Belmont University, the largest Christian university in the state of Tennessee, has a well-earned reputation as one of the preeminent Music based institutions in the country. Now Belmont, located in the heart of Nashville TN, is also the home to a collection of almost 500 vintage and rare instruments that belonged to the late Steven Kern Shaw. Shaw, as George Gruhn had told me in a previous interview, was a philanthropist and guitar collector. His grandfather was Jerome Kern, the famous American composer that scored “Ol’ Man River,” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
Housed in the Lila D. Bunch Library on Belmont’s campus, the Gallery of Iconic Guitars (The GIG for short) is a new kind of museum intended not only for the eyes but also for use! George Gruhn, noteworthy instrument dealer/historian and the proprietor of Gruhn Guitars, had worked with Shaw over the years in amassing this incredible collection, and as co-executor of the estate he also had input into where they should be left. Gruhn said “The instruments in the museum will be available for teaching, special recordings, and performances. The ones currently on display are only a small portion of the total collection. It is our goal to make many of these instruments more readily available for use in teaching. In the next few months we will be going through the entire collection and sorting out the ones to be set up in good playing order for loans.” Vince Gill, Grammy award winning artist, mentioned during the grand opening festivities that he had suggested to Gruhn that the best place to establish the Shaw collection was Belmont.
The official Grand Opening was an invitation only event held on April 25th, and it was greeted with a packed room of university dignitaries, A-list musicians, and lots of media people! Ricky Skaggs, Grammy award winning bluegrass artist, was in attendance and performed several songs with Gill and also noted that he had two children that attended Belmont! Vince is an alumnus of Belmont, and Larry Stewart (Restless Heart) who is also an alumnus, was in attendance.
But the real stars were the instruments. I arrived early so I could wander freely to see the vintage guitars and mandolins up close and personal. The room is very well lit and also has humidity control to maintain the vintage instruments as they should be preserved.
Belmont President Dr. Bob Fisher directed the ceremony and grand opening with Gill, Skaggs, and a Belmont student sitting behind him prepared to play pieces from the Shaw collection once cued. The Archer Charitable Foundation provided the endowment to create the best environment for the Shaw collection to be displayed. The collection and the endowment to show and maintain it are valued at $10.5 million. Some of the historical pieces include a 1923 Lloyd Loar signed mandolin – $200,000, a 1939 Martin D-45 – $350,000, ‘60 Gibson Les Paul Standard Burst – $225,000, plus a Lyon & Healy Trio featuring a mandolin, mandola, and a mandocello.
To say that the security at The Gig is tight is to put it mildly, with security guards and electronic sensors keeping watch over the instruments, but that doesn’t deter from the enjoyment of the facility at all.
As Ricky Skaggs held the Lloyd Loar mandolin preparing to play it he said, “There’s not a better place on earth than Belmont University for these instruments to be. Students, open your ears to these great instruments.” During their performance, Gill utilized the ’39 Martin D-45, and hearing such masters of their art play and sing in this venue was very moving for everyone there. More performances and exhibits will be planned at the Gallery of Iconic Guitars going forward. For me, the experience of attending the opening was that much sweeter as I got to stand next to my guitar instructor, and noted past guitarist for Dolly Parton and numerous other artists, Dr. John Pell, who is Coordinator of Guitar Studies for Belmont and has taught there since 1978.
If you’re visiting Nashville I highly recommend that you make the pilgrimage over to The Gig and take in this impressive collection of historic instruments. It is open to the public Monday through Saturday 9am-5pm, and Sundays 1-5pm. Admission to the Gallery of Iconic Guitars is only $5, and children 12 and under enter for free. I must agree with Ricky Skaggs in that I can think of no better place than a Christian University such as Belmont to oversee, display, and maintain such a historical gathering of instruments. The gift of Steve Kern Shaw and the Archer Foundation will make these instruments available to the public and students that might otherwise only see these instruments on a computer screen or in a book! To learn more about the The Gig at Belmont University visit their website below.