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Billy’s boys

Mike and John Snider, one a country music entertainer and the other a successful farmer, are two sides of the same coin — their multifaceted father
Story and photos by Sarah Geyer 7/31/2018


Mike Snider, right, may be a well-known Opry legend, but the lifelong Weakley County resident says that in his hometown, Gleason, he and younger brother, John, left, a third-generation full-time farmer, are still referred to as Billy Snider’s sons. A fitting title for both, who each take after the beloved 89-year-old patriarch.
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Mike Snider, a banjo aficionado and Opry regular, and his younger brother, John, a third-generation full-time farmer and skilled mechanic, have found success in vastly different fields, but both admit they are, as the saying goes, “two apples that didn’t fall far from the tree.”

If you’re thinking that “tree” must be one interesting fellow, Mike and John say you’d be correct.

Their father, 89-year-old Billy Snider, who farmed into his 80s, has a variety of talents including his mechanical acumen, guitar-strumming skills, and quick-witted one-liners.

Even as a kid, John says he showed signs of carrying his father’s “jack-of-all-trades” genes, and as a teenager began a lifelong hobby of working on cars. After high school, John worked in welding and fabricating while farming part-time. After a few years, Billy asked his son to join the family business full-time. John accepted and worked side by side with his father on their 1,100-acre farm for three decades.

Today, John runs the farm by himself, with one full-time employee, and raises corn, soybeans, and wheat on 750 acres and runs 25 mama cows and two bulls on an additional 55 acres.

As for Mike, his musical chops — which he attributes to both his father and his mother, Rubye, 84, who spent many years as the church pianist — blossomed after Billy bought his son a banjo for his 16th birthday. Mike soon taught himself to play by ear and spent hours every day practicing, stopping only for school, farm chores, and meals.

His career in the music business began unexpectedly in 1983 with a win at the National Banjo Championship followed by an appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in January 1984. His talent with the banjo quickly made him a go-to performer for country and bluegrass music lovers across the country.

Although he lives just across the field from his childhood home, Mike’s hectic schedule limited the amount of time he could help out on the farm. In his heyday, Mike played as many as 650 shows a year. In recent years, however, he’s reduced his performance schedule to every weekend at the Opry and five or six more appearances a year, allowing him to help John on the farm when needed.

Both brothers attribute their successful careers to the strong work ethic of their parents. They began instilling the value of hard work into their sons at an early age.

Mike says their first job on the farm, picking two acres of okra every day during the season, began when they were 5 and 6 years old and continued until their late teens.

“That’s how we got our money for school clothes,” he says. “By picking that okra patch every year.”

“Money and a trip to the Dairy Queen for a Texas Long Dog,” adds John. “We’d eat our hot dogs sitting in the back of the truck on okra crates on the way back home.”

With an age difference of just 15 months, the boys were inseparable growing up.

“Whatever one of us was doing, the other was right there,” says Mike. “We fought, pulled hair, scratched, laughed, cut up, and had a big time together.”

Once the boys were old enough, Billy added helping out with the hogs to their farm duties.

“That way we had a year-round job,” says Mike. “Something to keep us busy.”

Busy is right, adds John, explaining that the family raised 1,000 hogs, farrow-to-finish, with 500 on the ground.

“Seemed like every morning,” he recalls, “Daddy was waking us up because the sows were out in the front yard again.”

The boys also logged many hours on the row-crop side of the family operation, too.

 “We worked with corn, soybeans, wheat, and milo,” says Mike. “Put it all in them old grain bins, and then scoop it out the front door. That was before they had augers.”

“Oh, they had ‘em,” says John, with a wry laugh. “We just didn’t know about ‘em.”

“Well, Daddy knew about ‘em, but it cost a little money,” says Mike. “So they didn’t exist for me and John. He’d always say, ‘Put them boys to work, it won’t hurt them none.’”

Their father worked them hard growing up, says Mike.

“And I mean really hard, but I’m so glad he did,” he says. “That’s the thing about ol’ Daddy. He did it the hard way, and he made us do it the hard way, too. But he was right there beside us. He never put nothing on us he wouldn’t do himself.”

Billy, according to his sons, enjoyed combining more than any other farm task. In fact, they point out, he owned the first self-propelled combine in the region and would gladly travel several miles to combine for other farmers. Mike recalls a phone conversation with Billy about eight years ago that marked the end of his father’s farming career.

“He was taking medicine that thinned his blood and [his energy level] got down low,” says Mike. “We got him pumped back up as good as he could get, but he was still weak and trying to gain his strength back. I knew he wanted to get on that combine, so I called him to see how it was going. He told me, ‘I climbed up to where I could see the switches and everything, but I just couldn’t get that last step, and I had to back down.’”

Since his mind is still sharp, says John, it was frustrating for Billy to accept that his body couldn’t keep up.

“To see him get old to where he just can’t do it has been hard on all of us,” he says. “Ain’t nobody ever loved farming more than that man.”

Mike recalls a conversation he had with his father nearly four years ago in the farm’s shop.

“Dad was sitting in his chair, and I could tell he was tired and fighting it,” he says. “I sat down next to him and asked how he was doing. He looked at me and said, ‘I can’t believe that I’ve been reduced down to this.’ Even then, Daddy never was ashamed of calling it like he saw it.”

Although sometimes poignant, Billy’s “calling it like he (sees) it” usually includes his dry, quick-witted sense of humor and his sharp one-liners.

“His ability with common sense is genius,” says Mike. “And that’s what makes him so funny.”

Over the years, he says Billy often used humor to keep his sons’ egos in check.

“Everyone knew I wasn’t as mechanically inclined as Dad and John,” says Mike. “One time, Johnny was putting the finishing touches on a fuel pump installation. Daddy said, ‘Before you hook that up, you have to get that first cylinder top dead center.’

“I thought for a moment and said, ‘On a piston engine, without taking the injector out, how are you going to be able to tell if it’s top dead center?’ With barely a pause, he said, ‘Well, first thing, you’ve got to know a little something.’”

John recalls a few years during his early adulthood when he spent much of his time and money working on and trading most anything with an engine.

“I bought a TransAm, traded it for a three-wheeler, and then traded it for a motorcycle,” he says. “Daddy told Mike, ‘Every time he trades, he loses a wheel.’ He wasn’t trying to be funny, that’s just who he was. Ain’t seen nobody like him.”

When Mike decided to transition from his three-finger style of playing to a more traditional approach, his father, who loved Mike’s original technique, wasn’t pleased. So when the musician produced his first CD after the style change, he presented Billy with a copy.

“Mostly because I wanted to hear his response; I knew it’d be original,” he explains. “After about three or four days, I finally said, ‘I guess you about wore that CD out listening to it.’

“He surprised me when he answered, ‘Son, I don’t care much for that old Irish music.’ I laughed and said, ‘Daddy, there ain’t an Irish song on there.’ Without missing a beat, he said, ‘Well, maybe there “orta” been.’”

Although his quips aren’t as frequent these days, the brothers say their aging father still catches them off guard with his humor.

“Just recently, I was going to drive him to Paris,” says Mike. “When we got in the Jeep, I said, ‘Daddy, put your seat belt on.’ He quickly responded with, ‘If you think we’re going to have a wreck, just let me out and I’ll stay here.’”

With more than six decades together, Mike and John’s parents continue to live in the same home where they raised their children. Rubye, who operated a local restaurant for over a decade in the 1990s and early 2000s, remains active in her church and at home, taking care of her beloved husband and sharing her love of cooking with the family.

Every day, the matriarch prepares a large meal for the entire crew — Billy, Mike, John, and the sons’ families, which include John’s wife Mandy, their 11-year-old son, Nathan, and Mandy’s 19-year-old son, Michael, as well as Mike’s wife Sabrina and, when they’re in town, the couple’s children: Katie Lynn, 27, a registered nurse, and Blake, 25, a software engineer.

John says his mother enjoys the fellowship of having the family together, and “it gives us a chance to brag on her cooking.”

“They’re dandies, both of them,” says Mike. “Me and John have been lucky to have them, and we appreciate every day we have together as a family.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: We are saddened to share with you that Mike and John’s beloved father Billy passed away on the morning of Tuesday, July 24. We send our deepest condolences to the Snider family and friends during this time of sorrow.

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