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Movie Star, Rancher

Mid-’50s Muse of Wire and Wood
 
Tender Mercies Rancher

The case for the Tender Mercies Rancher was dressed with stickers courtesy of the movie’s props department. Photo: Greg Barnhart.

In the years immediately after World War II, Americans were settling into a new way of life, and plunging headlong toward an economic prosperity never before experienced by everyday people. Change was also afoot among the nation’s guitar manufacturers.

Having been restricted by materials shortages and/or re-tooling to bolster the war effort, guitar makers like Gibson and Gretsch rolled out of the war with a renewed sense of adventure that was quick to take advantage of changes in popular music – fading quickly were big-band music, swing, and be-bop, replaced by simpler, more aggressive types of music that would eventually take on labels like “rock and roll,” “rockabilly,” “country and western,” “folk,” and “blues.”

The predominant trend among guitar builders at the time was the shift to electricity and (a bit later) the solidbody guitar. But there were more nuanced changes, as well, like the burgeoning popularity of folk music, which in 1947 spurred Gretsch to design three flat-top acoustic guitars – the 16″ Sierra Synchromatic 75 (model number 6007), the 17″ Jumbo Synchromatic 125F (model 6021), and the 18″ 400F (6042). Though none went on to achieve status as truly noteworthy collectibles, the 125F evolved to become the most popular Gretsch acoustic ever made.

In 1954, Gretsch removed the word “Synchromatic” from the headstock of the 125F and re-named it the Town and Country. Still a fairly well-dressed critter, it retained the 6021 model number, 17″ body, maple back and sides, laminated spruce top with natural finish, ladder bracing, multi-ply binding on its top and back, and bound fretboard with block inlays. It also carried over certain design elements from the Jumbo Synchromatic, some functional (arched maple back, height-adjustable bridge), others downright funky, like the triangular sound hole, triangular rosewood bridge, and slanted metal string-anchor plate.

Introduced alongside the Town and Country, the 6022 Rancher was simply a 6021 dressed up in what Gretschheads call the “cowboy” treatment – Amber Red or Orange finish options, a tortoiseshell pickguard with engraved steer head, “G brand” logo on the lower bass bout, “cows and cactus” inlays, and the steer-head inlay on the face of the headstock.

Tender Mercies Poster

Robert Duvall with the Rancher and co-star Allan Hubbard in the lobby card for Tender Mercies.

Not exactly renowned for their sound or playability, the Rancher and Town and Country are today viewed much more favorably for their catchy looks.

“They are both artistically avant-garde interesting pieces of art,” said George Gruhn, co-author of Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars. “However, their laminated top construction, heavy bracing, and bridge design are not conducive to producing good acoustic sound. While they have some appeal as collector’s items, I view them as musical stage props.”

“I agree,” added Walter Carter, Gruhn’s Guide co-author and author of several other books that chronicle guitar brands and models. “You have to string it up with the heaviest strings you can find and play it as hard as you can. That’s the only way to get any sound out of one!”

So it was that the Rancher mostly languished in terms of popularity, and thus was subject to Gretsch’s treatment of similarly dressed guitars (the company also slapped the “cowboy” dressing on the 6120 Chet Atkins Hollow Body, the 6121 Chet Atkins Solid Body, and the 6130 Roundup – the last two were essentially Duo Jet models in Rancher duds) when bits of the “cowboy” detail were dropped from the Rancher with each passing year. Not cool, but certainly better than the fate suffered by the Town and Country, which Gretsch dropped from the line by ’59.

Sans cowboy attire, the Rancher sallied forth, lasting in its original form until 1973, when it was discontinued for two years, reintroduced, then discontinued again in 1980.

955 Gretsch Rancher

The 1955 Gretsch Rancher that “co-starred” with Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies. Photo: Greg Barnhart.

While its story is mostly unexciting, one particular 1955 Rancher did become a Hollywood movie star, of sorts, when it appeared in the hands of actor Robert Duvall in his portrayal of has-been country singer Mac Sledge in the 1982 film Tender Mercies. The character is an alcoholic who seemingly lives out the lyrics of a country song by drinking away his career and family before one day waking up on the floor of a motel in Texas, fresh off an ass-whoopin’. Flat broke, he is forced (or allowed) to “work off” his bill, and the subsequent story of redemption centers around his relationship with the widowed hotel owner, played by Tess Harper, and her son, played by Allan Hubbard.

Lauded by critics, the film scored five Oscar nominations including best director, picture, actor, original screenplay, and original song. It is also regarded as one of Duvall’s finest performances, and marked the only time in six nominations that he was awarded the Oscar for Best Actor. And the Rancher played a significant role in his role.

The guitar Duvall used in the film now belongs to Claude Armentrout and his son, Randy, both of whom are fans of Duvall and the film.

“In 2005, I bought a reissue single-cut Rancher simply because it reminded me of the one in the movie,” Randy said. “But of course I never expected to own the real thing.

“The two play and sound amazingly similar,” he added. “I was impressed to find the ’55 was still in excellent playing condition, with clean, low action that’s as quick and light as any guitar I’ve played. Its sound is thin and bright, but very well balanced, similar to a J-series Gibson, but not as deep.

“Both have the neck contours common to all Gretsches I’ve played, which is my favorite thing about a Gretsch.”

Obviously delighted, Armentrout recalls that after acquiring it, questions abounded about various oddities. So he set out on a mission to gather its history, and his search eventually put him in contact with every person who has owned the guitar since the mid ’60s. Here’s what he has learned so far…

History

Though its earliest history is unknown, in the mid ’60s, concert promoter/record collector Edward Guy bought the guitar, used, from New York’s famed Manny’s Music.

“I liked it because it was very different in color, and because of the shape of the sound hole,” Guy recently told VG. “It had a good neck and a hardy bass sound. Plus, it had the G brand on its top, which just happened to be my last initial!”

A friend of Duvall since the mid ’50s, in 1982, the actor asked Guy if he could use it in a movie because of its authentic, “seasoned” appearance.

“Bobby had a Martin D-28 that his fiance at the time time, Gail Youngs, had given him. But he felt it was too common-looking, and wanted to use a distinctive guitar for the film.” So the guitar made its way to Duvall, who used it “…for six months or more,” Guy said, while preparing for the role in some fairly “method” ways. Guy recounts that Duvall drove more than 600 miles through Texas, recording local accents and sitting in with local country bands.

Gretsch Guitars

Two other guitars that were given the “cowboy” treatment include the 1955 6130 Roundup (left) (which was the only one given a “belt buckle” tailpiece), and the model 6120 Chet Atkins Hollow Body.

Guy also invited Duvall to attend the 1982 Waterloo Bluegrass Festival, where Duvall spent time with musical legends like Bill Monroe and Charlie Waller, studying their performances and watching as they interacted with fans and fellow players. When invited, he’d hang out on tour buses.

Guy’s input also affected a certain behavioral trait of Duvall’s character.

“I contacted the Country Music Hall of Fame and obtained a rare video of Hank Williams on the ‘The Kate Smith Show’ in 1952,” Guy recalled. “I found out that Hank never removed his hat because his hair was thinning. Bobby thanked me for that tidbit, and said he would thereafter keep his hat on for the majority of the film.”

Finally, Guy and his partner, George Argast, arranged for Duvall to perform with the guitar as the opening act for Don Williams at a concert in Morristown, New Jersey.

The roadwork apparently paid off, as Duvall then sang the songs for the Tender Mercies soundtrack, and even had a hand in writing some of them.

Shortly after, the guitar was one of three at a party hosted by Duvall in his New York apartment following a screening of the film. Cast members, along with Willie Nelson, reportedly played it as guitars were passed around.

“Bobby had me smuggle in two guitars and hide them upstairs, to avoid being too presumptuous with Willie,” Guy said. “But Willie didn’t need any encouragement. He asked, ‘Does anyone got a guitar?’ and he played and sang for hours… to the frustration of his wife, Connie, who left, somewhat unhappy!”

In 1983, Guy moved to the West Coast, where the guitar was routinely present at jam sessions and parties at Duvall’s home in Malibu, attended by music industry luminaries such as Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Steve Goodman.

In the mid ’70s, Guy replaced the pickguard with a custom version. “The original pickguard dampened the sound,” he remembered. “So I had Matt Umanov replace it.” In ’81, its tuning machines were replaced with Grovers. “I did that because one of the strings kept slipping out of tune. Plus, the gold Grovers really dressed up the guitar, and I wanted it to look good for Duvall.”

The Lone Star Beer Armadillo decal was partially placed over the G brand by the film’s props department, looking to avoid legal/usage issues. Today, it is as it appeared in the film.

Before sending the guitar “on the road” with Duvall, Guy bought a more-durable Guild case to better protect the instrument. Though the case was in like-new condition when it later arrived on the film’s set, the props department (in a move decades ahead of its time!) “relic’d” it and applied backstage-pass stickers, all in the name of authenticity!

In the mid 2000s, the guitar was sold to Peter Trauth at AJ’s Music, in Las Vegas, who sold it to the Armentrouts in 2010. Randy recalls how right after they scored the guitar, he and a friend got completely geeked out with it one night. “We put in the Tender Mercies DVD and I played along with Duvall in the kitchen scene,” he said. “It was spooky how you could tell it was the same guitar, just by the sound! We’d look at the screen, then down at the guitar… it was truly surreal.”

Fans of The History Channel’s “Pawn Stars” reality series might also recognize the guitar, as Trauth appeared with it on a 2009 episode titled “Sink or Sell,” where head honcho Rick Harrison politely declined to pay $10,000 for it.

The guitar will soon be displayed along with other film memorabilia as part of an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame.


This article originally appeared in VG January 2011 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.


CLICK HERE for Tender Mercies scene with Gretsch Rancher.

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