By Bailey Marshall
In the backwoods of Buchanan, a bearded man has built a legacy inspiring a love for music in his students since 1975.
“Not everybody can make it in music, but a lot of people can make a living in music,” said Mike Lee, music teacher. “Shucks, do you need to get famous and make bunches of money or do you need to just make a living? Making a living is kind of cool to me,” he quipped with a smirk.
One summer, Lee discovered his love for music when his uncle loaned him his first guitar. Even at age 10, with no formal lessons or previous experience, he could not put the guitar down.
“I was obsessed with guitars,” said Lee. “That’s the reason if you look at my license plate now it says ‘dittar.’ I had a little speech impediment until I was 6 or 7, so I wanted a dittar.”
His uncle took the guitar back at the end of the summer, which left Lee aching for one of his own. After seemingly endless months, Lee’s father bought him his own guitar for Christmas.
“My daddy never did know enough about guitars; the guitars he would buy were too hard to play because he was tight,” Lee said. “The determination to play a guitar that was hard to play taught me the discipline to practice anyway.” Lee practiced during his pre-adolescent years but played behind closed doors until he joined the Craig County Boys, a bluegrass band, as their lead guitarist for 29 years.
“At that time, it wasn’t cool to like country music too much. You were considered a redneck,” he said. “Everybody was into rock and roll in the ’60s. Country wasn’t so cool. I did like rock and roll; I just found it harder to play and didn’t enjoy it as much.”
In 1975, Lee worked full time for Double Envelope and played regularly in the band when he decided to start teaching music lessons to people out of his apartment in Roanoke. Then, after he moved to Buchanan with his wife Sue, he taught lessons on his way home from work.
“I had a couple people at work who wanted to learn,” Lee said. “I would get there early, and we would have a lesson in the conference room before work.”
The early years of teaching were not without their challenges. At that time, the Craig County Boys played every weekend and sometimes on the weeknights. Lee worked a full-time job, played shows and taught 12 students in his spare time.
“Occasionally, the band would get a date on Tuesday or Thursday night,” he said. “I didn’t feel right canceling with the student to go play the shows.”
This was when Lee knew he needed to make a change. He gave his band a one-year notice to find someone to replace him before he made his exit. He left his day job a year before he quit the band to free up time for teaching. At age 50, he had 17 students weekly.
Lee described the transition as difficult for Sue because she was a dear friend to the wives of the other band members. She shifted from spending quality time with them each weekend to not seeing them on a regular basis. Lee said he appreciated of the support she gave then, and to this day, so that he could follow his dream of teaching.
The number of Lee’s students grew annually until his business peaked in the 2010s when he taught over 60 students six days a week.
“I just really wanted to teach music. I knew I wasn’t going to get rich, but I did better than I ever expected with the good Lord’s help,” Lee said. “Deep desire helps you do stuff.”
Even with ample competition, Mike built a reputation of trust within the Botetourt County community that attracted passionate students for 19 years.
“It was different for me because everybody else in Botetourt that I know of had degrees, and I didn’t have a music degree,” he said, as he stroked his chin in thought. “But I took some courses and learned a lot on my own which maybe made me a better music teacher.”
Lee uses his favorite teaching books to guide his lessons while incorporating his own exercises with students and challenging them in areas from music theory to their natural ability to hear music.
“I think music is so important in life,” Lee said. “Can you imagine life without music? No, it makes people feel good.”
Most Americans cannot imagine their life without music either. In 2019, according to Statista, “Around 51% of U.S. adults report that they listen to music every single day, with another 20% listening two to three times per week.”
However, Lee insists that music is not the most important instrument of life.
“I’ve had some kids come with some emotional or family problems, and we might play one song and the rest of the lesson is more of a counseling session,” Lee confided. “Sometimes you end up being a music teacher, counselor, advisor and helper.”
The NAAM Foundation found in a 2007 study that music helps teens release emotions and cope with situations that involve loss, peer pressure and changes in family or friendship dynamics.
Lee mentioned that he loves teaching just as much as he loves helping people.
The indents on the tips of his fingers from the guitar strings commemorate a life filled with hours of playing, but more notably, service to students.
“When I think of Mike, I think of someone who is a great example not only as a great musician, but as a great person,” said David Austin, former guitar student and songwriter. “He is a man of high ethics.”
Walking into Lee’s studio, one sees chairs lining the perimeter for parents to sit and listen to their children. Tapestries and art from students and newspaper clippings about their accomplishments adorn the walls. Lee’s studio has been a haven for students of all ages for decades.
“His teaching style is unique and personalized for each student, making for an easy learning environment,” said Colleen Perry, a former guitar student and worship leader. “He understands that a guitar lesson is more than just a guitar lesson, but sometimes a crucial life lesson; he also incorporates a lot of laughs and Dad jokes into the lesson.”
Lee encourages his students to share their talent with the community. He helped develop the band Pico Road and takes great pride in seeing his students book gigs. Lee contends that individuals must share their music. He does not desire the spotlight.
“To me, success is not always about how much you succeed, but about how much the kids, the students, under you succeed,” he said. “At this point in my life, I would like to see any and all of my students become famous or become really good at their music and share their talent.”
Most of his students regularly play in the community. Lee advised that gigs often lead to more opportunities, so it is always important to play your best even for a small crowd. His students often recall their trips to local nursing homes to entertain the elderly.
Lee coordinates an annual community recital to give his students the opportunity to share their talent. Growing each year, the recital has become one of Lee’s favorite aspects of teaching. Beaming with excitement, he guides students in song selection and helps them formulate crowd-pleasing arrangements.
With 47 years of teaching experience under his belt, Lee has no plans to slow down. Two knee replacements did not stop this bearded icon from training the next generation of musicians.
“I don’t have any intention to quit,” he said. “I have intention, probably, to cut down from four days a week to three days a week, but at one time I taught six days a week and I had 60 students.”
The future of this eclectic artist remains unwritten. As Lee always says, the only guaranteed parts of life are death and taxes. Regardless how he chooses to pursue music in the future, be assured that Lee will have positive impact on the people around him.