It began with Elvis: Music fans worldwide saw an instrument shaped like a voluptuous woman, draped in front of the King’s swiveling hips, and an affair with the guitar ignited.
How appropriate, then, that the Tennessee State Museum exhibit, The Guitar: An American Love Story (November 8–December 30, 2012), found its genesis through the state’s most famous son.“We had signed up with the Smithsonian for this incredible show of Elvis Presley photographs by Alfred Wertheimer, called Elvis at 21,” says the museum’s Executive Director Lois Riggins-Ezzell.“Even though he is the most well known person in the world, the photographs are limited to a very small period in his life, so we needed something that would complement the exhibit.”
Fortunately, museum curator Renée White had been working on just that thing. “I’ve had the idea to do a guitar exhibit for quite a while,” she says. “This is such a big guitar town, and when I ran into Paul Polycarpou [Nashville Arts editor and CEO], he told me about this great guitar exhibit he and Joe Glaser had done in Leiper’s Fork back in 2010, and everything fell into place.”
“The museum exhibit started as sort of a phoenix rising from the guitar fest in Leiper’s Fork,” says Polycarpou. Back then, he had joined with Music City’s premier luthier and fellow guitar collector Glaser to put on a show of museum-quality instruments owned by the two of them and their friends. Unfortunately, this one-day show ran afoul of the biggest flood Nashville had seen in 100 years. With Leiper’s Fork surrounded by water and tornadoes threatening, they threw in the towel.
“We must have upset the gods, because we almost lost it all,” recalls Glaser. “At about two in the afternoon, we scrubbed it. We said, ‘Well, that was the greatest show nobody ever saw, and we’ll never do that again.’” But when it came time to expand the museum exhibit, do it they did.
We called everybody up and asked if we could borrow the stuff again—this time for two months instead of one day, he says.
“The exhibit comes from Paul’s and Joe’s collections, but also from people they know,” White continues. “Paul was the driving force behind this exhibit. He suggested I call Walter Carter [author of books on Gibson, Epiphone, Martin, and Ovation guitars].” Jay Pilzer, another collector, historian, and player, joined what became the steering committee, along with Nashville guitar dealer George Gruhn. With these five luminaries on board, it was a simple matter of making a few phone calls to professional collectors, and Nashville guitar stars/collectors like Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, and Keith Urban, to bring together upwards of 150 special instruments for the museum show.
We could have contacted every collector for a more complete compendium, but we kept it more local and concentrated on things that fascinated us. One collector sent all the different-color Gibson Firebirds, and Keith Urban donated a cool Hofner, says Glaser.
“The show spans pieces from Los Angeles to New York, Atlanta, and Pennsylvania,” adds White. “We have a couple of Roy Rogers’ guitars, Eric Clapton’s 1958 Explorer, a Keith Richards Telecaster, an original Orville Gibson guitar and mandolin. What is really amazing is that this exhibit will run through December here in Nashville and never be seen again anywhere else in the world.”
“Legendary New York collector Perry Margouleff is contributing ten of the coolest guitars I have ever seen in my life,” says Glaser. “When the instruments started coming in, it was really exciting—a rare Tal Farlow Gibson, some of the first Bigsby guitars ever made. I grew up listening to these guitars and seeing them on record covers.” On December 12, Vince Gill and an all-star lineup of pickers will reveal these art objects as more than just a bunch of pretty faces, demonstrating the magnificent sounds they make in a concert at TPAC.
We put together a list of players that we most admired, and within no time, we had signed up some of the greatest guitarists in the world who all live within five miles of here, says Polycarpou.
Like the concert, The Guitar: An American Love Story couldn’t have happened anywhere but Nashville—the city referred to in the Steve Earle song as “Guitar Town.” “From something we didn’t think would be any more than Elvis at 21, we suddenly have the most spectacular guitar show ever assembled,” says Riggins-Ezzell. Whether generated by a natural talent like Elvis or a natural disaster like the flood, this love story promises to be an affair to remember.
The Guitar: An American Love Story opens November 8 and will be on view through December 30, 2012. For more information, visit www.tnmuseum.org.