Bill LloydPlenty of musicians have day jobs, but Bill Lloyd’s is sweeter than most. The power-pop singer-songwriter and ex-member of the late ’80s country-rock duo Foster & Lloyd spends his nine-to-fives at downtown Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where he’s stringed instrument curator.

That makes the guitarist caretaker of a collection of 400 axes—108 of them Gibsons. Some, like Maybelle Carter’s Gibson L-5, Bill Monroe’s Gibson F-5 mandolin, and Jimmie Rodgers’ Martin 0-18 acoustic guitar, are part of the fabric of country music. They were played on the genre’s bedrock recordings. Others are rare birds, like a 1924 Gibson mandola, a beefy relative of the mandolin that’s tuned like a viola (C-D-G-A) and was made by the company’s master builder Lloyd Loar, who also designed Monroe’s F-5. And some are simply beautiful works of art, like the stunning mother-of-pearl- and Bakelite-decorated Gibson J-200 acoustic that songwriter Skeets McDonald used to perform his hits like "Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes" and "This Old Heart" on the Town Hall Dance Party TV show from 1951 to 1960.

And yes, Lloyd does get to handle them. And to play them, too.

"The instruments are meant to vibrate and have voices, and need to be played if their voices are going to remain open, so that’s an important part of Bill’s job," explains Carolyn Tate, who, as vice president of museum services, is Lloyd’s boss.

On a recent afternoon in the Museum’s climate controlled inner sanctum, Lloyd and Tate gave a behind-the-scenes look at some gems from the vaults, including the Lohr mandola and McDonald’s J-200.

"Take a look a this," Lloyd said, removing a pristine tobacco sunburst Les Paul from its case. "Isn’t it beautiful? It’s one of the first Les Pauls Gibson made when the company moved to Nashville"—in 1974—"and it’s hardly been touched. There’s not even a fingerprint on it."

Maybelle Carter's Gibson L-5Then he shifts his attention to one of the acid-free costume boxes with custom-built cradles that are used to house instruments without cases, and removes a Gibson J-50 acoustic.

"This is the guitar Loretta Lynn got from her husband Mooney in 1960," Lloyd says. "She wrote ‘Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)’ and her other early ‘60s hits on this guitar. When I got this guitar, I changed the strings, cleaned it, and polished it. The strings were corroded enough to need changing, but I kept them in the case as artifacts.

"Anything that’s wrong with an instrument when it arrives gets fixed, whether that’s just a clean-up or a bad tuning peg," he explains.

"Unless it’s part of a story, like a bullet hole," Tate adds. "If anything needs to be altered, we discuss it and make a decision. Although we want to keep the instruments in as original a state as possible, they need to be kept in good playable condition to preserve them and to keep them stable so we can have them a long time."

Lloyd continues, "You get the feeling you’re bringing these instruments back to life. Like the McDonald guitar. It had a lot of smudge marks on it, but when I cleaned it up and played it and aired it out, its personality reemerged."

Although the vast majority of the Hall of Fame’s instruments—including Les Paul’s legendary prototype "Log"—are in storage due to limited display space, you don’t have to get behind the scenes to view some of the most exquisite guitars in the collection. Currently a half-dozen of the most spectacular—Carter’s L-5, Monroe’s mandolin, Rodger’s 0-18, Johnny Cash’s Martin D-35S, Chet Atkins’ D’Angelico Excel, and Merle Travis’ Gibson Super 400—are the cornerstones of an exhibit titled "The Precious Jewel." They’re beautifully displayed and lighted—and joined in their large glass case by Atkins’ first Gibson Country Gentleman model and a handful of other notable guitars.

The oldest is Rodgers’ Martin, which he used on August 4, 1927—his day in a week of performances by various artists at a furniture store in Bristol, Tennesse that yielded the first commercial country music recordings. There, the former railroader cut "Sleep, Baby, Sleep" and "The Solider’s Sweetheart," launching his career as "the Singing Brakeman."

Maybelle Carter’s group, the Carter Family, also participated in that string of sessions. The next year she used some of the group’s profits to buy the best guitar she could find: a 1928 Gibson L-5 arch top that she used until her death in 1978. Its bold tone defined the musical style of the Carter Family’s late 1920s and ’30s records. As the first F-hole arch top, the L-5 was designed to be twice as loud as any flat top acoustic of its day. And Maybelle used it to perfect her distinctive picking style, a blend of bass-string melody lines with frailed high-string rhythms, on such classics as "Wildwood Flower" and "Keep on the Sunny Side."

Maybelle Carter's L-5 at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

"A year-and-a-half ago it had to be cleaned up, so I got to put my hands on it, and it was a thrill," says Lloyd. "A lot of these instruments sound a certain way. They were captured on records that we all know and love, and when you play these instruments and make that sound you know from the records again, that’s an unbelievable feeling.

"Of course, a lot of that is what you bring to it as well," he says.

"These instruments have been to a lot of places and have had incredible experiences. If you think about where they’re been and whose played them, it’s amazing."

Monroe’s 1923 F-5 mandolin—a masterpiece by famed Gibson designed Loar—almost succumbed to one of those experiences. In 1986 it was smashed to bits and left in a fireplace in the bluegrass pioneer’s home by an intruder—allegedly a disgruntled lady friend.

Bill Monroe's Gibson F-5 mandolin

"Monroe had spotted it in a barbershop window in Florida and bought it for $150," Tate relates. That was an astronomical amount for a mandolin in the early 1940s, although less famous Loar F-5s auction for as much as $65,000 today.

"He came into his own as a songwriter with this instrument, and when it was destroyed he was heartbroken," she continues. "He gathered all the pieces and sent them back to Gibson."

There, luthier Charles Derrington took on the daunting task of reassembling the instrument’s roughly 500 pieces. Some were so small they needed to be bound together with glue-dampened thread. More than a year later, Monroe got his mandolin back "and he wailed the tar out of it for the rest of his career," Tate says. Despite that interruption, Monroe and his mandolin’s partnership lasted 50 years. The rattlesnake tail Monroe placed inside to absorb moisture and frighten mice still remains.

Bill Monroe's L-5 Mandolin at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Despite their current status as museum pieces, the ultimate fate of Carter’s L-5 and Monroe’s F-5 became uncertain last year. Nashville area philanthropist Bob McLean donated funds for both instruments to the Hall of Fame.

McLean was the target of investigations by several federal agencies and had been forced into involuntary bankruptcy by creditors when he committed suicide in 2007. Those creditors are now seeking restitution in a manner that could require the sale of the L-5 and F-5. The Hall of Fame has in turn filed a suit of its own to protect its right to the historic duo.

For cool looks, it’s hard to beat Merle Travis’ blonde custom-built Gibson Super 400 Special. When the star famed for his thumb-and-finger Travis Picking style received it in 1952, his Super was the most expensive six-string Gibson had produced. It was his main axe for the last 30 years of his career and is still a gloriously shiny beast with its Bigsby vibrato arm, elaborate headstock, and Travis’ name inlaid along the fretboard in pearl script.

Johnny Cash’s Martin D-35S is just the opposite, with nearly every inch covered in scratches because of his hard-driving, up-and-down-the-neck strumming style. But the acorn and leaf pattern along its fretboard remains stunning, and the torch inlay on the headstock is unique. It’s also the most-seen instrument in the Hall of Fame’s collection, since Cash used it regularly on his popular 1969 to 1971 TV show.

The most recorded "Precious Jewel" in the exhibit is Atkins’ D’Angelico. He used it almost exclusively in the 1950s while establishing his session musician and solo careers. Handmade D’Angelicos from the late 1940s and early ’50s with their original binding are typically valued at $36,000 or more, although Atkins’ is a stretch from stock. He added a metal bridge, a vibrato bar, two  pickups, volume controls, and other electronics. It also has a neck repair from an accident at a 1953 radio show. While Atkins was supporting Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters, June Carter accidentally knocked it off a stand.
When Lloyd, who’s coming up on his third year at the Hall of Fame, isn’t watching over its instruments, he’s making sure many of the people who’ve played them get their due. He established the Museum’s "Nashville Cats" program, which features conversations and performances with notable studio musicians. Harmonica virtuoso Charlie McCoy, pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins, and guitarist Ray Edenton are among those who’ve been honored.
And if all that isn’t cool enough, there’s one more hip wrinkle to Lloyd’s day job. His bosses are so musician-friendly that when he needs to travel for a concert, like, say, performing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the Hollywood Bowl with Cheap Trick, which he did in August, or slip out to rehearse for a show with his Nashville-based tribute band the Long Players, who performed Layla and Led Zeppelin IV last year, it’s not a problem. Sweet gig, indeed.