The Art of The Guitar: Legendary Guitarist James Burton
Legendary guitarist James Burton’s road to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame began when his parents did what most parents do – gave in to their 13-year-old child.
When: June 2 through Aug. 19
Where: artspace, 708 Texas St., Shreveport
“I saw this guitar hanging in the window of J&S Music store on Milam Street in downtown Shreveport,” Burton recalled. “It was a Fender Telecaster and I went home and told my parents that I really wanted that guitar and, even though we didn’t have a lot of money, my parents went down and bought it for me. It was a real sacrifice for them to do that, as we didn’t even own a car at the time. I still own this guitar and played it on hundreds of million-seller records and still use it in the studio today.”
A portion of the extensive guitar collection Burton has amassed since then is the centerpiece of The Art of the Guitar, a summer-long exhibition and series of related events at Shreveport Regional Arts Council’s artspace.
“I started accumulating guitars in my studio work because each session called for a different guitar with a different sound,” Burton said. “I honestly don’t know how many I have in my collection. I’ve chosen roughly 50 of my guitars for the exhibit and I chose them because of their importance in my career or the images some of them have. The guitars in my exhibit are my own, but we will also display guitars that are personally signed by known artists that have played our shows for free in order to benefit the James Burton Foundation, our foundation that gives guitars to kids in schools and hospitals.”
Burton and wife Louise are curating the exhibit themselves to include both guitars and memorabilia from the career that has taken him from a 14-year-old playing at the Louisiana Hayride to a master guitarist sought after by such stars as Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Cash, the Beach Boys, Emmylou Harris and John Denver.
But don’t look for that cherished guitar his parents gave him in the exhibit — some things are just too precious to let out of your sight. Among those you will see: an electric guitar played with Elvis, the dobro guitar he played with Merle Haggard, a banjo played with Mama Cass Elliot, guitars given to him by friends like Steven Seagal and all the guitars in his signature James Burton Fender Telecasters series, which started in 1991. Memorabilia includes gold and platinum records, playbills, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame pieces and an outfit he wore when he played with Ricky Nelson.
While Burton’s collection will occupy the main floor at artspace, the second floor exhibit, called “Guitar Heroes,” will give the public the opportunity to tell the stories of their guitars through a juried exhibition for which Burton himself selects guitars based upon craftsmanship, celebrity status and history or a good story.
SRAC Executive Director Pam Atchison believes the exhibit will have broad appeal through its combination of celebrity, music, art and legend.
“Let’s just start with the fact that James Burton is a legend,” she said. “He is the number 19 guitar player in all of the world, according to Rolling Stone magazine. He’s right up there with Santana on one side and Les Paul on the other. He still performs in Europe 300 days out of a year, so he’s an active performer and he still is called up by some of the contemporary top performers.”
She stressed that the exhibit will be interactive.
“There will be some guitars you can touch and strum and play — not all of them, but some. Then there will be the stories of the guitars. James will do his own story. We’ll be looking not just at the guitar as visual art but as literary art and theater, storytelling. Every Wednesday, there will be a story about someone who’s brought in a guitar or about one of James’ guitars and every Thursday there will be a performance,” Atchison said. “There are some other key things that are happening that I think are timely. The city has invited James to be the headliner for the Fourth of July festival.”
Burton plans to be here for several events, including opening night when he’ll receive a guitar from the Buddy Holly Foundation, presented by his friend and country star Vince Gill, in recognition of his music legacy.
Burton also plans to participate in a Wednesday storytelling night, a panel on Shreveport’s musical history, the Fourth of July concert and an Aug. 6 concert. (Aug. 6 concert details to come at www.jamesburtonfoundation.org.)
“The timing was right to share some of these unique instruments with the public in hopes of encouraging guitar players and more importantly, encouraging a new generation of kids to play,” he said.
Through the exhibit, Atchison looks forward to celebrating the extraordinary career of a hometown hero and acquainting the community with even more of Burton’s accomplishments.
“We’ve had a lot of great musicians come to the community, but, to me, James is like Bill Joyce. These are two people who could live anywhere they want to in the world and they could probably be making more money if they lived somewhere else, but this is home.”