Wherever I go in the country, or the world for that matter, if there is a music-related site I take the trouble to visit it. When I was in Rio de Janeiro, I made a beeline for Garota de Ipanema Café and Bar, where the great bossa nova song “The Girl From Ipanema” was written. Last year, while in Nashville, I visited the new Johnny Cash Museum and in New York strolled by the Brill Buildings, where folks like Carole King (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”) and Ellie Greenwich (“Da Doo Ron Ron”) wrote the songs we remember from the 1960s.
About the only music museum I hadn’t visited was the one in my own backyard, the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. One of the reasons I chose to finally go there was the exhibit that’s been running since the end of last year called Women Who Rock.
Basically, this show highlights women singers from early in the 20th century (Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith) through now (Carrie Underwood and Lady Gaga), and it is done by showcasing the outfits they wore and assorted ephemera, from the instruments they played to the songbooks in which they wrote the lyrics to their songs. It’s hard to say what exactly are the highlights. For a baby boomer like myself, it was interesting to see the white leather vest Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane wore at Woodstock. Someone of the younger generation would probably be more excited to see the dress Rihanna wore to the American Music Awards performance in 2008.
Something from most any important female performer of the last 60 years is represented in the show, from Carole King to Christina Aguilera, from Tina Turner to Taylor Swift and from Mary Wilson (The Supremes) to Madonna.
In between the individual exhibits are flat panel screens that feature three or four particular artists. The free headset dispensed when you buy your tickets will automatically tune you in, as it does to all the flat-screen presentations throughout the museum.
The MIM is known for its extensive collection of world instruments. Indeed, the whole second floor of this large museum is dedicated to instruments of different parts of the world. You may stroll first into the Africa room, wander next into the Middle East room and keep going through rooms dedicated to instruments from Southeast Asia to Oceania to Latin America before ending up in the expansive room dedicated to instruments and the musical history of the United States and Canada.
Just the United States and Canada room can take the really-interested an hour to view it all. There’s everything from John Philip Sousa’s marching band artifacts in the U.S./Canada room to full Buddhist temple layouts in the Asian rooms.
I spent the most amount of my time in what’s called the Artist Gallery on the first floor, which has a hodge-podge of instruments from famous people or situations.
Two of the highlights are pianos, the upright on which John Lennon composed the song, “Imagine,” and the lime green Steinway with orange and yellow keys painted by artist Dale Chihuly, mostly known for his glass creations. Look for clothing artifacts from conductor Leonard Bernstein, a drum thumped in the closing ceremony at the Beijing Olympics or a trumpet used by Miles Davis.
I like to see the instruments individual performers used, in particular, the guitars. So, this room was fascinating to me. Be on the lookout for, among many others, John Denver’s Gibson, given to him by his grandmother and made in 1910; Taylor Swift’s Les Paul; Eric Clapton’s Gibson ES-345; Santana’s Black Yamaha; surf-guitar great Dick Dale’s Fender Stratocaster; and Duane Eddy’s Gretsch — which, by the way, was purchased in Phoenix 50 years ago from Ziggie’s Music store.
If you clockwise circumnavigate this great space, you’ll end up at a small showcase of performers who had strong ties to the Phoenix area, guys like Lee Hazlewood, a songwriter who did a number of duets such as “Some Velvet Morning” with Nancy Sinatra At this exhibit, your headphones will pick up outlaw country singer Waylon Jenning’s great 1977 cut, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back To the Basics of Love).”
And yes, in my journeys I’ve also made a pilgrimage to the real Luckenbach. Waylon wasn’t there when I arrived, but if you visit MIM you can hear his song.
If you go
What: The Musical Instrument Museum
When: Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. the first Friday of every month.
Where: 4725 E. Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix
Cost: Admission is $18 for adults, $14 for teens ages 13-19, $10 for children ages 4-12. Admission to Women Who Rock is an additional $7, or you can skip museum admission and see only Women Who Rock for $10.
Information: (480) 478-6000 or mim.org
• Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer based in Mesa, and the author of “The Death of Johnny Ace” and “Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis.” Reach him at Redroom.com/Stevebergsman or firstname.lastname@example.org.