The Million-Dollar Mandolin: Bluegrass Music's Finest Relic Finally Finds a Home

By Rudder, Randy | Southern Cultures, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Million-Dollar Mandolin: Bluegrass Music's Finest Relic Finally Finds a Home


Rudder, Randy, Southern Cultures


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Bill Monroe had seen a lot of troubles in his days, but nothing could have prepared him for this. On a chilly autumn afternoon in November 1985, the "Father of Bluegrass" returned to his farm in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, after having lunch with his wife, Della, at nearby Mason's Restaurant. When he entered his home, he found his 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin, built by craftsman Lloyd Loaf, smashed into several pieces, a fireplace poker lying nearby. A second mandolin and some photos of Monroe had also been vandalized, but nothing was stolen. Although the Goodlettsville police vandalism report on the incident estimated the instrument's value at only $1,500, "to the bluegrass community, the wanton destruction of the mandolin was more than just vandalism; it was sheer sacrilege," wrote Frets Magazine contributor Jim Hatlo. Various theories have been circulating for years as to who may have been the perpetrator, but no arrests have ever been made.

Miraculously, the mandolin was repaired and stayed at Monroe's side until his death in September 1996. Monroe's son, James, put the instrument up for auction in 2001, and a group of Kentucky investors led by Campbell "Doc" Mercer, a longtime fan of bluegrass and local veterinarian, put in the top bid at $1.125 million. The figure represented the highest price ever offered for an American-made instrument, although guitars belonging to Eric Clapton and Jerry Garcia later attracted similar bids. The nonprofit Bill Monroe Foundation, begun by Mercer in Monroe's hometown of Rosine, Kentucky, tried everything, including selling shares of stock in the mandolin, but could never raise the money to purchase the instrument. Eventually, the mandolin went into a Nashville bank vault. On what would have been Monroe's ninety-fourth birthday--September 13, 2005--the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville announced that it had, with the help of local investor Bob McLean, procured Monroe's instrument for an undisclosed amount to feature in its "Precious Jewels" exhibit, alongside Jimmie Rodgers's Martin 00-18, Mother Maybelle Carter's Gibson L-5, Hank Thompson's Gibson Super-400, Chet Atkins's D'Angelico Excel, and Johnny Cash's Martin D-35S.

Like Louis Armstrong's trumpet or Muddy Waters's guitar, Monroe's mandolin is one of a handful of instruments used to create an American genre of music. Given the serial number 73987, the mandolin was built on July 9, 1923, at Gibson's Kalamazoo, Michigan, plant and certified by legendary technician Lloyd Loar. Little is known about its first twenty years in existence, but it eventually found its way to a barber shop window in Florida in 1943, where Monroe purchased it for $150. Monroe fell in love with its sound the first time he heard it.

"Bill loved the tone of the instrument and could recognize it. He once left the mandolin at my house," recalls friend and music journalist Hazel Smith. "Later, when he called, my son Terry was playing it."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"Who's playing my mandolin?" Bill barked.

"How do you know it's your mandolin?" responded Smith.

"The tone," he replied. "I'd know that tone anywhere."

Monroe often said that the best way to play a mandolin was to "whip it like a mule," and whip it he did, for over half a century. In the early 1960s, Monroe sent it back to the Kalamazoo plant for some repair work. After waiting nearly four months, he was dissatisfied with the repair job. In protest, he took his pen knife and scratched out the Gibson logo. For two decades, Monroe held a grudge against the company. In 1980, however, the company approached Monroe and offered to give the instrument a complete facelift. Monroe agreed. This time he was pleased, and the rift was mended.

After the vandal struck in 1985, Monroe contacted Gibson, which by then had moved to Nashville. "They told me that Mr. Bill had some damage done to his mandolin and wanted to know if I could take a look at it," said Charlie Derrington, who was a mandolin player and master luthier at the Gibson plant. …

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