CMHOF-Ricky Skaggs with Bill Monroe's mandoline on 09.08.05.

The Instruments Behind Tennessee Music

How often has music connected with you at a soul level and stirred you deeply? Have you wondered about the hands that crafted these finely tuned instruments and the musicians who heard those distant strains and drew forth their song?

The Precious Jewel collection in the Country Music Hall of Fame holds a select few instruments that have become country music icons. Treasures that have been refinished, restored or rebuilt, powerful symbols of country music history. These finely crafted creations of wood and metal each reflect the spirit and personality of the artists who used them and tell their own stories, like Bill Monroe’s Gibson F-4 mandolin, on which Bluegrass was virtually invented.

The most famous mandolin in American history, signed by Gibson’s legendary acoustic engineer, Lloyd Loar, in 1923, the F-5 was noted for its craftsmanship, superior tone and loud volume. Monroe found this mandolin in a barbershop window in Florida in 1940 and it became his second voice, a constant companion to his supercharged solos both on stage and in the recording studios.

Also featured in the collection is Jimmie Rodgers’ Martin 00-18 guitar, which launched his recording debut at the Bristol Sessions in 1927. His first two songs, Sleep, Baby, Sleep and The Soldier’s Sweetheart, began a career that turned him into country music’s first superstar.

Mother Maybelle Carter paid $275 for her 1928 Gibson L-5, the finest she could find. Until her death in 1978, she played this guitar for hundreds of recordings, radio and television programs and live appearances.

Three other seminal instruments to country music in the Precious Jewel collection are Chet Atkins’ D’Angelico Excel, the Rolls Royce of handcrafted guitars prized by both players and collectors; Lester Flatt’s Martin D-28 used in most of his performances and recordings with Earl Scruggs; and Hank Williams’ 1944 Martin D-28 – preserved and occasionally played by his son, Hank Williams Jr. (photos courtesy of Country Music Hall of Fame).

The legendary Gibson guitar factory, headquartered in Nashville, today has a strong focus on electric guitars, constantly innovating new designs. But the hidden stories of the music industry lie just below the surface.

Scattered through this heartland of country music are a small number of independent instrument makers. Steve and Carol Smith operate a small warehouse in Hendersonville, handcrafting guitars, mandolins and resophonics (dobros).

With a background in industrial art, machining and precision woodworking, Steve moved from northern California to manage Gibson’s newly formed Bluegrass division, and eventually stepped out as an independent luthier – one who handcrafts stringed musical instruments. A tour through Redline Acoustics is a revelation of the skill and diversity of these artisans. An arsenal of equipment and machinery, lathes, drillpresses, saws, routers and custom guitars, mandolins and dobros in every stage of creation.  The business is a combination of custom building, repair of instruments, and the manufacture of parts.

“The greatest rewards include the final assembly and listening to the precision-built instrument,” said Steve, “but I really enjoy the tooling of fixtures and jigs to make things work more efficiently.” You can see the wheels constantly turning in his brain, a man who is obviously a natural inventor with music in his veins.

“Tradition dictates instrument making,” he explains. “That determines whether the wood used is mahogany, rosewood, spruce, maple, birch or walnut. Wood affects tone. Everything matters.”

Not far away, on a rural property in Gallatin, Robin Smith operates Heartland Banjo & Guitar Co

A small custom builder of banjos and guitars, Robin spent many years playing bass in jazz bands across the country. He was mentored building guitars by Marty Lanham, founder of Nashville Guitar Company, and now does his own custom building and repair of banjos and guitars, also specializing in vintage instrument restoration. “My long term ambition is for my banjos to be 100% Made in America,” he shared.

Does your instrument have a story? Share it in the comments!

Hi! I’m Dayle Fergusson. As a transplanted Aussie living in Middle Tennessee since 1986, I have been a freelance travel...Read on

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