By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
August 11, 2009 - 7:30 am
A small piece of blackish pear wood with a big gouge, eight neatly drilled tuner holes and a missing curl is in many ways a symbol for bluegrass music, one that goes up for auction on Dec. 3 at Christie's in New York.
Be ready to buck up bluegrass boys and girls if you want this genuine and one-of-a-kind country music artifact. The original inlaid headstock plate on Bill Monroe's most famous mandolin will be sold to the highest bidder.
About 1951, Bill Monroe unfolded a blade on his pocket knife and began gouging the pearl inlay "Gibson" from the overlay on the headstock of his Gibson F5 Master Model mandolin, which was signed by Lloyd Loar on July 9, 1923. The Gibson repair shop at the factory in Kalamazoo, Mich., did not provide the repair work on the mandolin that the Father of Bluegrass felt he deserved.
This story was first told to me long ago around a bluegrass festival campfire, and Monroe was quoted by the teller as saying "they done me wrong, so the name come off."
Whether those were his exact words or not, I do not know. But they're accurate for the situation.
Generations of bluegrass music lovers have told the same story proudly. It stands for oldtime toughness, holding ground rather than folding and rolling with the apathy of modern times, and a willingness to value pride above resale value.
Monroe was powerfully and deeply stubborn. That carried him and his bluegrass music through the 1950s birth of electric rock 'n roll and slick country, when many thought his was a bygone music destined to die. A trait that could make him difficult for those close to him was to those of us at a distance something endearing. The gouged-out headstock stood for bluegrass music's individuality and resistance to corporate America.
That small piece of pear wood that originally was glued onto the mandolin's headstock at 225 Parson St. in Kalamazoo made a mighty journey, with more to go.
Monroe saw the mandolin for sale in a Florida barbershop window in 1943, tried it out and bought it, and the instrument's powerful tone helped define the bluegrass sound. Richard D. Smith, in his wonderful biography "Can't You Hear Me Calling' — the Life of Bill Monroe," called it the most famous single instrument in country music history.
The gouge became part of both Monroe's and the instrument's legends.
He sent the mandolin to the Gibson factory at Kalamazoo in the early 1950s, most accounts have 1951 or 1952. According to Smith, Monroe wanted the neck reset, new frets and fingerboard, new tuning pegs, a new bridge and refinishing. Gibson kept the instrument about four months, a short time to wait on a luthier for a hobby musician, but a long wait for a touring pro like Monroe who probably didn't fritter money on extra mandolins in those days.
Gibson expert Roger Siminoff remembers that the neck may have been cracked.
Either way, when Monroe once again had the mandolin, both Smith and Siminoff say only the neck work had been done. So out came the pocket knife, onto the floor in little shavings went "Gibson," with "The" remaining intact above it.
Monroe felt he'd prompted a lot of bluegrass musicians to buy Gibson mandolins, so he deserved better, Smith said.
But bluegrass music wasn't yet big and a price boom in American-made acoustic instruments was decades away.
"Bear in mind that in the 1950's, no one at Gibson really knew who Bill Monroe was," Siminoff said. "He was just some guy with an early Gibson mandolin."
About a year after the gouge, Siminoff said, Monroe fell with the mandolin and knocked the treble side scroll off the peghead.
The mandolin in that condition would show up in photographs for years. Sharp-eyed bluegrassers, eyeing album covers while an LP spun on the turntable, wondered why the mandolin looked damaged. They usually learned why via word of mouth, a story told with a smile and a laugh.
But Gibson managers were not laughing by the 1970s.
Monroe by then was revered, still on the Grand Ole Opry and his star was rising. Bluegrass festivals were spreading the gospel and the music was big on college campuses where roots music influenced young folks and their instrument purchases. The Los Angeles acoustic music scene was ripe with bluegrass, and groups such as the Eagles would include it on their early albums in that decade. A mandolin solo was a big part of British rocker Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" mega-hit.
Mandolin music led to Monroe, and he was playing an instrument missing the logo, and the story of a botched repair job by Gibson circulated among pickers—customers.
Gibson had offered through the years to fix the mandolin and it's logo, but Monroe declined.
Then in 1978, Gibson announced plans to build an F5L mandolin, their attempt to recreate the sound and look of the Loar-signed mandolins from the early 1920s. Original Loars sold for what seemed like high prices then, sometimes for five figures, within a growing bluegrass and acoustic jazz scene. The old Gibson F5s had the sound, and it was the instrument Monroe played.
"There was a lot of reference to Bill Monroe and I implored Bruce Bolen, Gibson's head of artist relations at the time, to get engaged with Monroe," said Siminoff, who helped design the new F5L. "I urged Bruce to give Monroe a new F5L to make amends and to try to sooth the relationship between Gibson and Monroe."
Two Gibson employees in product development and artist relations, Rendal Wall and Pat Aldworth, went to Nashville to meet with Monroe. Wall, a country musician himself, had ties with the Opry performers.
"It was a long, drawn out process," said Wall, who now works for Heritage Guitars at the old Gibson factory site at 225 Parson Street. "I met with Bill many times backstage at the Opry. It took many trips before he would even talk to me about it."
Finally, Wall was invited into the dressing room to discuss the matter.
"I said Bill, you've had this grudge against Gibson for a long time," Wall said. "We're wanting to kind of make up and get the headstock repaired."
Monroe said he'd think about it.
Aldworth remembers, too, that the company wanted to promote the new F5L with a photograph of Monroe holding the one given him, if peace was made.
Several weeks later, Wall was backstage at the Opry when someone tapped him on the shoulder and said Monroe wanted to talk to him in the dressing room about the mandolin repair.
"He said, 'I've been thinking about that, and why don't you go ahead and do that,' " Wall said.
Monroe told one interviewer later that he thought Wall was close to tears of joy when he got the news.
"We were happy," Aldworth said. "This was the Father of Bluegrass."
They eventually flew back to Detroit with the mandolin. Wall remembers that they bought a half-price ticket for the instrument. It rode in first class while they traveled in coach. They rented a car and drove to Kalamazoo, stopping for dinner along the way. But they carried the mandolin inside the restaurant with them.
Repairs were done at the Gibson shop by Dick Doan, Siminoff said. Doan was one of the three luthiers at Gibson who built mandolins. They worked in the same building at 225 Parson Street where the F5s were built under Loar's tenure.
"The work began in the winter of 1980," said Siminoff, a Gibson consultant. "I specifically remember being back to the plant when snow was on the ground, and Monroe's mandolin was there. I have a good visual imprint of the instrument on Dick's workbench and of him working on it. Dick did a really great job rebuilding the scroll and replacing the peghead veneer."
Wall said the mandolin was locked up in a safe at the plant every night until the repairs were done. Then he and Aldworth boarded a plane with the F5 and flew to Nashville. On Oct. 8, 1980, they went to a house trailer Monroe used as an office. Music folks and the press were on hand for the presentation.
They gave Monroe the case with the restored mandolin, and they also had the gouged-out headplate in hand.
The master chopped on his old reliable a few times, played some Sally Goodin' and then gave Wall a hug and said Gibson had done a fine job.
Aldworth asked about the old headstock plate.
"I said to Monroe, do you want this back? He said, 'no, you can have it.'"
So the gouged pear wood plate went back to Kalamazoo.
"I knew I had something or I wouldn't have asked," Aldworth said. "I was glad the repair guys didn't throw it away."
He eventually mounted it in a picture frame, although he never displayed it in his Kalamazoo home. Through the years, he'd take it out now and then and show those who might be interested in bluegrass and Gibson trivia.
Aldworth, who sells real estate, is now putting the gouged wood on the auction block. He's made Wall a partner in the sale because it was his connections at the Opry and work with Monroe that made the repair possible for Gibson.
"I hope it goes to someone who really appreciates it," Wall said.
Perhaps it will go to someone with deep pockets.
Christie's will auction the mandolin in a sale that includes other country music items, said spokeswoman Sung-Hee Park. Experts at the auction house estimate its value at $5,000 to $7,000.
But I'm wondering if it won't sell for far more than that. I'm guessing that various museums are contacting their loyal patrons about major donations for a purchase, and that collectors are evaluating their bank accounts.
There's only one item like this in bluegrass history.
"If the right guy or some wealthy bluegrass freak bids," Aldworth said, "who knows?"
- High resolution image courtesy of Christie's. 300dpi, no color correction or photo editing.
- The story in Monroe's own words (MP3 from Bruce Harvie via Mandolin Archive)
NOTE: The image from Christie's may not be used on other commercial or non-commercial web sites by anyone other than the Mandolin Cafe or Mandolin Archive. You may, however, download for your own personal use/viewing.
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