Carter’s Famous Guitar Returned to Hall of Fame

Tennessee Philanthropist Provides Donation for $575,000 Purchase

Maybelle Carter’s guitar is back on permanent display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, thanks to a Murfreesboro, Tenn., philanthropist. The announcement was made Monday (Aug. 23) during a ceremony at the museum in downtown Nashville.

Bob McLean seemed a bit uncomfortable with the attention he received from artists such as Vince Gill and Marty Stuart, but his donation allowed the Hall of Fame to write a $575,000 check for the purchase of the instrument that’s acknowledged as one of the most historically significant instruments in American music.

The guitar — a Gibson L-5 arch top acoustic built in 1928 — was purchased by Carter shortly after she, cousin Sara and brother-in-law A.P. recorded their first music in Bristol, Tenn., in 1927. In addition to the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and the Stoneman Family also participated in the recordings now known as the Bristol Sessions. The recordings first signaled country music’s commercial viability and were, as Johnny Cash once said, “the single most important event in country music.” Carter also revolutionized guitar playing by using her thumb and fingers to simultaneously perform melodies with rhythm chords.

Carter used the L-5 guitar on virtually all of her recordings until her death in 1978. The guitar was loaned to the museum in 1998 and remained there until May when the owner consigned it to Gruhn Guitars, a vintage instrument shop in Nashville, which placed it on sale at $575,000. Although the owner was never specifically identified, instrument expert George Gruhn confirmed that the guitar was being sold by one of Maybelle Carter’s heirs.

Another of her heirs, John Carter Cash, is happy the guitar has returned to the Hall of Fame.

“I’m overwhelmed with joy,” said Cash, who is the son of Johnny and June Carter Cash. “I had sort of been watching from the sidelines. I talked to George off and on about it. I’m so grateful that it’s back here right where it should be. I’m very excited.”

Gruhn said his intention all along was for the guitar to be purchased by a benefactor for donation to the Hall of Fame. “It’s what I wanted,” he said. “It’s also what the owner wanted. I’m just inexpressibly proud to have been able to play a role in bringing it home.”

Monday’s event at the museum’s Ford Theater was also attended by June Carter Cash’s daughter, Carlene Carter, and several Hall of Fame members, including Earl Scruggs, Eddy Arnold, Brenda Lee, Charlie Louvin and Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires. The presentation began with an audio recording of the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunnyside,” followed by a video of Maybelle Carter performing “Wildwood Flower” many years ago on Flatt & Scruggs’ television program.

Scruggs was just one of the musicians who played the famous guitar Monday. Others include Gill, Stuart, Sharon White of the Whites and John Carter Cash’s wife, Laura.

“Where it all started is on this instrument,” Gill told the gathering. “That’s a rarity. For us to have this guitar in our possession, to have this guitar to play once in a while, is priceless.” Alluding to the tape of Maybelle Carter performing, he said, “As I watched that video, it made me want to take every single knucklehead on Music Row and make them watch that and just see how beautiful music can be in its simplest form.”

After learning that McLean played guitar in a folk band during the early ’60s, Gill invited him onstage to play “Wildwood Flower” on Carter’s guitar. When McLean tried to decline the invitation, Gill pointed out that he would assist him with the other musicians onstage — Cheryl White of the Whites on bass, Stuart on guitar and Stuart’s bandmate, Kenny Vaughan, also on guitar. Gill joked, “We’ll make you sound pretty damn good.” And they did.

McLean, executive producer of the upcoming film Our Very Own learned of the museum’s challenge in May while visiting the complex with actor Jason Ritter, the son of actor John Ritter and the grandson of Tex Ritter. McLean said Kyle Young, the Hall of Fame’s executive director, and the museum staff “convinced me that rescuing the guitar was not only important, but absolutely essential.”

McLean, who actively supports a number of non-profit organizations, made a restricted gift of approximately $1 million to enable the museum to purchase the Carter guitar.

“If there are any heroes here today,” McLean said, “it’s the musicians — some of them in this room — for taking Mother Maybelle’s legacy to heart as they create their own legacy. … It’s also the fans outside these doors and all over the world who continue to be comforted, inspired and informed by the music of country music’s pioneers. If no one cared, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum wouldn’t need Mother Maybelle’s guitar. Fortunately for us, though, people do care. They care about the past. The past helps us deal with the present. The past helps us make decisions that impact our lives and our descendents’ lives.”

The Hall of Fame’s inability to immediately purchase the guitar underscores a larger problem, McLean said. “Some people collect for fun, others for investments,” he explained. “This trend, coupled with theme restaurants, high profile public auctions and e-commerce, has driven the cost of popular cultural artifacts beyond the ability of any not-for-profit cultural institution’s ability to compete. The museum couldn’t have bought this guitar. It can’t purchase Bill Monroe’s … mandolin, either. But this is where they both belong, not because they’re fancy, expensive instruments, but because the world was changed by the music created with them.” (Monroe’s Gibson F-5 mandolin is currently for sale at an asking price of $1 million.)

McLean’s gift and his remarks won him plenty of new admirers within the country music community. Not the least was Stuart, who pointed out, “It’s good to know guardian angels have Southern accents.”

To view photos from the Hall of Fame ceremony, visit Mother Maybelle Carter’s artist page at CMT.com.