10 Questions for Mick Buck
By Mandolin Cafe
February 25, 2010 - 3:30 pm
Residing a few hundred yards from Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, the birthplace of country music, Bill Monroe's July 9, 1923 Lloyd Loar F5 mandolin rests in the care of the Country Music Hall of Fame®, and more directly under the watchful eye of curator Mick Buck.
Enclosed in a glass case under dim lighting, the tastefully designed display is in close proximity to guitars made famous by Mother Maybelle Carter and Johnny Cash. Combined, they are part of a small group of instruments that make up the "Precious Jewels" of the museum, with Monroe's mandolin clearly the centerpiece.
Buck serves as one of the guardians for these historic instruments, along with many other important pieces of country music history in the museum's care.
Acquired through the promise of a donation by philanthropist Bob McLean of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the mandolin's final resting place was challenged after McLean's passing and a subsequent legal case against his estate that obliterated funds that would have ensured its purchase.
A witness to the mandolin's arrival at the museum and caretaker for it since, Buck agreed to satisfy our curiosity by answering some questions we had.
About Mick Buck
Mick Buck is the Curatorial Director at the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum. Since joining the museum staff in 2004, he has curated major exhibits on artists such as Marty Robbins, Ray Charles, and Kitty Wells.
His other job duties relate to the stewardship of the museum's collection of thousands of artifacts, ranging from guitars and mandolins to Nudie suits and Elvis Presley's gold-plated Cadillac.
Mick Buck and Bill Monroe's mandolin
Mandolin Cafe: Bill Monroe's mandolin has suffered a troubled existence since his passing in 1996. Having it housed at the museum seems to us to be the most fitting final resting place. Is the mandolin at home for good at the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum, or are there financial challenges ahead for it staying put?
Mick Buck: The mandolin remains in the museum's care and in the public trust. However, the future of both the mandolin and Maybelle Carter's Gibson L-5 guitar will not be completely secured in perpetuity until the museum has paid off its settlement with the Robert W. McLean estate.
Mandolin Cafe: How are those funds being raised?
Mick Buck: The museum launched a $1.1 million fundraising campaign last year to defray all costs associated with acquiring these instruments, and although we've made great strides toward the $1.1 million goal, we are not all the way there yet. If your readers are interested in contributing to the Precious Jewels campaign fund, they may do so by visiting the museum's website (Ed. note: see link at bottom of this page. At the time of publication, the fund total was 61% of the goal).
Mandolin Cafe: Can you describe the physical condition of the instrument at present, and did it arrive in playable condition?
Mick Buck: Despite the apparent wear and tear to the finish, the mandolin is in very good condition. The wood feels very "alive," and Monroe's mandolin still rings out loud and strong. I'm glad to report that it arrived at the Hall in playable condition, as Ricky Skaggs expertly demonstrated when he played it at the donation ceremony in our Ford Theater, in 2005.
Mandolin Cafe: What steps are taken to ensure the long-term health and structural integrity of Monroe's mandolin and other similar instruments at the museum?
Mick Buck: Our climate-controlled archives and display cases were designed with an eye toward long-term preservation of the instruments and thousands of other artifacts in our collection. Temperature and humidity levels are monitored daily and maintained at proper levels for preserving stringed instruments. To further protect them from light, dust, and other potential hazards, instruments stored in our archives are kept in their original cases or in custom-designed acid-free boxes. All stringed instruments in our care are tuned down a whole step to relieve string tension.
Mandolin Cafe: So, if we dropped in next week and asked to play it, the obvious answer is...
Mick Buck: Only curatorial staff are allowed to handle them.
Mandolin Cafe: The leather covered mandolin case with Monroe's stenciled name is iconic. Is it also in the museum's possession, and if so, are there plans to display it in the future?
Mick Buck: Yes, it was donated with the mandolin and is currently in storage. There are no immediate plans to display the case, but we will welcome the opportunity to do so when the appropriate occasion arises.
Mandolin Cafe: Monroe's original mandolin headplate, the one with Gibson's name gouged out with a knife, recently sold at Christie's Auction house for $37,500. Was the museum interested in acquiring it?
Mick Buck: No, this is not an item that we had an interest in acquiring. Also, I'd like to stress that the museum is a not-for-profit educational organization and we do not have an acquisitions fund. The vast majority of objects in the collection have been donated.
- Related: Monroe's mandolin headplate sells for $37,500
- Related: Monroe's Gouged Mandolin Headplate To Be Sold
Mandolin Cafe: It must be necessary to keep a fair amount of written documentation about an instrument of this stature. If a new curator comes on board the museum in the year 2110, what kind of documentation is preserved right now that would be available to this individual?
Mick Buck: In terms of legal documentation, physical copies of the deed of gift and other paperwork generated at the time of donation are kept on file. In addition, our computer database contains photos, measurements, condition notes, exhibit history, and other information that preserves a dimensional portrait of the mandolin and its provenance.
Mandolin Cafe: Is the damage that occurred to the instrument in 1985 and the subsequent repair (the "fireplace poker" incident) part of the instrument's preserved written history?
Mick Buck: Absolutely. That is an essential part of its history. We also incorporated some of that information into the exhibit text for the mandolin.
Mandolin Cafe: Can you envision a scenario where the mandolin is taken out of the museum and into the studio for some type of special project like a recorded Monroe all-star tribute?
Mick Buck: In general, our museum policies prohibit the mandolin and other instruments being taken off display or removed from the museum for such purposes. Our concerns about security, insurance, and preservation make such a scenario highly unlikely.
Country Music Hall of Fame
Precious Jewels Fund
Monroe's mandolin record from the Mandolin Archive
Precious Jewels Fund
Below, one of the official Precious Jewels banners with a link to the matching web site. The Fund's purpose is to pay the remaining amounts due on Monroe's mandolin and five other historically significant instruments.
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I enjoyed learning more though, that's for sure!
Furthermore I read that it is highly unprobable to hear the Monroe mandolin (and like instruments) in a recording project. Now that's a crying shame. I don't expect a museum to let a passer by (like me) handle suchlike instruments. But Ricky Skaggs, Doyle Lawson, Dave Harvey etc. will not damage Monroe's mandolin when you let them play it. Also it is necessary to keep the instruments played in order to not kill them and reduce them to "wall hangers". Check the Beethoven museum in Bonn where the Guarnieri fiddles etc. are played (regularely) by pros for special purposes. Let special ocasions happen and it will bring the CMHOF forward enabeling them to spread the word about good music. Restrictions like the one mentioned will setback the preservation of the music.
That the case is not displayed is a shame also as it is fundamentally connected with the mandolin and the musician Bill Monroe.
How many Loars are in this group? I know there are a few...a shame they can't/won't be used...
In such items as Nicolo Paganini's Guarneri "Cannon", Bill Monroe's '23 Loar F-5, the "Messiah" Strad, and the U.S. Constitution, we have unique pieces that represent significant cultural developments. There is only one of each, and each one represents the highest ideal of a particular art form or philosophy. The only way to keep any artifact as an example is to preserve and maintain it in the condition it left its creator's or user's hand.
There are plenty of fine mandolins to play. It wouldn't make any difference to me or anyone else if I played on Bill Monroe's mandolin of choice, because I am not Bill Monroe, and I did not use it to forge a whole musical idiom. That F-5 #73987 represents the culmination of an art form -- it paid its dues when Mon passed.
52 years of being ignored, sitting in closets, under beds, who knows where, and ready to run at the first note and sound great. So the call that instruments suffer from neglect from not being played is not something I buy. The Schultz Loar, now owned by one of the board members, received no inspection, no playing, no concern of humidity or lack of, no protection from the heat and cold that it inevitably suffered. In contrast, Monroe's mandolin is protected, inspected, played occasionally (everyone knows the curators play them from time to time, this is common public knowledge from other curator interviews I can show you) and receive quality care and attention that will ensure they exist for hundreds of years.
I was really impressed by my experience with the museum staff throughout the process. It included a personal phone call from their Communications head that asked thorough questions about our intention in publishing this article. The word "respect" (in regard to the story and history of the instrument) kept coming up in that conversation and in private communication with Mick. I think Monroe would have approved of that.
Everyone's entitled to their opinion, but I'll side with the gypsies in Europe that pitched a fit when it was announced that Django's guitar would be allowed to be taken out of the museum in Paris to be played in concert. "No one will play Django's guitar!" they cried. I admire that. Personally, I don't need to hear Monroe's faithful play his mandolin. They have their own. When it is called to be played again, the mandolin will be ready. We may not be around to hear it though, and that's just fine with me.
And, one way to pay for it is to use the mandolin to do exactly that. I believe the intended recipients would give serious consideration such a proposal in the absence of cold hard cash. Perhaps even expand further to a DVD documenting the performance with emphasis on close-ups of the players hands. And offer tablature perhaps? Just wondering here!
If there is legitimate concern over removing the mandolin from the Museum premises just do the recording on site! A good time to do this would coincide with the anticipated release of the "Blue Moon of Kentucky" movie.
After looking over this year old interview again I have the impression that "no" seems to be a rote response from staff - in compliance with established policy, of course. Perhaps it is time for the Museum to lighten up a bit, inject some realism and go beyond just letting visitors look at the instrument.