing a few brief, focused but sympathetic questions that allow your subjects to reveal their essence. People love to be heard, long to be understood, and just bloom when they have the great good fortune to be drawn by a deep listener. That is real journalism, to…”help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man… …Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”
    E.M. Forster

  2. smatlock1 says:

    PS, Mike Banks, also a good friend of mine, brings out the green eyed monster in a lot of would be guitarists, believe me as I know whereof I speak. Also, the name of his song is actually “The Joy of the Ride”. You wouldn’t believe it was me unless I pinned a picayune quibble on the ass of my compliments…

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