The Golden Age of the cattle drive lasted a mere 20 years, from 1866–1886. But the cowboy has since occupied a distinct role in American consciousness. A lone figure, often on a horse, tending to nature’s perilous landscapes and occasional scofflaws, the cowboy is seen as a folk hero, a symbol of all that is untamed and unknown in the vast American West. And, since the 1930s, these lone figures have often come equipped with a guitar
The singing cowboys of television, movies, and radio—including Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Tex Ritter—led to the creation and popularity of the cowboy guitar. The typical cowboy guitar is a standard-sized acoustic with Western scenes painted on the face—a tradition that artist William Matthews is carrying on today with his latest work on Martin Guitar’s LE Cowboy 2016 ($4,999 MSRP), a limited-edition, 000-size 12-fret flat top adorned with Matthews’ dynamic image of a bucking horse and rider.
This is the second cowboy guitar Matthews has designed for Martin (read a review here).
Matthews is a widely exhibited artist well-known for his intricate watercolor depictions of working cowboys, ranches, and landscapes of the American West. He’s been drawing Western scenes since he was 20, starting with Western-themed album covers for Warner Bros. and Capitol Records. His first was the tranquil cover of Leo Kottke’s 1972 release Greenhouse, but Matthews also did covers for Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, Allman Brothers guitarist Richard Betts, and others. Now in his 60s, Matthews’ work appears in numerous books (including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx’s Close Range), museums such as the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, and even on US postage stamps, as well as on posters for the long-running National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Telluride is where Matthews met Chris Martin, CEO of Martin Guitars, a couple of decades ago, and a seed was planted.
“[Chris Martin] knew that I was connected to the Nevada buckaroo world and he wanted something that was authentic, so he asked me to do it,” says Matthews, speaking via video phone while on the road in California. “The problem was it took a long time before we could actually get a good [cowboy] guitar . . . because the printing technology didn’t exist.”
‘I love the great traditions… the simplicity and beauty of a piece of wood.’
A “long time” turned out to be roughly 20 years, which was how long it took for the technology to catch up to Matthews’ vision of a great cowboy guitar. In the meantime, he worked with Martin on other guitar designs, which included pearl inlays and other ornamental flourishes. “I’m very particular when it comes to painting on a guitar,” Matthews says. “I love the great traditions. I love the simplicity and beauty of a piece of wood, and I’m always skeptical of anything that’s going to interfere with it. I’m the toughest critic in doing this.”
Once the printing technology became available, Matthews created his first cowboy guitar for Martin, the “Sagebrush Sea,” which debuted in 2015. It is based on a painting of Matthews’ friend, Jay Dee Harney, a celebrated buckaroo in California who died in 2013. “It was a way of acknowledging him,” Matthews says. “He was a real respected roper, wonderful guy, great horseman. Lot of amazing men in that world.”
The LE Cowboy 2016 features artwork from the Matthews painting “Tapadero.” The limited-edition guitar debuted at the Summer NAMM 2016 trade show in Nashville, in July, and will have an open-ended run until the end of this year. The auditorium 12-fret body has a thermally treated Sitka spruce top, quilted mahogany back and sides, grained ivoroid binding, a modified low oval neck, ebony fingerboard and bridge, and cowboy-themed artwork carried through on the headstock. The guitar comes with a book and a DVD mini-doc about the artist.
Matthews’ interest in cowboy guitars runs deep, not simply as an artist with a great respect for the culture of the American West, but also as an avid collector—he has about 20 to 25 cowboy guitars in his arsenal. “I love old guitars and I have a really high bar for what painted guitars look like,” he says.
“Tapadero” comes from the name of the leather hood covering the stirrup of a saddle. “Tapaderos are a great symbol of the buckaroo saddle, and it’s also kind of wild and allows for a great gesture from the bucking horse,” he says. “You can see the tapadero flying.”
The movement and sweeping textures of “Tapadero” also speak to Matthews’ visceral style—his paintings are evocative stories that transport viewers into a world unknown to many, and keep the mythology of the American West alive, and well, kicking.
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.