Premier Guitar

Famous Guitar, Mandolin in Limbo

October 1, 2007

Nashville, TN (October 1, 2007) – The future is uncertain for Mother Maybelle Carter’s 1928 Gibson L-5 archtop guitar and Bill Monroe’s 1923 Gibson F-5 Master model mandolin. Both instruments are at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville but the money that got them there appears to have been sorely misrepresented by a man who died in an apparent suicide last week.

It’s hard to argue there are two stringed instruments more important to country and bluegrass. Mother Maybelle was popularizing her thumb technique in the late ‘20s with the Carter Family’s rural songs that became the backbone of country music. She bought her L-5 in 1927 and played it throughout the remainder of her career. Bill Monroe is the father of Bluegrass, literally, having pioneered the genre with his Kentucky band, the Blue Grass Boys, from which the fast picking style of roots music was named. He had a particular love for the F-5 he bought in 1943 and would use it almost exclusively until 1985 when it was nearly destroyed by vandals. It underwent a painstaking restoration that took four months. Considering the seminal roles country and bluegrass played in the evolution of American popular music, these instruments are considered invaluable relics of American history.

You can put a price on anything, though. A man named Robert W. McLean helped the Country Music Hall of Fame acquire some prized possessions over the last few years. The museum was able to buy Mother Maybelle’s guitar and Monroe’s mandolin after McLean donated $1.27 million in cash to the museum. The manodolin had been on the market for $1.125 million and the guitar had been on the market for $575,000. Mother Maybelle’s guitar had been on loan to the museum for nearly ten years but the museum wanted to purchase it to ensure that it wouldn’t end up in a private collection where people could not see it.

It turns out McLean, a former stockbroker, had been on quite a spending spree using $40 million of other people’s money that he was supposed to be investing. McLean used much of the money for charitable work. Middle Tennessee State University named their music school after him when he pledged to donate 57 Steinway pianos a few years ago. University spokesperson Tom Tozer says Tennessee law prevents him from commenting on the status of McLean''s pledge. At this time, MTSU’s music school still bears his name.

Some of McLean’s creditors got together in July after he proved to be insolvent. They set an involuntary bankruptcy in motion that McLean eventually conceded to. Last week, McLean was found dead, the result of a.38 caliber pistol shot to the head. Police say there was a suicide note. McLean was 60. He was facing multiple lawsuits at the time of his death.

At this point, it’s unclear what might happen to Mother Maybelle’s guitar and Bill Monroe’s mandolin. One possibility involves both instruments being sold along with other assets that can be traced to McLean. However, Ron Steen, an attorney representing some of McLean’s creditors, tells Premier Guitar that it appears very uncertain if much or any money can actually be recovered. “I’d say the likelihood of the creditors being made whole in this situation is somewhere between slim and none,” says Steen.

As things stand right now, the Country Music Hall of Fame is the current owner of the guitar and the mandolin, but technically we all (meaning the public) own them, according to Liz Thiels, the Hall''s Senior Vice President of Public Relations.

"We own these instruments for all of us. We bring them to the public as we preserve history. That''s what we do," says Thiels.

Thiels says she cannot comment on the pending issue of what will happen to the instruments for legal reasons.

Robert Waldschmidt, the bankruptcy trustee investigating what McLean owned, borrowed, donated, pledged and spent, tells Premier Guitar it''s too early to speculate about any possible sale of the guitar and the mandolin. Waldschmidt says he is communicating with the Hall of Fame about the situation and that there are many options for moving forward.

Waldschmidt says the sale of some of McLean''s possessions will take place October 20th. Those items include a Steinway piano and a few banjos among other musical instruments. Waldschmidt says McLean also owned what he believes is a ''60s Martin D-28 that is being sold privately.