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Historic Instruments Get Star Workout

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

When Marty Stuart was around 12 years old, his father took him to a Bill Monroe concert in Jackson Alabama. The pair later met Monroe backstage where young Marty told the father of bluegrass he was learning mandolin. Bill immediately gave the lad his mandolin pick and said “you take this home and learn to play with this pick.”

This heartfelt tale was one of many recollections included in a fund raiser for Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Big Night (At the Museum) premiered on the Hall of Fame and Museum’s YouTube channel on October 28.

The 90-minute pre-recorded show, which was hosted by Marty Stuart, featured current stars being paired with instruments which once belonged to country music legends and are now preserved in the museum. They included Lucinda Williams, playing Johnny Cash’s Martin D-35S guitar; Keb Mo playing Jimmie Rodgers’ 1928 custom Weymann guitar; and Miranda Lambert on John Prine’s David Russell Young custom-made guitar.

But the star-turn on the show were three instruments belonging to the trio considered the greatest musicians in bluegrass music – Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt. Ricky Skaggs got to play Monroe’s 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin, while Alison Brown was picking Scruggs’s 1930 Gibson RB Granada five-string banjo, and Marty himself played Flatt’s 1950 Martin D-28 guitar. All three used them together for the first time to perform Monroe’s “Heavy Traffic Ahead.”

However, it was Stuart’ monologue about the three bluegrass greats - all of whom started together in Bill’s famous Blue Grass Boys band - and their instruments which took the fund-raiser to a new level. Stuart wandered through the museum, pausing at each of the three exhibits and reflecting on their contribution to American country music.

Stuart, a country-music child prodigy, recalled how he had been basically discovered by Lester Flatt at age 13. He went to live with Lester and his wife Gladys while his parents and sister were in the process of relocating from Mississippi to Nashville.

He pointed to Flatt’s guitar in the display case and said: “That guitar was sort of abandoned in one of the rooms of his house and I adopted it, put strings on it and lovingly restored it and played it for many, many years. But I knew in my heart one day it belonged in this exhibit right here.”

Stuart would fittingly end the show, with Carlene Carter. The pair did a superb rendition of the Carter family favourite “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Carlene would play the 1928 Gibson L-5 guitar that belonged to her grandmother Maybelle Carter - a guitar which cost “Mother” Maybelle the equivalent of $US4000 in today’s money. Stuart gave another outing to Monroe’s mandolin, an instrument Bill reportedly found in a Miami barber’s shop in the 1940’s!

Rodney Crowell, an ex-brother-in-law to Marty, provided another highlight when he appeared in the workshop of Guy Clark, the man considered to be the songwriter’s songwriter in Nashville. Clark not only wrote superb alt-country songs, he was craft builder of guitars and the museum has meticulously reconstructed his workshop within the exhibition hall.

Before performing, Crowell gazed at the workshop walls and zoomed into a polaroid picture of Guy’s wife Susanna which had been pinned there for 40-odd years. It was to be the subject of one of Clark’s last, and indeed finest, songs “My Favourite Picture of You,” a number since covered by the likes of Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker. Crowell then performed Clark’s “She Ain’t Going Nowhere,” on a guitar, called number eight, which Guy had specially built for Rodney as a birthday gift.

“As I was singing, I couldn’t help thinking ‘Guy’s here, digging on this’,” said Crowell of his old friend who died in 2016.

Earlier Crowell teamed up with another close friend Emmylou Harris to pay tribute to Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, considered the first professional songwriting team in Nashville. Several of the Everly Brothers’ hits were composed by the couple including “Love Hurts” which Crowell and Harris performed effortlessly, with Emmylou using Boudleaux ‘s 1961 Martin guitar. It was the same song which brought fame – and a Grammy nomination – to Harris when she recorded it with Gram Parsons.

Emmylou held the Martin in her arms and reflected on how she and then-husband and producer Brian Ahern had been invited to the Bryant’s house as part of a meet ‘n greet soon after arriving in Nashville. “I probably saw the guitar then because I had a feeling they probably played us some songs,” she said. And to think this was the guitar he was strumming when he came up with all those beautiful melodies!”

More than $743,000 was raised during the premiere of the Big Night. It is estimated that The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has suffered losses exceeding $30 million during the pandemic. It closed down on March 13 and reopened to the public in limited fashion in mid-September.

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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