Guitars take a turn as visual art and history instead of music at Western Heritage Museum 

The Guitar: Art, Artists  and Artisans
Opens Friday, on display through May 9
National Cowboy& Western Heritage Museum
1700 N.E. 63
$12.50 adults, $9.75 seniors and students, $5.75 children 4-12

Stringing the bridge of Woody Guthrie's fascist-killing machine to the frets of B.B. King's beloved Lucille, the guitar "? more than any other instrument "? scales the history of contemporary music. Its influence on the sound of the last century is profiled in "The Guitar: Art, Artists and Artisans," a new exhibit opening Friday at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

"When you put up guitars, you're going to have three audiences: those interested in the art, the second is the real pickers, and the third is the people who want to see a star's guitar," said Don Cusic, guest curator.

A music business professor at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., Cusic organized the exhibit with Don Reeves, the McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture at the museum. With their battered, buffed or bejeweled bodies, the 50 exhibiting guitars show off the instrument's evolution from its traditional Spanish folk beginnings to its historical and cultural impact on the American West.

"As the cowboy become an iconic image, the guitar was linked with that image," Reeves said. "We're exploring why the guitar was linked with the image of the American cowboy, with both the acoustic and the electric being quintessential icons of America."

Singing cowboys, many with Okie ties like Tom Mix and Gene Autry, seen in movies strumming on horseback popularized the guitar and helped American music evolve from twangy country to punk rock power chords. Those used by contemporary country powerhouses like Oklahomans Vince Gill, Toby Keith and Garth Brooks are highlighted alongside vintage and original replica models, the oldest being a decorated C.F. Martin from 1845.

Guitar manufacturer Gibson provided many of the replicas, as well as a breakout exhibit showing the individual components that comprise the iconic instrument.

"If you look at the history of country music or Western music or rock 'n' roll, it all centers on guitars," Cusic said. "More people play the guitar than any other instrument. In terms of music today, not many people play the fiddle, but have you ever met anybody who doesn't play the guitar?"

Among the exhibit's ornamental guitars, many are adorned with painted portraits and tributes to legends like Elvis Presley, Merle Travis, John Lennon, Roy Rogers and Chet Atkins, while some feature airbrushed scenes of horses below cowboys carved in mother of pearl.

The most outlandish "? and completely unplayable "? is a chandelier of 12 guitars encrusted with Swarovski crystals, created by Dallas artist Amanda Dunbar. Also extravagant is Dru WhiteFeather's guitar, covered in leather and elaborate beadwork, and another by Bruce Kunkel that is decked out with desert flowers carved in wood and a cowboy lassoing the moon adorning its fretboard.

"In terms of art styles, the exhibit goes from Norman Rockwell to Salvador Dali," Cusic said.
For those frustrated by the sight of silent guitars, the exhibit has a stage with three instruments decorated by local artists Clint Stone, Matt Goad and Erin L. Oldfield. Visitors can show off their solos or thrash for the first time and then enter a drawing for the guitars, which will be given away at exhibit's end.

"You don't have to be knowledgeable about the history of guitars or how they're played," said Shayla Simpson, director of public relations and museum events. "You can really come in and get a sense of just the extraordinary piece of art they have become." "?Allison Meier

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