“At a conservative estimate, I’ve logged — since 1998 — about 24,000 hours as a street player,” Mike Slusser says. “Give or take 500 hours either side.”
Better known as “Mando Mike,” Slusser spends 40 to 50 hours a week at his usual spot in front of Gruhn Guitars on the 400 block of Lower Broad. He relocated from Pennsylvania 15 years ago with “500 bucks and a car full of equipment,” and he almost always sports a grin as he picks away at everything from Bill Monroe to Metallica on his mandolin. The instrument, purchased in 1990 for a thousand bucks, is a copy of a 1927 Gibson F-5, and 20-plus years of playing have worn a hole down to its ribbing.
“In ’98 or so, I was making about $10 an hour just showing up out here,” he says. “And then I watched it go down to about seven, and now it’s down to — honestly, not counting CD sales — I average about $4.50 an hour.”
That comes to something like $800 a month.
“It kinda sucks if you think of it that way,” Slusser says. “But the bottom line is, had I done what so many people do, nobody would know who I was.” By “what so many people do,” Slusser means the come-to-Nashville-try-to-write-a-hit-and-get-burned-out model, as opposed to street-gigging.
He’ll bend your ear for as long as you’d like about the dichotomy of songwriters vs. sidemen, the level of musicianship in Nashville or the kind of commitment and work ethic required to make a living doing what you love. He seems to know the music business inside and out — literally, as he’s played in studios and at showcases just the same as he’s played on this same strip of sidewalk for roughly a decade.
And sure, Slusser has seen plenty of downs; there was even a stretch when he was living out of his car. But, he points out, he’s also been featured on Katie Couric’s Katie, in a commercial for Nashville, on SportsCenter (he wrote a Peyton Manning-coaxing song when Music City was attempting to entice the quarterback back to Tennessee), “countless” documentaries and things for the Internet, NFL on CBS, a show called You Don’t Know Dixie … the list goes on and on.
But for all the TV appearances, Slusser speaks most proudly of moments like when a field-tripping youngster tipped him with a little plastic army man, or the look of astonishment when he played New Grass Revival’s “Lila” for a little girl named Lila. To Slusser, seeing a kid wowed and mystified at his playing is “the coolest thing in the world.”
“You find a way to make it work if you love it enough to do it,” says Slusser.
We could probably all stand to keep the Mando Mike mantra in mind a bit more.
The Model Citizen: Karen Elson
The Advocate: Paul Kuhn
The Cook: Tallu Schuyler Quinn
The Cleaner: Sharon Reynolds
The Mobilizer: Remziya Suleyman
The Believer: Theron Denson
The Maker: Zoe Schlacter
The Animators: Magnetic Dreams
The Buyer: Kelly Anne Ross
The Arthouse Ambassador: Sarah Finklea
The Picker: Rory Hoffman
The Singer: Ruby Amanfu
The Educator: Ellen Gilbert
The Air Drummer: Steve Gorman
The Artist: Martin Cadieux
The Chef: Yayo Jiménez
The Futurist: Ken Gay
The Commissioner: Many-Bears Grinder
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