Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Collector: Pure Country

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley
  • Robb Report

  • A five-string custom banjo, one of three that Gibson made in 1940 for country music performer Uncle Dave Macon.
  • Its Owner
  • George Gruhn has owned and operated Gruhn Guitars in downtown Nash­ville, Tenn., since 1970, selling vintage guitars, banjos, mandolins, ukuleles, and other stringed instruments. In addition to scores of Martins, Rickenbackers, Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, and Gibson Flying Vs and Les Pauls, Gruhn has acquired and sold the 1928 L-5 guitar with which Maybelle Carter performed during the bulk of her career with the Carter Family, a Gibson Everly Brothers acoustic model that Elvis Presley used at Graceland, and several guitars that Johnny Cash owned, including a prototype Johnny Cash signature Martin guitar that the musician played during his later years.
  • Its Significance
  • This banjo belongs to a trio that Uncle Dave Macon, one of the first stars of the Grand Ole Opry radio program, commissioned from Gibson in 1940 and continued to play until his death in 1952. “He generally traveled with three,” says Gruhn, explaining that Macon would pretune each to a different key. Mother-of-pearl fleurs-de-lis on the fingerboard distinguish this banjo from the other two. It also has an open-back design that enabled Macon to perform the twirling tricks that were a highlight of his act. Gruhn owns a print of a 1941 photo, taken by a Life magazine photographer, that shows Macon spinning the banjo hand over hand. “Macon could swing it like a pendulum and hit notes as it passed,” he says. “He was a real showman. [Macon offered] the old-time sound with a bit of vaudeville flash thrown in.”
  • After Macon died, the banjo passed to David “Stringbean” Akeman, who would become one of the original cast members of the television show Hee Haw. (Gruhn says it is unclear how Akeman came into possession of the instrument.) In 1963, Akeman recorded an album of Macon songs and posed with the banjo for the cover photo.
  • Akeman met a tragic end in 1973, when he and his wife were murdered at their home near Nashville by burglars seeking the roll of cash that he reputedly kept at hand. “He frequently carried money on him, in his bib overalls,” Gruhn says, recalling how he had seen Akeman reveal stashes containing tens of thousands of dollars. “He was a country guy who didn’t believe in banks. He didn’t want to let it out of his sight.” The criminals, who never found Akeman’s money, were apprehended quickly and convicted. In 1996, a man who was renting the Akemans’ cabin discovered $20,000 hidden behind a brick in the chimney, but the bills had rotted and could not be redeemed.
  • Read the entire story in the Robb Report.

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