December 2017 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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The Guitar Man: Luthier and Musician Chuck Tipton

Sometimes it ain’t easy living with a musician. Amps and instruments are your furniture. There are long, late nights of waiting at home or holding up a bar stool while he/she is out practicing with the band or playing a gig. Music will always be their first love, so you’re always a little jealous when it takes time away from you. Though, of course, there is also the bonus of strangers telling you how awesome your musician is – which is actually pretty cool. And I can attest to all of the above because I am Chuck Tipton’s kid.

Chuck Tipton with instrument and his young daughter
Dad and me at a jam session at Doc Morgan’s Pharmacy in Bristol, formerly located at 101 Memorial Drive, circa 1973. I look like I need a nap. Photograph courtesy Chuck Tipton

Growing up, the duality of Dad’s daytime profession as a sought-after commercial videographer/photographer was only slightly eclipsed by his nighttime side-hustle as a renowned guitarist, studio musician, and luthier. (For those who don’t know, a luthier is a maker of stringed instruments.) On any given day I am blessed to receive accolades for my Dad’s work from people who know him from both worlds, so to see him honored by having two of his Tipton Custom Guitars on display in the current special exhibit at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum – The Luthier’s Craft: Instrument Making Traditions of the Blue Ridge – alongside some of the best instrument makers in our region means a great deal to me.

Sometime in the late 1980s Dad declared: “If I can’t fix my own guitar, then I shouldn’t play one!” So he read everything he could get his hands on about the craft, converted my parents’ garage into a workshop, and never sent another guitar off for repair again. Soon he was doing repairs for friends and taking in work from local music stores. Around that time he also started building guitars, both acoustic and electric, and electric basses as well. Dad is among the elite few to achieve certification from C. F. Martin & Co. to service their guitars; he is also an authorized Fender repair technician. (And by the way, he does an awesome Tele replica!)

Lightnin' Charlie with his band performing in what looks to be a high school gymnasium.
Lightnin’ Charlie playing his Tipton Custom electric, a replica of a Telecaster. Photograph courtesy Lightnin’ Charlie Real

Dad’s expertise has brought some wonderful guitars into his workshop over the years. Chad Weaver, a family friend, was a local musician who moved on to work for many years as Brad Paisley’s guitar tech. Chad once trusted Dad to do some work on Brad’s famous 1968 Fender Pink Paisley Telecaster. Dale Jett, grandson of A. P. and Sara Carter, is another family friend and a customer of Dad’s. Dale inherited A. P.’s 1935 C. F. Martin & Co. 000-28 and has brought it over to Dad’s shop for work in the past. Dad loves working on instruments that have some history, and A. P.’s Martin was put on display and included in the programming for The Carter Family: Lives and Legacies, the first special exhibit curated by the Birthplace of Country Music Museum back in 2014.

Chuck Tipton holding an electric guitar, covered in a paisley design.
Chuck Tipton in his shop holding Brad Paisley’s 1968 Tele, nicknamed “Pink.” Photograph courtesy Chuck Tipton

Musician Webb Wilder has made a stop or two in Dad’s workshop, and country music singer/songwriter Terri Clark owns an electric Tipton Custom Guitar, as does award-winning blues guitarist Deborah Coleman. And both Clark and Coleman listed Tipton Custom Guitars in their album liner notes – Clark’s Pain to Kill and Coleman’s Soft Place to Fall.

Image to left shows Chuck Tipton with Terri Clark; image to right shows three men together -- Tom Comet, George Bradfute, and Webb Wilder.
Dad pictured with country artist Terri Clark (left); Tom Comet, George Bradfute, and Webb Wilder (right). Photographs courtesy Chuck Tipton

Dad is also a studio musician, and I’ve been told that Dad has likely a thousand album credits to his name. A thousand! He learned to play by ear at a very young age, and he’s played on a ton of records, primarily gospel and country. He once told me that he had to teach himself how to read and write music so he could lead recording sessions – whatever that entails. Sadly, the availability and affordability of DIY recording technology has rendered recording studios across the country an endangered species.

Dad doesn’t do much, if any, studio work these days, and a few of the shops Dad recorded in have either changed hands or no longer exist. He did a lot of work for Joe Deaton, owner of Tandem Records in Bristol, Virginia, in the studio that became Classic Recording Studio when Deaton retired. I remember napping in a chair while Dad laid down tracks during a marathon recording session there. Thankfully Classic is still in operation, though it has changed hands a few times.

Four young musicians with their instruments, including their drum set bearing the band name, The Emanons.
While Dad was a studio musician for years, he got his start in high school with his first band The Emanons (no name spelled backwards). Band members Doug Hale, Chuck, Jerry Linberger, and Mike Peters are pictured here, left to right. Photograph courtesy Chuck Tipton

I also recall my brother Matt and I playing with the gooey chunks of vinyl that had dripped to the floor from the old record press they had at Tri-State Recording Studio in Kingsport, Tennessee. Tri-State no longer exists, but I did find them listed on, along with a number of records the company produced on their label. Lasting Sounds is another local studio that Dad spent a lot of time in over the years.

Outside the Tri-Cities he recorded at The Loft in Boone, North Carolina, Mark Five Recording Studios in Greenville, South Carolina, The Sounding Board in Easley, South Carolina, Church House Studios in Middlesboro, Kentucky, and Dawn Recording Studio in Ashville, North Carolina, where he played on the original recording of “Sweet Beuhlah Land” by Squire Parsons.

I was usually the first person to grab the phone when it rang in our house, and Dad got lots of calls from people like Charlie Maggard of Maggard Sound Studios and Joe Morrell of Morrell Music. They were always very nice to me and sometimes made small talk while we waited for Dad to pick up. I didn’t think much of it then, but looking back I see what a big chunk of this area’s music history I was witnessing without even realizing how significant it was. Sadly, neither Charlie nor Joe is still with us, but those men left a great legacy to the music culture of this region. Thinking about it now, perhaps some of these studios and their owners deserve blog posts of their own in the future!

Charlie Maggard standing in front of a large display of cassette tapes with photographs of musicians who have recorded in Maggard Sound Studio on the wall.
The late, great Charlie Maggard at his recording studio, Maggard Sound, Inc.  Photograph courtesy Chuck Tipton

From music to camera work, my Dad has maintained the ability to eke out a living through his hobbies, and he is always finding a way to enjoy them too. Last year he even built a one-inch scale model steam traction engine that actually works! The truth is I’ve never known anyone with more ingenuity and determination. From his eye for lighting and shot composition to his keen ear for music, every skill Chuck Tipton has gained has been self-taught. I only feel shortchanged by the fact that I inherited ZERO of his genetic guitar genius or concentration; my younger brother got all that – he’s an amazing picker in his own right.

Dad is a man of few words and tends to shy away from the spotlight. He rarely talks about his accomplishments, so I didn’t appreciate the full scope of his work until I was older. And at the opening reception for The Luthier’s Craft special exhibit, I noticed the other luthiers who were there had the same quiet nature as my Dad until you got them talking about their work. I suppose they feel most at ease in the solitude of their workshops as opposed to big parties in their honor – which may explain why none of them were smiling in the photo I took at the reception!

Chuck Tipton, Randal Eller, and Kevin Fore standing in front of the opening panel to The Luthier's Craft exhibit.
Luthiers Chuck Tipton, Randal Eller, and Kevin Fore at the opening reception for The Luthier’s Craft. Photograph courtesy Charlene Tipton Baker

Rob Nicar and Doug Sims are the proud owners of the two Tipton Custom Guitars displayed in The Luthier’s Craft special exhibit. One of them – called “Redneck” – is the first guitar he ever built from scratch. When asked by the museum if they would loan the instruments for a while, both were anxious to know how long they would have to part with them. Doug said his only regret about having his guitar behind glass is that people won’t be able to hear how good Dad’s guitar sounds!

Chuck Tipton to left and Doug Sims to right, in front of the museum case displaying two of Tipton's guitars.
Dad in front of the display holding his Tipton Custom Guitars with Doug Sims, the owner of “Redneck.”

To say that I’m proud of my Dad would be an understatement. And though he would never say so, I know that being part of this special exhibit at the museum means a great deal to him. It’s the culmination of all the hard work he has done over the past three decades. He told me he has built around 90 instruments since he built his first guitar from a kit, though he doesn’t own a single one. He doesn’t do builds anymore – he says the repair work at the shop keeps him too busy – but I’m hoping being in this exhibit may inspire him to build at least one more for himself so that someday his grandkids will have a piece of this wonderful legacy, made with his own hands!

The Luthier’s Craft exhibit, produced by the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, is open through March 4, 2018, in our Special Exhibits Gallery. Be sure to take the time to come see Chuck Tipton’s guitars, along with instruments from a host of wonderful local and regional luthiers!


A Tennessee (Ernie Ford) Christmas!

In January 1949, after several years performing on the radio, Bristol native Tennessee Ernie Ford was signed to a recording contract with Capitol Records. Over the course of only a few years, Ford placed a dozen Top 20 hits on the country chart while simultaneously scoring half a dozen Top 20 pop hits, clearly demonstrating his broad appeal to disc jockeys and fans alike. A trailblazer within the industry, Ford recorded 66 singles, including the hit for which he was most well known, “Sixteen Tons,” and 88 albums, selling an estimated 90 million copies and influencing countless artists throughout his career.

Ford had a special place in his heart for Christmas music, and within the many genres that he made his own – from “boogie” to gospel – he recorded several albums celebrating the festive season, including The Star Carol (1958), The Story of Christmas (1963), Sing We Now of Christmas (1965), O Come All Ye Faithful (1968), and C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S (1971).

And so to mark the holidays, we thought we’d share a few Christmas-themed Tennessee Ernie Ford memories and objects from our collections to get our readers in the spirit of the season!

Record sleeves of two Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas albums: Sing We Now of Christmas and The Star Carol
© Birthplace of Country Music; records donated by Brenda Harris in memory of Irene Cook and by Con Sauls

We have several of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s records in our museum collections, including the two seen here. The holiday songs on these albums are mostly religious ones, such as “O Holy Night” and “Joy to the World,” but also include simply festive selections, such as “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

A four-page pamphlet of Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Favorite Christmas Recipes," including a photo of TEF on the cover and several holiday illustrations inside
© Birthplace of Country Music; pamphlet donated by the family of Peggy Rodgers

This pamphlet, now in the museum’s collections, shared some of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s favorite Christmas recipes, including his mother’s famous applesauce cake, so loved by the star that when he visited his hometown of Bristol at the height of his fame, the press took a photograph of him having the first slice of the cake his mother had made for his return! Inside the pamphlet, Ford notes that his family have pored over and made some of their favorite recipes so many times that they’ve “almost read the handwriting off the paper”!

Television still of Tennessee Ernie Ford singing in front of a snowy small-town church background
Reproduced with permission from the Bristol Historical Association

Ford is seen here on the 1963 NBC special The Story of Christmas, one of many Christmas shows he did during his long career. This holiday special, sponsored by General Mills and hosted by Ford, included him performing numerous musical numbers, vocal arrangements of classic carols by the Roger Wagner Chorale and Orchestra, and a wonderful animated segment that was created by Eyvind Earle, the renowned animation artist who worked on Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Fantasia. It was also the first network television special to be broadcast without commercials! When the special aired, it was hugely popular, with entertainment trade magazine Daily Variety saying: “The tape should be preserved and played back for years on end. Its brilliance will never be dimmed or excelled.”

Last but certainly not least, we wanted to share this wonderful – and hilarious – clip of Tennessee Ernie Ford performing the African-American spiritual “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” a cumulative song whose lyrics reference the Christmas story in the line “One for the little bitty baby born in Bethlehem.” Watch the clip all the way through to see visual evidence of the W. C. Fields’ mantra about the challenge of working with children and animals…and how hard Ford works to not crack up during his singing! (By the way, the kid sitting beside Ford who steals the show? His youngest son Brion!)

And with that, we wish you a very merry Tennessee (Ernie Ford) Christmas!

Emily Robinson is the Collections Manager and Rene Rodgers is the Head Curator at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. 

Feel Festive and Get Merry with Radio Bristol Sleigh Ride’s Perfect Holiday Playlist!

Tired of the same old holiday playlist? Need an extra shot of eggnog in the morning to get through the monotonous, overplayed holiday muzak? Well, we at Radio Bristol understand your holiday blues. That same old holiday playlist could put even the most diligent of elves to sleep. But don’t fret! Radio Bristol has you covered.

With the holidays quickly approaching, we thought it might be useful and fun to have our eclectic group of Radio Bristol DJs pick out some of their favorite holiday tunes to add some variety to your festive playlist. After you’ve been inspired by these picks, don’t forget to tune into the Radio Bristol Sleigh Ride show – “Holiday music the Radio Bristol way” – with holiday rarities, oddities, and more to help spice up your season and add some holiday cheer every evening from 5pm to 7pm through December 22 and all day December 23—25. You can find us on 100.1 FM or listen to us here on the BCM website or the WBCM Radio Bristol app.

And last but not least, happy holidays from all of us at Radio Bristol and the Birthplace of Country Music!

Two photographs of records: "Happy Magic Christmas" and "Red Lights (Merry Christmas)"
A preview – in record form – of a couple of the holiday tunes our Radio Bristol DJs have picked for you! “Red Lights (Merry Christmas)” is appropriately green and festive looking! Photographs courtesy of Brody Hunt and Lonnie Salyer

Brody Hunt, DJ on Land of the Sky

“Here’s a great one for kiddies of all ages, courtesy of Leonard Clark & Land of Sky Boys from Asheville, North Carolina. Leonard Clark is legendary in rockabilly circles for his recording ‘Come to Your Tommy Now,’ also on the Klub label out of Greenville, South Carolina. If I had to guess, I’d say the holiday tune shared here – ‘Happy Magic Christmas’ – was from 1963 or 1964.”

Marshall Ballew, DJ on Off the Beaten Track

“My pick is The Staple Singer’s original version of ‘Last Month of the Year’ (also known as ‘When Was Jesus Born’), which has been covered by folks like 5 Blind Boys and the Fairfield Four, but was written by Pops Staples. Seeing them live at Bele Chere in Asheville years ago is a treasured musical memory, and Mavis continues to amaze with her continuing stellar output!”

Lee Bidgood, DJ on Over the Waves

“Here is the East Tennessee State University (ETSU) Mandolin Orchestra doing an abbreviated version of The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky. I grew up in Florida hearing these pieces at my sisters’ dance recitals, and when CDs came out, on our stereo at home. Working the Nutcracker up with the ETSU Mandolin Orchestra this semester has been a challenge, since it turns out these are pretty complicated pieces! The students put in a lot of effort over the last three months and made it work on the mandolin family instruments. We had a lot of fun swinging the first movement and finding ways to make the other pieces work expressively. Now my 3-year-old son is singing these pieces as he putters around the house!”

Martha Spencer, DJ on Hillbilly Wonderland

“One of my favorite Christmas songs is  ‘The Christmas Guest’ by Grandpa Jones. I used to hear it played on Galax radio as a kid and always thought it had a touching story, making it a good one for those maybe feeling lonely around the holidays.”

C. J. Lewandowski, DJ on Grass Cuttin’ Time

“I have two holiday favorite picks! First a song written by Aubrey Holt of Boys from Indiana Fame – ‘Santa Git Picked up for a DUI.’ It’s pretty rare to find the original 45, but here’s Feller & Hill’s version. How could you not laugh?!

And the second pick comes from Jimmy Martin, my first big introduction to bluegrass music, who sucked me in. Jimmy was a king at recitations, and this one is pretty special with his children singing with him. ‘Old Fashioned Christmas,’ just how I remember!”

Roy Andrade, DJ on Whup the Devil

“Bob Dylan’s sense of humor is often overlooked, as is just how great a singer he is. ‘Must Be Santa’ was first done in 1960 by Mitch Miller, but Dylan’s interpretation outshines the original – the weird accordion parts played by someone who doesn’t play that much accordion is reminiscent of some of the ragtag playing on his mid-1960s records. And I mean that in the best way. Dylan has never let virtuosic playing trump what a song is saying. That’s another thing Dylan is under-appreciated for, his interpretations of others’ songs. One thing is for sure, I always believe Dylan’s singing, though I don’t believe this one makes me want to do much but sip whiskey by the fire!”

Lonnie Salyer, DJ on Diggin’ with Big Lon

“My favorite Christmas song is ‘Red Lights (Merry Christmas)’ by Dreams So Real. This was a Christmas promo record sent as a gift to the band’s fan club members in December 1988. Dreams So Real was a pivotal band in the Athens, Georgia, scene along with bands like The B-52s, Pylon, R.E.M., Guadalcanal Diary, and Love Tractor, all of whom helped define a genre and usher in alternative/college rock. This record reminds me of college and good times with friends, some of whom are no longer with us.”

Larry Gorley, DJ on Pick One with Larry and Alexandra

“One of my favorites is Tony Holt & The Wildwood Valley Boys with the song ‘When It’s Snowin’ in the Mountains.’ I remember years ago, traveling for my job and being away right up to Christmas day. Traveling in the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina with the snow flying, and everywhere you looked the Christmas decorations and folks shopping for that special day. Being away from family and friends and all I wanted was to be home with them.”

Bailey George, DJ on Honky Tonk Hit Parade

“My favorite song this time of year is Mahalia Jackson’s ‘Sweet Little Jesus Boy.’ My grandmother bought this album way back in 1953, and it has been a staple of my family’s celebration ever since. I have many fond memories of my family and this selection.”

Ryan Bernard, DJ on The Ramblin’ Ryan Show

“Robert Earl Keene’s ‘Merry Christmas from the Family’ has a whole lot of imagery that reminds me of living in Austin, Texas. Everyone has a family member who is a little eccentric or odd, and this song captures the beauty of oddball Christmas fun! Kind of a drunken hybrid Christmas carol! HA!”

Brett Davis, DJ on Bristol Rhythm

“When I think back through my years of listening to Christmas music, some of the classics from cartoons like Rudolph or Charlie Brown probably stand out the most to me. Being subjected to mainstream Christmas radio (which is a must in the retail world where I used to dwell), the old-school cartoon songs can be a refreshing break because, let’s face it, there is some truly terrible Christmas music out there. At least ‘Frosty the Snowman’ has a nice melody and can remind you of being a kid, even if it gets stuck in your head for eight hours. However, before the Radio Bristol Sleigh Ride was around to make Christmas music cool again, the one Christmas song that would make me reach out and turn up the volume is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ ‘Christmas All Over Again.’  There’s just something about the drums, I think…”

Josh Littleton, DJ on Early Morning Americana

“While I enjoy the holiday music we hear every December, I also find that it seems to all run together. Not so in the case of the Squirrel Nut Zippers with ‘Hanging Up My Stockings.’ It stands out while still evoking the seasonal nostalgia we expect from a good Christmas tune.”

Paul Brown, DJ on Across the Blue Ridge

“I don’t know that I have a single favorite holiday song, but I certainly am very fond of several. This 1977 TV performance of ‘Beautiful Star of Bethlehem’ by Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys presents a wonderful song put across by a truly great band in top form. The hair-raising triple harmonies of Keith Whitley, Jack Cook, and Ralph Stanley remind us of Dr. Ralph’s outstanding ability to galvanize performers working with him into a brilliant whole and present what he described as ‘the old-time style of what they call bluegrass music’ with stark power.”

Nathan Sykes, DJ on The Crooked Road Radio Hour

“It is a tradition in my family to play Don Reno and Red Smiley’s The True Meaning of Christmas heavily during the holiday season. ‘Christmas Reunion’ captures what the holiday season means to me, as Christmas is a time for families to gather and celebrate together. Though faces may no longer be around the Christmas table, they are not forgotten.”

Kris Truelsen, DJ on On the Sunny Side

“The first time I heard this song, I about fell out of my chair. Frankie ‘Halfpint’ Jaxon and the Cotton Top Sanctified Singers deliver an unforgettable holiday performance with ‘Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn.’ Raw, emotive and celebratory. I don’t think holiday music gets much better than this.”

We hope you enjoy this selection of Christmas tunes, and once again, from all of us at Radio Bristol have a safe and happy holiday season!

May All Your Farm and Fun Times Be Merry!

The secret’s out. Farm and Fun Time is a Christmas Miracle!

December seemed to sneak up on us this year, and The Farm and Fun Time Christmas Ball was the perfect way to get into the holiday spirit. As is becoming standard, we were thrilled to see another sold out Farm and Fun Time! And this month’s show was truly a joyous occasion featuring The Secret Sisters, Jill Andrews, Dr. Jessica Turner, Ratliff Candy Company, and Bill and the Belles! If you missed out on the festivities, here’s a quick recap from the second annual Farm and Fun Time Christmas Ball.

With the crowd all nestled and cozy in their seats and as visions of sugar plums danced in their…pleats (?), Bill and the Belles joyously kicked things off. Throughout the show, Bill and the Belles played all holiday music, mixing it up with some new Christmas originals and classics including an old-timey rendition of “Silver Bells” and the classic “White Christmas” – the latter with the crowd fully in the spirit and singing along.

Bill and the Belles on stage with full audience
What’s The Farm and Fun Time Christmas Ball without Christmas balls to make Bill and the Belles’ holiday music even more festive? © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

Museum Director Dr. Jessica Turner was the guest for our “Heirloom Recipe” segment and surprised the crowd with a bag of “treat” hidden beneath every seat. She explained how “treat” played an important role in community churches across the south during the holidays when folks often handed out bags of sweets and treats, like tangerines, oranges, apples, chocolates, and candy canes. Jessica joked that the crinkle from the brown paper bags could be heard throughout the service coming from the excited hands of children (and adults!) searching for goodies at the bottom of the bag. Following the storytelling segment, Bill and the Belles sang a jingle inspired by the story, a tune titled “Can I Get a Witness, This Christmas?” highlighting charity and all the things that make the holidays special.

Dr. Jessica Turner at the microphone talking about "treat"
Dr. Jessica Turner’s story of her grandma making the Christmas “treat” bags at her church brought back a lot of happy memories for the Farm and Fun Time audience. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

The first musical guest of the evening was Jill Andrews, founding member of the everybodyfields. Jill has long had a devoted audience and fan base here in Bristol, and the crowd made it very apparent that they were glad to see her as she played several songs from her new solo project as well as a few from her time spent in the everybodyfields.

Jill Andrews holding guitar and singing at microphone
Jill Andrews brought a lot of heart to her performance during The Farm and Fun Time Christmas Ball. © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

This month’s “ASD Farm Report” was a little different than usual. Instead of visiting a local family farm, we decided to visit a local family candy factory! Many folks might not know this, but Bristol has had a long legacy and tradition of candy makers. This month we visited Ken Ratliff of Ratliff Candy Company, a candy cane company specializing in homemade candy cane baskets, cups, and more from their factory in Historic Downtown Bristol. Ratliff Candy has been family owned since 1952, and over the years they have built an international following for their delectable and functional treats.

Our next featured musical guests – The Secret Sisters – made this month’s show one for the ages. From the rich musical landscape of Muscle Shoals Alabama, Lydia and Laura Rodgers come from a long lineage of great country musicians, starting from the roots of singing in the church to full-fledged recording careers, including the good news just a few days before our show that they have been nominated for Grammy Folk Album of the Year with their latest release You Don’t Own Me Anymore. They brought down the house with their phenomenal harmonies, including a gorgeous rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy.”

The Secret Sisters, one playing guitar and singing, the other singing, on stage.
Not only did the Secret Sisters share their wonderful music with the Farm and Fun Time audience, but they also shared stories about love lost and found – filled with humor! © Birthplace of Country Music; photographer: Billie Wheeler

All in all, this show was the perfect way to kick off the holiday season. If you’ve got the holiday blues because you missed The Farm and Fun Time Christmas Ball, check out our live video broadcast made possible by Eastman Credit Union.

And don’t forget to get tickets to the upcoming shows in January and February, both of which are getting close to selling out – so buy your tickets while they last!


Instrument Interview: Maybelle Carter’s Guitar

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Ten questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we talk to one of Maybelle Carter’s guitars:

 What model are you, and when were you made?

I’m a 1928 Gibson L-5 guitar, made at the old Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Lloyd Loar, the famous engineer who redesigned a lot of Gibson’s product line in the early 1920s, introduced my model in 1922 as the top-of-the-line guitar. Unlike most earlier guitars, I have a carved arched top and violin-style F-holes instead of the round sound hole in the middle. You might say I’m like a guitar that thinks it’s some kind of oversized violin. But at least Maybelle didn’t try to play me with a bow!

Well, speaking of Maybelle Carter, when did you become her instrument? Did she play you at the famous Bristol Sessions when The Carter Family made its first recordings?

Well, no, Maybelle didn’t have me yet when she did those recordings in Bristol in 1927. That was actually a year before I was built in Kalamazoo. On those first six sides that Maybelle recorded with Sara and A. P., she was playing a cheap Stella flat-top guitar. That would have been a good enough instrument for most early country musicians, but Maybelle was no ordinary player. She deserved something bigger, louder, with a more authoritative voice. So after their records started selling well and Ralph Peer invited them to come to New Jersey to make new recordings with better equipment, Maybelle and her husband Eck (A. P.’s brother) went out and bought her the best guitar they could find. I cost $275, which was an awful lot of money in 1928.

A picture of The Carter Family -- Maybelle holding her guitar, A. P., and Sarah holding her guitar
A publicity still of The Carter Family – Maybelle holds her Gibson L-5 guitar. From the collection of the Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University

What did Maybelle do to bring out your true and distinctive voice? What made her such a great player?

The biggest thing, I guess, is that she played me with such command and authority. She was the driving force of the band’s instrumentation, since Sara just played some lighter second guitar or autoharp, and A. P. hardly ever played any instrument on record. Sometimes Maybelle was the whole band! So she took some of the existing folk guitar styles and made them strong, polished, and professional. She made the guitar into a solo instrument in the country band, playing melody between vocal refrains and also providing a driving rhythm.

Really? How on earth did she do that?

Mostly it was her powerful right hand. It still makes me shudder to think about how clear and purposeful she was when she played. She commanded the sound out of me. Her most famous method was a thumb-lead style, which some people call the “Carter scratch.” I never did quite understand that, since it wasn’t really scratchy sounding at all. She wore a thumbpick on her right hand and used that to play bass notes and all those wonderful melodies on the bass strings of the guitar, and meanwhile she had a metal fingerpick on her index finger and used that to strum those great, driving chords on the upper strings. A real one-woman band!

How did that style suit you, as an instrument?

It suited me perfectly. Because I have an arched top and F-holes, my bass strings have more punchiness and less sustain than flat-top guitars. With all the activity of Maybelle’s right thumb and forefinger going on simultaneously, it was much better that my notes were shot out like cannon balls without any ringing sustain to muddy it up. In her hands, I was a melodic rhythm machine.

That idea of using your thumb and one finger reminds me of the clawhammer banjo style. Is it similar?

Hey, I’m a guitar! You’re going to make me talk about banjos? I’m just kidding. You know, Maybelle did play banjo in that clawhammer style, so that may have given her some notion of using her thumb. But really the styles are very different, because in thumb-lead guitar, the thumb is the one playing the melody. The motion of the right hand is totally different, too.

Did she always play using that thumb-lead style? Or did she use any other styles?

No, although it was her main style and the one that influenced younger players the most. Maybelle also developed into a really fine flatpicker, using the kind of pick that most guitar players favor nowadays and which used to be called a “straight pick.” With a flatpick she was able to play more on my treble strings, a predecessor to the way later bluegrass guitarists play their lead solos. She really liked to do this on blues songs like the “Coal Miner’s Blues,” but she also used this approach on songs like “You Are My Flower.” Boy, she made me sound amazing on that one. As for other styles, she didn’t do much of what people call fingerpicking, since that wasn’t a strong enough sound for her. And Maybelle did play slide guitar, but she didn’t use me for that.

Cover of The Carter Family songbook Album of Smoky Mountain Ballads -- picture of the Carters on the front showing Maybelle and Sara with guitars and A. P. without an instrument
This Carter Family songbook was published by Ralph Peer via his Southern Music Publishing Company in the late 1930s. Again, Maybelle is pictured with her Gibson L-5. Image reproduced with permission from peermusic; songbook in the collection of the Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University

What happened to you after the original Carter Family disbanded in 1944?

Maybelle continued playing me with the Carter Sisters, who were really her daughters, and in all of her music-making up to the time she died in 1978. She hung on to me until the end, even when money was tight and she could have sold me. We had a special bond, and I never sounded the same when somebody else tried me out – not even Chet Atkins. Maybelle played me on her solo records in the 1960s and 1970s, when she went on tour with the New Lost City Ramblers, and when she did “Keep on the Sunny Side” on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken? album.

What about “Wildwood Flower” from the Circle album?

No! Even though that was probably her most famous guitar song, with the Dirt Band she wanted to play it on autoharp just because she’d never recorded it that way.

Maybelle's Gibson L-5 guitar
A formal portrait of Maybelle Carter’s Gibson L-5 guitar. Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum

Finally, what are you up to today?

Today I’m proudly on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Nashville, alongside Sara’s autoharp, Bill Monroe’s mandolin, Earl Scruggs’s banjo, and Barbara Mandrell’s pedal steel. Back in 2004 I was almost sold off by my owner who had loaned me to the museum, but Maybelle’s family really wanted me to remain. I’m so glad they figured out a way to buy and keep me there in such illustrious company. I just wish I could get played more these days, but then again it’s OK. Nobody will ever play me the way Maybelle did.

Guest blogger Gregory Reish is the Director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University. He is a scholar, teacher, and performing musician with expertise in a wide range of American vernacular styles.