By Blair Jackson
Next time you’re passing through Music City (CMA Music Festival? Summer NAMM? On your way to Bonnaroo?), you might want to carve out some time to check out the newly opened Gallery of Iconic Guitars (aka “The Gig”) at Belmont University, which has on display dozens of historic acoustic and electric instruments from a cache of some 500 that was bequeathed to the university in 2015 by a collector named Steven Kern Shaw. Among the jewels of the collection are an 1887 Martin 0-28, a 1939 Martin D-45 valued at $350,000, Martin D-28s with herringbone top trim from the same era, a 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin signed by designer Lloyd Loar, and so many more.
Shaw was an interesting fellow. He was the son of legendary musician Artie Shaw and Betty Kern, daughter of songwriter Jerome Kern (and one of Shaw’s eight wives). Though Artie abandoned Steven at the age of two, Jerome Kern left a substantial trust to his grandson who, as he got older, developed a taste for collecting vintage instruments. He was a regular at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, where owner George Gruhn helped Shaw build his collection. “He was a collector and a hoarder,” Gruhn said in a radio interview. “He was not a great player, but he had a considerable amount of knowledge about the instruments. He was going for the cream of the crop.”
Shaw never displayed his collection during his lifetime, instead just storing them in his house, which was not equipped with either a security alarm or any sort of climate control. “Late in life he had no will,” Gruhn said, “and I persuaded him that he really needed to have a will. The idea that [his collection] could be enjoyed by others and seen and heard was something that was pleasing to him, although he didn’t want that done until after he was dead.
“These are important pieces of our cultural history,” Gruhn continued, “They are great instruments [that] show the evolution of some of the iconic instruments in American history… the archetypes for virtually all of the instruments that followed.”
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The GIG, which opened in late April with a grand reception that included Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs playing a few rare guitars and mandolins from the collection, has around one hundred instruments on display, and a few that can played in a sound-proof space (with more to come). For more info, go to The GIG’s website.
Below is a short Associated Press video shot at the opening of The Gig, featuring interview and performance footage of Gill and Skaggs.