NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Bill Monroe’s Mandolin and Maybelle Carter’s Guitar at Risk

A Chunk of Country Music Heritage Is on the Financial Line

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

When Bob McLean started becoming a regular visitor to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Nashville, he usually had a prominent country music artist with him. No one had any reason to distrust McLean in a town of handshake friendships and business deals. He soon became a major friend of the Hall, attending many functions, always arriving in his chauffeured limousine. He was a friend to all, a hail-fellow-well-met and a regular on the country music party and charity function circuit.

McLean seemed to be a major and successful financial investor and adviser in the Nashville area with many prominent friends. No one thought to question his fiscal records or financial well-being. Those who entrusted their funds to him to invest on their behalf thought he was doing well with their money. Many advised their friends to invest with him.

When McLean said he might like to make some major donations to the Country Music Hall of Fame, no one asked for his financial bona fides. If any not-for-profit museum is offered artifacts that are essential and central to the institution’s mission, it is unlikely to first demand to examine the donor’s financial records. He also made major gifts to Middle Tennessee State University, his alma mater in Murfreesboro, which then renamed its music school the Robert W. McLean School of Music in his honor.

The disposition of art and artifacts is becoming more of an issue nationwide and worldwide with institutions selling off treasured artworks to private collectors. Many museums are being pressured to return archeological treasures to the origins and countries from whence they came, with anything of questionable provenance being closely scrutinized and with the status of donors’ legitimacy in all donations being increasingly questioned.

It is the latter matter that has embroiled the Country Hall in its present fix. McLean’s gifts to the museum included money pledges to acquire two very precious musical instruments. They are the key musical instruments behind country music’s history, the “precious jewels” of country music’s legacy, as the Hall calls them.

Maybelle Carter’s 1928 Gibson L-5 guitar made the sound that launched the Carter Family and early commercial country music. It was a simple but distinctive and very effective guitar style that helped develop the sound of country music, exemplified by her famous “Carter lick.” Her picking helped change the guitar into a lead instrument, and her style has influenced musicians to this day.

Bill Monroe’s 1923 Gibson F-5 Lloyd Loar-designed mandolin is the instrument Monroe used in inventing the style of country music known as bluegrass. Securing those two instruments was pivotal to the Hall’s future. They represent country music history, as no other two artifacts do. When McLean donated the Carter guitar, the first of his two major offerings, he said during a ceremony at the Hall, “This museum couldn’t have bought this guitar. They can’t purchase Bill Monroe’s Loar mandolin either. But this is where they both belong. They belong here because the soul of America lives here with them.”

Together, they cost under $2 million. Monroe’s son, James, was asking $1.125 million for his father’s mandolin, and an unnamed private collector, said to be a family heir, sold the Carter guitar through a Nashville guitar store with an asking price of $575,000.

In the wake of McLean’s financial empire’s collapse in 2007, when his investors accused him of stealing an estimated $67 million in a Ponzi scheme, the estate’s trustee ordered the Hall of Fame to pay the money back immediately or else the instruments would be auctioned to the highest bidder. And there would assuredly be many bidders. Historical musical instruments have become a highly prized commodity for international collectors. The Monroe and Carter instruments are prized historical artifacts, but even more recent sales have included Eric Clapton’s famous Fender Stratocaster nicknamed “Blackie” which went for $959,500, auction fees included.

Raising a large amount of money immediately was impossible for the Country Music Hall of Fame, a cash-strapped museum with no ready emergency fund in the seven figures. Too bad, said the trustee, we’ll just auction them off to the high bidder. So the Hall of Fame is now struggling to raise funds to secure those instruments and to pay off McLean’s good intentions but dishonest transactions. The campaign by the Country Music Hall of Fame to preserve these instruments for future generations is something that I feel should be supported. Their settlement with the estate calls for the hall to pay $750,000, which it has been working to raise.

Trying to sell museum items off to private collectors is indicative of such moves nationwide and leads to the question: Who controls art that should be enjoyed by the public? Can artwork held as a public trust be sold to the private sector? The central issue in all the art and artifacts imbroglios is this: Does public art truly belong to the public? Or can it be siphoned off to the highest bidder and whisked away to a private museum or even a wealthy private collector who displays the prizes only to select friends?

Across Nashville from the Hall of Fame, Fisk University has been trying for years (and been blocked by restrictions in the donation’s deed of gift) to sell off precious artworks that were donated to the school by the artist Georgia O’ Keeffe. In Lynchburg, Va., the trustees of Randolph College spirited off four valued paintings to Christie’s in New York for auction to raise money for the school. There’s an outcry in Massachusetts over Brandeis University’s plans to sell off all the 6,000 works in its Rose Art Museum. When times get tough, art seems to be the first casualty.

One of America’s first ladies refused to leave the burning White House before the portrait of George Washington was safely removed and carried away from the invading British army’s raids. Dolley Madison, the wife of president James Madison, wisely recognized the significance of cultural artifacts and protected that one.

I must say personally that I liked Bob McLean very much. He was an enthusiastic and very knowledgeable fan of country music, and of all music, and loved to talk about it. He certainly never talked money or investing. The last time I saw him was in 2006 at the funeral for Louise Scruggs, Earl’s wife, and McLean was just as solicitous as ever about all of his country music friends. I’m very glad, though, that I never had any excess money that I was tempted to invest with him.

Bob McLean took a pistol and blew his brains out behind the First Christian Church in Shelbyville in September of 2007. He had funded a scholarship program at that church. The note he left behind read that the death “is by my own hand. No one else was involved.”

Editor’s note: The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville has undertaken a $1.1 million fundraising campaign dubbed the Precious Jewel Fund. Learn more about the initiative.