The Collector: Pure Country
George Gruhn has owned and operated Gruhn Guitars in downtown Nashville, Tenn., since 1970, selling vintage guitars, banjos, mandolins, ukuleles, and other stringed instruments. In addition to scores of Martins, Rickenbackers, Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, and Gibson Flying Vs and Les Pauls, Gruhn has acquired and sold the 1928 L-5 guitar with which Maybelle Carter performed during the bulk of her career with the Carter Family, a Gibson Everly Brothers acoustic model that Elvis Presley used at Graceland, and several guitars that Johnny Cash owned, including a prototype Johnny Cash signature Martin guitar that the musician played during his later years.
This banjo belongs to a trio that Uncle Dave Macon, one of the first stars of the Grand Ole Opry radio program, commissioned from Gibson in 1940 and continued to play until his death in 1952. “He generally traveled with three,” says Gruhn, explaining that Macon would pretune each to a different key. Mother-of-pearl fleurs-de-lis on the fingerboard distinguish this banjo from the other two. It also has an open-back design that enabled Macon to perform the twirling tricks that were a highlight of his act. Gruhn owns a print of a 1941 photo, taken by a Life magazine photographer, that shows Macon spinning the banjo hand over hand. “Macon could swing it like a pendulum and hit notes as it passed,” he says. “He was a real showman. [Macon offered] the old-time sound with a bit of vaudeville flash thrown in.”
After Macon died, the banjo passed to David “Stringbean” Akeman, who would become one of the original cast members of the television show Hee Haw. (Gruhn says it is unclear how Akeman came into possession of the instrument.) In 1963, Akeman recorded an album of Macon songs and posed with the banjo for the cover photo.
Akeman met a tragic end in 1973, when he and his wife were murdered at their home near Nashville by burglars seeking the roll of cash that he reputedly kept at hand. “He frequently carried money on him, in his bib overalls,” Gruhn says, recalling how he had seen Akeman reveal stashes containing tens of thousands of dollars. “He was a country guy who didn’t believe in banks. He didn’t want to let it out of his sight.” The criminals, who never found Akeman’s money, were apprehended quickly and convicted. In 1996, a man who was renting the Akemans’ cabin discovered $20,000 hidden behind a brick in the chimney, but the bills had rotted and could not be redeemed.
Gruhn purchased the banjo more than 15 years ago from the son of Ben Smathers, an Opry clog dancer who received the instrument after Akeman died. (Gruhn declines to disclose the sum that he paid and says that the details of the ownership transfer from Akeman to Smathers are unclear.) “Instead of being sold to a memorabilia collector, it stayed in the Opry family until I got it. It was kept in the group of insiders: Macon, Stringbean, Smathers, all folks who knew each other,” he says. Gruhn estimates the banjo’s value at from $50,000 to $100,000.
Gruhn characterizes the banjo as the only “celebrity-owned” instrument in his personal collection, which includes a 1923 Gibson F4 mandolin, a one-of-a-kind oversize 1919 Martin acoustic guitar, and several prototypes that he designed in the mid-1980s for the now-defunct Guild company. He displays most of his instruments in a private showroom above the Nashville store. “If someone comes in to look at banjos, I might take the Macon banjo out,” Gruhn says. “It has impressed plenty of banjo players. They want to see one that was his. Somehow, there’s something of Dave’s personality—his soul—still clinging to the banjo.”