Jacksonville Guitar owner Steve Evans has compiled what is likely the world’s largest collection of cowboy guitars. On several walls at his shop, hundreds of the instruments with art depicting life out West form a collage of six-stringed, pop-culture remnants from before rock and roll took hold.
“The cowboys were really cool from the 1930s to about 1955, until whenever Elvis came along,” Evans said during a tour of his collection.
“I’ve come to realize that these cowboys — Gene Autry was the first that made it big and he started the cowboy craze — I feel like they kind of molded the kids into having this generation of people that were real honest and don’t want to cheat anybody, you know just want to give their life for what is right, and I feel like that these kids that paid attention to the moral of the stories in the movies and radio shows, a lot of them went off to fight in World War II and that’s our greatest generation. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry only helped that greatest generation have good moral values,” he said.
“I think of my own father, he passed away in 1996, but he was 20 when World War II started, and that’s when Gene Autry was at his most popular.”
About 25 years ago, Evans, who was born in Sylvan Hills and raised in Jacksonville, started the collection by placing want ads in a specialty magazine for toy collectors and attending a vintage guitar show in Dallas every year. Now he can find them on the auction website eBay.
He grew up watching re-runs of “The Lone Ranger” and Roy Rogers TV shows. “I like that you can get artwork on your guitar. And that there’s a bunch to pick from. They are affordable to collect as far as antique guitars go. They’re real reasonable. You can get them for $100, $150 on eBay.” Other kinds of antique guitars cost thousands of dollars so they’re impractical for most people.
Today, he is a sought-after expert. “Maybe once a week, someone calls about a cowboy guitar.” They are looking to sell one to him or estimate the value. “I’m known as the authority on it.”
Recently, Evans was asked to authenticate a Gene Autry guitar that appeared to have been autographed by George Jones, the late country-music star, who in his autobiography said he’d played a Gene Autry Melody Ranch as a youngster.
Evans published “Cowboy Guitars” in 2002. It is surely the most definitive guide to cowboy-guitar collecting and is succinctly subtitled “It’s a big roundup of those wonderful cowboy guitars, starting with the Gene Autry model of 1932 to present day.” It is for sale online at a variety of booksellers and at Jacksonville Guitar.
It’s co-authored by Ron Middlebrook, who wrote summaries of the history of each guitar included in the book. Roy Rogers Jr. wrote the book’s foreword.
“Mainly by studying the old catalogs, I came up with the information about when they were available. So I typed all that up and then I took these photographs…mailed that to my co-author, and he laid it out and added the biographies that (Middlebrook) wrote,” Evans said.
“In the back of my book, I asked people to send in pictures of themselves with their collection. They spent a lot of time with me on the phone” giving him measurements and descriptions to explain how the designs changed over the years.
Some big names like Stevie Ray Vaughn, LeAnn Rimes and Melissa Etheridge, whose photographs appear in the book, have played cowboy guitars. “Ringo Starr talked about how he loved cowboy stuff.” Even Evans’ old Algebra teacher, J.D. Hall, is shown playing his Buck Jones cowboy guitar in 1941 on his family farm in Guy.
The collection is virtually complete, so he doesn’t buy any more, though there may be a few more out there that he hasn’t realized. “As far as I know I got the biggest collection, but with eBay going, anybody can get a collection going,” he said.
“It’s hard to find one I don’t have, I’m sure there are some I don’t realize that are out there,” he said. He prizes one called the Tex Morton, an Australian country singer, that was made by the Wayne Music Company in Australia, because of its far-flung origin and rarity. It is cream colored with a black silkscreen design with a cowboy tossing a lasso while atop his horse.
“It’s real near being complete. It’s the largest one I know of. Some are kind of worn out,” he said, but that only adds to their appeal. “They’re all not in good condition because they were cheaply made. A lot of them are 50 to 75 years old, so they’re going to have cracks.”
Only a few have been repaired and sound pretty good, but Evans doesn’t play them much. He appreciates the worn out fret boards, the scratched bodies and other markings they’ve come to have over the decades. (Readers with smart phones may scan the QR code at right to see a video on YouTube of Evans playing one of his cowboy guitars. Visitors are also welcome to stop by the 38-year-old shop at 1105 Burman Drive, which is open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.)
“I don’t want any identical twins. Like this Gene Autry is a little different than this Gene Autry,” he said, pointing to similar guitars, one made in the 1930s and another from the ’50s. Both have the same stenciled illustration, though one has a dark sunburst finish and other subtle stylistic differences. Harmony, the American guitar company that was then owned by Sears, Roebuck and Co., made the Gene Autry guitars. One called the Melody Ranch, the name of Autry’s ranch in the movies, is a highlight of Evans’ collection.
The Gene Autry cost about $9 ($134 today) when it was first released during the Depression. They were still relatively affordable, first-time guitars that many people learned to play on.
Evans also has a huge collection of toy guitars and has tentative plans to publish another book on those.
He began collecting toy guitars while in pursuit of cowboy guitars. “There’s a bunch of toy guitars from TV shows, so I’ve got about 300 of those. I’ve got all the Mattel guitars except one.” He still needs Garfield the cat, which he said he’s never seen except in catalogs.
The Smithsonian Institution or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum should acquire Evans’ collection that has a scope and uniqueness curators can appreciate.