He is the Artist of the Pick.
His canvas ranges from old barns, sheds, creaking attics, dark basements and decaying factory buildings to just about any home that invites him through the front door.
He paints with a sharp eye, a glib tongue and an encyclopedic knowledge of vintage items so keen that he can price their values in the blink of an eye. Mike Wolfe, the lean star of History's "American Pickers," is no overnight sensation.
For more than 45 of his 50 years he has been finding gems other people discarded or in places many passed by or were afraid to dare enter. He dipped his fingers into his trade at the age of 4.
"I started digging in the garbage walking to kindergarten. I just saw things in the trash that my family couldn't afford, like bicycles and old toys, and as I got older I moved into comic books," said Wolfe in a phone interview last week. "I always had a love for bicycles, and as I got into my early 20s, I started looking at antique motorcycles and got into those.
"My main collections have always been motorcycles and bicycles. Really that is that is how Antique Archaeology got started, with those two categories. As the years went by, I started broadening my horizons in regards to what I bought and sold."
Wolfe appears at the Country Living Fair at 1 p.m. Saturday at the James E. Ward Agricultural Center in Lebanon on the main stage for a discussion on antiques and collecting with the mag's editor-in-chief Rachel Hardage Barrett, followed by an audience question-and-answer session. From 2-3 p.m. he also will also sign copies of his book, "Art of The Pick."
His private collection stars about 20 rare bicycles and 75 motorcycles, and photos of some of these may be seen in his 124-page, hardcover book, "Art of the Pick" ($30), which he will sign on Saturday. The book also features Americana folk pieces, 1930's advertising and children's toys from long ago.
"The title really describes the book to a 'T'. It is looking at things that are discarded and rusty and dirty and focusing on their beauty," he says. "The photographs are shot in an artful way to visually stimulate someone and help them understand why someone would collect, seeing the beauty in something that has been cast aside or really shows its age and celebrating that."
From Iowa to Leiper's Fork
Iowa born and raised, Wolfe makes his home with his wife and 3-year-old daughter in Leiper's Fork, population 650, in Williamson County. He's been there four years after he and his wife came riding through on their motorcycles several years earlier. They fell in love with the area and vowed to move there after they retired but the success of his TV show accelerated the shift.
He and his picking partner Frank Fritz, a pal since the eighth grade, have 173 episodes in the can, and the show's seventh season may hit the air in mid-May. He began pitching the idea for the series in 2005, and it launched in January 2010.
"The show was really based on my life and my business. I'd been picking for about 25 years and was having experiences that I wanted to capture on film. When I first bought a camera it wasn't with the idea of a TV show. It was just me documenting what I was doing, meeting great people and having incredible stories told to me," he recalled.
"I wanted to document that so I bought a camera and didn't know what I was doing. I remember sitting it up on a tripod in the middle of a gravel road, and I just started talking into it."
Persevering, he kept making videos, filming Fritz as well and showing them to people.
Before moving to Nashville, Wolfe had already built relationships with people in the Music City entertainment community, a smart move.
"A lot of my friends in Nashville helped me get the show. They helped me understand what a treatment was, helped me edit the videos and encouraged me to never give up pitching it. I wouldn't even have a show if it wasn't for Nashville," he admits.
Wolfe can't keep up with Nashville's antique demand
Nashville was good to Wolfe, and he has been good to Nashville. Every year 300,000 to 400,000 fans (can you spell T-O-U-R-I-$-T-?) drop by his Antique Archaeology store in Marathon Village.
"The tourism board told us we were the second most-go-to-location last year in Nashville behind the Grand Ole Opry," says the picker, who cannot keep up with the demand.
"The show airs four months after we buy the stuff. The reality of it is I can never pick enough to fill that store with the amount of people that are coming into it. We can't be just antiques. We can't pigeonhole ourselves. Our fans have asked for merchandise, so 80 percent of our sales are merchandise.
"You can still find things in there that you see on the show for sell, but the biggest problem is a lot of that stuff doesn't stick around long."
Wolfe's show has not only proven a runaway winner in the U.S. but has spawned copies around the globe.
"Our show is shown throughout the world. There's 'Australian Pickers,' 'English Pickers,' 'Italian Pickers,' 'Canadian Pickers.' It's a format that can be plugged in anywhere. The show is relatable to just about anybody."
As for his co-star, when asked to describe Fritz in 10 words, Wolfe goes over budget with 12: bearded charmer, curious, adventurous, discovery, honest, good friend, passionate, driven, funny, clever.
Other shows in the pipeline
When not crossing American with Fritz, the master of the bundle, Wolfe enjoys time at home with family and friends and riding his cycles, but he keeps busy creating and pitching new show ideas.
His "Nashville Flip" pilot has aired twice. He's working on "Bad Blood" with Kris Williams of "Ghost Hunters" fame and a show titled "All Lynn in the Family" with Loretta Lynn's family. He seems especially enthralled with his show called "Saving America."
"It really focuses on smaller communities throughout America, how people are moving home to buy their dream house and raise their families... They want their children to have the same experience they had," said Wolfe, who knows how to pick the best of vintage America along with the marvelous people and stories that go with it.
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at email@example.com.