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As for rock 'n' roll history, The Guitar's crowning piece may be a Stratocaster prototype. "You'll love this!" Polycarpou gushes, with the enthusiasm of Bill Nye explaining the properties of buoyancy. "It's from January of 1954 — which is three months before they actually released it. ... This is the guitar that created the sound of rock 'n' roll! This very instrument!"
The Strat prototype has a fascinating local tie — it belonged to a Nashville studio owner who didn't realize he owned the six-string equivalent of the Holy Grail. "He brought it into my shop about 25 years ago," Glaser says. "I looked at and said, 'That's not even a real Fender.' And we started pulling it apart. There's a lot of things that don't look like what you'd expect. The cutaway's not right. And the more we looked at the more it became clear it was a prototype." It's one of only three or four in existence.
The aforementioned pieces are only a small portion of the treasures on display in the lower level of the James K. Polk Cultural Center. There's the 1833 Stauffer Legnani, circa 1820-30, an elegant piece that served as an inspiration for Martin guitars. There's the gorgeous and exceptionally rare 1924 Loar Quartet, featuring a guitar and three mandolin-style instruments — a mandolin, mandola and mandocello, modeled after the violin, viola and cello. There's a 1930 Martin OM-45 Deluxe once owned by Sons of the Pioneers founding member Len Slye, who would later be known as Roy Rogers. There's country artist Jedd Hughes' Wandre, a visually arresting Italian guitar from the 1960s featuring an aluminum neck. (Americana fans will recognize the Wandre as the model Buddy Miller made famous.)
And that still doesn't scratch the surface. It's worth noting that the exhibit should appeal to anyone, not just aficionados.
"The exhibit balances between esoterica that guitar nuts would really appreciate," Glaser says, "and things that a person who hasn't had much exposure to instruments would be able to look at and get something out of it too." The text that accompanies the guitars explains each piece's significance. And there are three separate videos that provide even more context. Not only that, but right around the corner you can check out Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer, a terrific collection of 56 black-and-white shots of Elvis Presley long before he had skyrocketed to stardom.
Of course, not everyone who goes to see The Guitar will be lucky enough to have tour guides like Glaser, Gruhn, Polycarpou and White. But there's a decent chance you'll have an experience similar to mine on my second visit to the exhibit. One of the video screens was playing a clip of Telecaster master Ray Flacke working his magic onstage. A voice shouted, "Hey, that's me!" I turned my head — and sure enough, Flacke and a couple of friends were standing next to me.
Hey, whaddya expect? It's Nashville.
On Wednesday, Dec. 12, in conjunction with the exhibit, Vince Gill will headline String Fever, a concert benefitting the Tennessee State Museum Foundation at TPAC's Polk Theater. Joining Gill will be Larry Carlton, Steve Cropper, Duane Eddy, Johnny Hiland, John Jorgenson, Jack Pearson, Marty Stuart, Steve Wariner and many more. Visit tnmuseum.org for more information.
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