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GUEST,gargoyle Monroe's Mandolin (16) Monroe's Mandolin 22 Feb 02

Front page of today's WSJ.

February 22, 2002
Devoted Bluegrass Fan Bets a Million
On Bill Monroe's Legendary Mandolin


ROSINE, Ky. -- During the half-century that bluegrass master Bill Monroe wielded his mandolin, it was run over by a car, drenched with rain and beaten to pieces by a vandal. Yet through it all, thanks to repeated repairs, the instrument survived as a seemingly indestructible force in bluegrass music.

Originally designed as a delicate orchestral instrument, Mr. Monroe's eight-string Gibson F-5 model became an acoustic shotgun, firing off syncopated rounds through a wilderness of banjos, fiddles and guitars. His driving rhythms and the mandolin's deep timbre shaped country music and helped lay the groundwork for rock 'n' roll. The B-side of Elvis Presley's first single carried an up-tempo version of Mr. Monroe's classic "Blue Moon of Kentucky."

Bluegrass diehards view the coffee-colored instrument as the closest earthly connection to Mr. Monroe, who had reached legendary status by the time he died in 1996. Country artist Ricky Skaggs likens the F-5 to a rare Stradivarius. Kyle Young, head of Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, says it is "one of maybe a half-dozen artifacts that really tell the story of American music." Lizzie Lewis, an 84-year-old fan in Florida, recalls, "That mandolin was just music to your ears whenever you heard it."

But no one is more enamored with the maple-and-spruce instrument -- and with Mr. Monroe -- than Campbell Mercer. A former farm veterinarian, Mr. Mercer last year organized a nonprofit group to restore the old Monroe family farm here in Rosine, an impoverished coal-mining community in western Kentucky. Then he surprised the country-music world by agreeing to buy the mandolin from Mr. Monroe's son for $1.125 million -- more than double the highest-known amount previously paid for an American-made string instrument. His plan: to enshrine it in a museum in Rosine.

"Part of Bill's soul stays in that instrument," says Mr. Mercer, 44 years old, who as a teenager once touched the mandolin backstage at a concert. "I knew we just had to have it." But first he has to finish paying for it, and that is no small chore.

All this for an instrument that Mr. Monroe bought used for about $150 out of a Miami barbershop window in the early 1940s. Built in 1923, the mandolin was among a new breed of roughly 300 revolutionary F-5 models produced by Gibson Guitar Corp., then based in Kalamazoo, Mich., and now in Nashville, Tenn. The F-5 was the fifth model in Gibson's "Florentine" series of mandolins. Drawing on classical violin design, Gibson stretched the mandolin's neck about an inch and eliminated the sound chamber's traditional center hole in favor of two F-shaped openings that produce a more acoustically resonant sound.

"The F-5 just roars," says Nashville guitar and mandolin dealer George Gruhn. "You can whack it hard, and it puts out a barking blast of sound on these chords that no other mandolin can do."

The powerful tone was perfect for the blend of blues, jazz and ancestral Scottish highland sounds heard in Mr. Monroe's bluegrass music. "If you're really in a tight spot, you've got a powerful crowd or a big auditorium, that mandolin will always come through for you," the musician said in the 1970s. "It's got plenty of volume and it carries good, and if you want to soften up, it's got a beautiful tone." In an old fiddler's tradition, he dropped a rattlesnake tail inside the chamber to maintain a crisp tone by keeping dust from settling there.

People who witnessed the partnership between Mr. Monroe and the F-5 claim that Mr. Monroe's punctuated single notes affected the mandolin's wood, somehow making it a better instrument. "Daddy played his greatness into that mandolin," says James Monroe, his son.

As Mr. Monroe's fame spread throughout the '40s and '50s, so did the mandolin's legend. Once, the musician poured rainwater out of the instrument following an outdoor show. Another time, he fell from the stage at a music festival and broke off a small wooden scroll. On another occasion, a car accidentally backed over the instrument while it was in its case, leaving a fissure that still is faintly visible.

Mr. Monroe purposefully inflicted one wound early in his career around 1950. Furious at the manufacturer over what he considered a botched repair job, the hot-tempered musician cut the inlaid mother-of-pearl "Gibson" name from the mandolin's headstock with his pocketknife. Eventually, the singer and the company made amends, and Gibson repaired the damage free of charge.

The F-5's toughest test came in late 1985, when a vandal broke into Mr. Monroe's home near Nashville and smashed the instrument to bits with a fireplace poker. Some people speculated that a vindictive former love interest assaulted the instrument to get back at Mr. Monroe. Son James Monroe says: "It never was clear who did it."

Grief-stricken, Mr. Monroe picked up nearly 250 fragments and delivered them in a sack to Gibson craftsman Charlie Derrington. Mr. Derrington toiled four months reassembling the mandolin, at times working under a microscope gluing down loose splinters. When the instrument emerged, it looked like new.

By the time Mr. Monroe gave his last performance on March 15, 1996, at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, his fingertips had worn a depression in the mandolin's smooth face, and his pick had chipped the veneer down to naked spruce. The next day, the white-haired musician had a stroke. Six months later, he died, four days before his 85th birthday. He left the mandolin to son, James, also a bluegrass musician, who says he is selling it in part to help cover inheritance taxes on his father's estate. The instrument is locked in a suburban Nashville bank vault, waiting on Mr. Mercer, the former veterinarian.

About a year ago, his eastern Kentucky veterinary practice already cut back due to his chronic back problems, Mr. Mercer decided on a career change: organizing the nonprofit Bill Monroe Foundation. To manage the group full-time, he has temporarily moved his wife and two children into a 34-foot RV parked outside the old farmhouse where Mr. Monroe grew up.

One of his first tasks: to persuade James Monroe to hold off on plans to auction the mandolin. Last April, he committed the foundation to pay $1.125 million within 18 months. The foundation made a 10% down payment funded by a local industrial-development group.

The price tag raised eyebrows in country-music circles. The highest-known sum ever paid for an American-made string instrument was $497,500 offered at auction in 1999 by billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who bought an electric guitar used by rock legend Eric Clapton. The Smithsonian Institution and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum each sought the Monroe mandolin, but neither was willing to pay that much. "It's an incredible icon of American music," says Smithsonian staffer Gary Sturm. "But we weren't going to go into competition to buy it."

Mr. Mercer downplays the price. "If you came out and said, 'I've got the bat that Babe Ruth hit all his home runs on,' what would that be worth?" he asks. "It's just priceless."

The challenge is paying it off by October. Private fund raising is moving slowly, and Mr. Mercer has appealed to the state of Kentucky for help. At the request of local civic leaders, Gov. Paul Patton is requesting $234,000 for Mr. Mercer's foundation this year. Even though the state is facing hard times with revenue shortfalls, Mr. Mercer thinks lawmakers will earmark the funds. "It would be like France not giving money to preserve the Eiffel Tower," he says.

Mr. Mercer is also preparing to sell souvenir stock certificates for as little as $25 to bluegrass fans who want to own a piece of the mandolin. He says he'll even sell a few head of his cattle to meet an upcoming installment if he has to.

James Monroe declines to say whether he would be open to extending the time limit. And there's still the matter of attracting fans to Rosine (population 65), which has no interstate highway and no hotel.

But on a recent day Mr. Mercer appeared unfazed. He describes Rosine as a potential Disneyland for bluegrass tourists, complete with music festivals and ox-and-cart tours of the Monroe family farm. He envisions the legendary F-5 rolling into town in an armored car in the middle of a homecoming parade.

"There's right and there's wrong," Mr. Mercer says. "What's right is for it to come home to rest with Bill Monroe."

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