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                                  Mike Snider - Always Gleason's Hometown Boy

By Deborah Turner

Mike Snider surged from 1983 national banjo champ to a member of the Grand Ole Opry. After 26 years of perfecting the three-finger style of banjo playing, three years ago he switched to the clawhammer style in keeping with his interest in old-time mountain music.

Some who gain fame take due pride in being able to say they’ve never forgotten their roots. Celebrated banjo player, Mike Snider, on the other hand, dug his roots still deeper in the town of Gleason from which he’d sprung, after being welcomed heart and soul into the close-knit bosom of the Grand Ole Opry and adoring fans everywhere.

Mike and wife “Sweetie”, the former Gleason-girl, Sabrina Godwin, and children Katie and Blake, live on an impressive estate “about a mile across the field” from where Mike was raised with brothers John and Alan and where his parents, Billy and Rubye Snider, remain.

Sabrina just celebrated her 20th anniversary working with MTD Products in Martin, where she has been employed since the plant was built in 1985, after graduating from the University of Tennessee at Martin.

Blake, at 11-years-old, is more engaged with Gameboys than making music, while Katie, a homecoming queen at 14 and a member of Gleason’s eighth grade class, “plays the piano and plays it well,” says her father. She plays at church--like her grandmother, Rubye, did from a youthful age--as well as for talent shows and beauty contests.

Mike was two years older than Katie when he received his first banjo, a gift from his father for his 16th birthday.

“That’s all I wanted to do after that,” he says.

Before then, he was an accomplished trumpet player. He got his start on that instrument at the age of six after the dogs dragged up in the yard an old cow horn bugle or foxhorn. The big end of the horn was already chewed away by the time he found it and showed it to his dad, who blew into it to make a noise. Mike tried it, too, and before long he was playing a tune. Seizing on the boy’s obvious talent, his parents bought him a trumpet, similar in function to the cow horn. He played it at school and community events throughout his school career.

But when he was 15, Billy brought home an old Flatts and Scruggs record he’d bought in Jackson in a bargain bin, Mike tells. They listened as Earl Scruggs played the banjo in the recording.

“Daddy loved the banjo,” says Mike, “He said, ‘Boy, ain’t that fine!’”

Mike and his dad became excited at the prospect of Mike’s playing the banjo. “I wanted one so bad; I knew I could play it if I could just get my hands on it, he says, adding, “Mama said I needed to stick with trumpet. But I had lost interest in it.”

The trumpet had never captivated him as the banjo later would. He had quit taking lessons after six months, more interested in riding motorcycles and shooting his bb gun. He also enjoyed a little bird and squirrel hunting with his grandfather,  Hubert Snider.

“Me and him, we was buddies,” Mike smiles.

The Snider family: Blake, Sweetie (Sabrina), Mike and Katie.

Leaning back in his chair in his comfortable living room in Gleason, he tips his cap back and scratches his head, adopting his characteristic grin as he recalls the day his father came home and lifted out of his trunk Mike’s first banjo: “It was two days before my birthday... May 28, 1976... at 12:30 noon. It was brand new and it was a good one, too, and it was in tune and everything.”

He found a teacher in Gene Harkey from Sharon who came to the Snider home a day or two later and agreed to teach Mike how to play.

“He was real nice to teach me everything he knew; it took me about two years,” Mike says. “He was a good teacher and after I got going good I helped him learn some things he wanted to know.”

Contrary to Mike’s expectations, however,  he admits, playing the banjo didn’t come easy. “It was really hard,” he says with a nod and raised eyebrows.

“It took like - seemed like forever - before I could do anything,” Mike says doggedly, “but I would not let up. I knew I could do it, deep down deep. I could hear it in my head and I knew what it would feel like if I could just do it right.”

He played eight hours a day, every day. Every spare minute was spent in practice: “I had to go to school and work on the farm, so I played before breakfast, then I played ‘til the school bus came. After school, I’d play, then go do what I needed to do, and come back and play along toward midnight... Lots of times, I carried my banjo to the field with me.”

He would sit in the truck and play while his father drove the combine through the fields. When a load was gathered, he stopped playing long enough to deliver it and get back to the field.

“At night I had to come home and get the vacuum cleaner to suck the corn husks out of the casing,” he grins.

Even so, playing the banjo wasn’t the only thing on his mind. He was just a junior in high school when he started looking for his mate.

“I had several girlfriends,” he says. “Every girl I met, I’d ask, ‘Is this the one?’ I was looking for my companion; I knew she was out there somewhere.”

In the meantime, he makes no bones about his dislike for academics, noting he “barely” graduated from Gleason High School.

“All I wanted from school was to get out,” he declares. “I already knew how to read, write and spell and enough math--I could do that in my head--enough math to be able to handle money. I thought I’d be a farmer, I never thought I’d be able to play the banjo for a living.”

It was four years after graduation when, in the spring of ‘82, he asked Sabrina Goodwin out for a date. The homespun girl, who lived a couple of miles away, had been three years behind him in school. Their first date on March 28, 1982, was all it took for Mike to know she was the one.

“On our first date, I knew,” he says, “I don’t know why, but I knew. After I carried her out a couple more times, I got my nerve up and asked her to marry me on the third date. She took me up on it and nine months later we got married on December 12, 1982.”

He pauses, pondering, before he continues, “That just flew by. Now we’ve been married going on 23 years.”

Almost a year after his marriage, he was thinking of hanging up his banjo. He had won the state championship twice and, “they wouldn’t let me enter again,” he says. Then his banjo student, Lloyd Lewis from Henry, talked him into entering the national banjo contest scheduled for September, 1983.

Says Mike, “I thought, ‘Well, before I put it away, that would be nice to show the grandkids someday. I lucked up and won that thing, then came back home.”

Wayne Stoker, whose brother Gordon Stoker is a member of the renowned Jordannaires quartet, told Mike that Gordon was coming home for Thanksgiving and might be able to help.

Mike, however, still convinced he would remain a farmer, was in the shop working on a combine blade with his father when someone came by and said Gordon was home. Mike paid him a visit and played a few tunes on the banjo.

“Me and him kind of made friends right there,” he says. “When he asked what he could do to help, I said, ‘Well, I’d kinda like to be on the Grand Ole Opry one time,’ and he said, ‘I believe I can get that done.’”

The Opry not only invited Mike to perform, they invited the entire town, sending 1500 tickets.

Mike was confused. When the tickets arrived, he called and asked, “How much am I supposed to charge for these?”

After learning they were free, he took some to City Hall and with the help of The McKenzie Banner and other local media outlets, word got around.

“People just scarfed ‘em up!” Mike says, still enthralled with the experience.

When the tickets ran out, about 500 more locals purchased tickets so that, on January 21, 1984, some 2,000 members of the Grand Ole Opry audience were from Weakley and Carroll counties.

“The whole town--just everybody I knew in the world, nearly--was there,” Mike says. “It was the neatest night in my musical career, and I’ve been doing it now for 21 years.”

Following his appearance on the Opry, and the phenomenal support shown by his hometown, Mike was invited to appear on TNN’s Nashville Now with host Ralph Emery.

“Everybody laughed at everything I said, and I wasn’t trying to be funny,” said Mike, his easygoing manner and pronounced country accent working with the sincerity of his smile to effect a refreshingly happy atmosphere for the audience. His comic appeal coupled with his dexterity with the banjo proved to be a winning combination.

Over the next two decades Mike was a member of the Hee Haw television show for seven years. He made hundreds of appearances on Nashville Now, Music City Tonight and Prime Time Country, plus over 1,000 shows on the Grand Ole Opry. He performed for seven years at Nashville’s Opryland USA. After originally hoping for a one-time performance on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, his name on June 2, 1990 was added to the coveted membership rolls of the legendary Opry.

His unexpected rise to stardom had little effect on his home life. “It was kind of a natural thing, it unfolded real natural like,” says Mike, possibly because his thoughts are always on coming home. “When I’m gone for a show, it’s not a vacation--I’ve got getting there, getting done and getting back on my mind--my favorite place to be is home.”

In the past few years, Mike’s playing has undergone a regeneration. In the beginning, he worked relentlessly to play banjo in the three-finger style of Earl Scruggs. Then, he says, “After playing that style for 26 years, I  kind of got tired of it. The desire left just like it came.”

Grandpa Jones had shown him the frailing or clawhammer style of banjo playing that actually predates bluegrass music and that Mike first started playing three years ago.

“I always loved the old fiddle tunes and a lot of the old tunes lend themselves to the old-style frailing type banjo,” Mike says, regarding the old American fiddle tunes and “mountain-type” music performed by The Mike Snider String Band.

In addition to the banjo, Mike also plays mandolin and harmonica alongside fiddlers Matt Combs and Shad Cobb, Tony Wray on guitar, and Todd Cook on the bass fiddle.

The group performs at Bethel College on Saturday, February 19 at 7 p.m. following an opening by the Danny Ray Martin Quintet. Tickets are $7 and can be purchased beginning February 3 at Bethel College in the Office of the President or at McKenzie City Hall Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.

Mike will also present a master class for bluegrass instruments earlier Saturday from 4:30-5:30 p.m. Those interested may call Onnie Grissom at 731-352-4049.

Mike says guests can look forward to an evening of music, jokes, and stories as the occasion warrants. “I just fly by the seat of my pants,” he says, allowing his strategy for success has always been to size up his audience and perform accordingly. “I just go without a plan; the only plan I have is to entertain them somehow. I walk on stage and do my best.”

Talk of his success always brings Mike back to square one.

“I’m mighty grateful toward all the people of Weakley and Carroll County for supporting me and coming to see me when I was at the Opry and for coming to the show up here,” he says. “Without the help of everybody around here I’d never have made it in the music business.”

He reiterates the vital role Gordon and Wayne Stoker played in “getting the ball rolling” and how the people of Gleason and surrounding counties rallied to drive to Nashville in the middle of winter to watch him perform at the Grand Ole Opry.

“That was the key ingredient to seeing my career started,” he says. “They (at the Opry) were really flabbergasted that just that one little thing they did brought in the town.”

That’s why he’s never regretted staying in the small town of Gleason that he calls home. While some don’t forget their roots, Mike’s just keep growing deeper.

“One of the reasons I want to live here is, I love living in this part of the country,” he says with warmth and sincerity. “All the folks I growed up with, they know I ain’t changed none ‘cept I’ve lost a few more hairs. And I love my parents. I go out and see them every day when I’m here. It’s a little hard to go play the Opry 150 miles away, but it’s worth it to be here the rest of the time.” Source: The McKenzie Banner.

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