Jumpin’ Bill Carlisle’s 1954 Gibson J-185

Sometimes, you come across a vintage guitar whose history has been lost with time. With every hand it passes through, the original owner’s story is gradually whittled down until what was once a redwood is now a twig. And yet, sometimes, you are lucky enough to find a guitar with a history that is so carefully preserved and documented that it stays evergreen. That is the case with this 1954 Gibson J-185, owned by country music legend Bill Carlisle. 

Born in Spencer County, Kentucky, William “Bill” Toliver Carlisle, Jr. was raised in a musical family. He and his brother, Cliff, grew up performing together. The two cut records throughout the 30s and 40s, sometimes together as the Carlisle Brothers but often separate, each gaining success in their own right. While Cliff was prolific, mastering steel guitar and blending blues and country, Bill became somewhat of a country-singing comedian. He recorded some of the funniest, raunchiest country music of his time, taking on an alter ego named “Hot Shot Elmer” for his live performances. As this character, he would leap around the stage over tables or chairs. His high-energy, high-flying stunts garnered two nicknames: “Bounding Billy Carlisle” and the more well-known “Jumpin’ Bill Carlisle.” 

Photo of Bill Carlisle in the center, jumping as “Hot Shot Elmer” (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

Carlisle’s biggest solo hit was “Tramp on the Street,” and accompanied by his band, The Carlisles, had hits with “Too Old to Cut the Mustard” and “No Help Wanted.” By the 60s, his children Shiela and Bill Jr. joined The Carlisles, and the trio performed as a family. Their biggest hit was “What Kinda Deal is This?” in 1965.

Carlisle and his children performing “No Help Wanted” as The Carlisles at the Grand Ole Opry in 1965, playing this 1954 J-185

Carlisle continued to perform throughout his life at the Grand Ole Opry until his passing in 2003. A year prior, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, introduced on stage by Dolly Parton. His legacy in country music cannot be overstated; he was known for his comedic approach and precise, fast style of guitar playing. Multiple of his hits were rerecorded by the likes of Rosemary Clooney, Marlene Dietrich, and Hank Williams. He wrote the gospel hymn classic “Gone Home.” He even gave Chet Atkins his first job in the music industry, playing for Carlisle on a Knoxville radio show. 

Carlisle purchased this 1954 Gibson J-185 in Sunburst at the height of his career. Earlier photos of this guitar show a standard J-185 pickguard on the treble side, with a second one added to the bass side of the body. Carlisle favored the double pickguard look à la The Everly Brothers. Later, Carlisle added the two large, scalloped pickguards that you see present on the guitar today. The rest of the specs are all factory standard, some of our favorite touches being the hyper-flamed maple back and sides, gold tuning pegs, and Maltese cross inlaid rosewood bridge. 

You will find many photos and memories inside this Vox Case (more on that later). There are multiple headshots, and in one, he is posed with Martha Carson, a country/gospel legend in her own right who performed with Bill in The Carlisles before his children joined. This photo was owned and signed by Carlisle, along with another shot of him on stage for WSM Radio. You will also find a lyric sheet for “Blues Stay Away From Me,” which we believe could be in Carlisle’s handwriting, but it was not signed, so we can’t be sure. Nonetheless, it was specially kept in this guitar case for a reason.

When posed side by side, two photos in the case show when Carlisle added the large, scalloped guards to his J-185. In 1965, he was photographed performing with his children at the Grand Ole Opry, playing this guitar with the former pickguards. Just a year later, in 1966, he is seen performing with his children at the Tennessean’s Centennial Park Concert. The scalloped guards are visible in this photo. Lastly, you will find a beautiful memorial card signifying Bill Carlisle’s passing on March 17, 2003. 

We know a giant, Italian-made Vox case seems out of place for this Gibson flattop, but we mean it when we say the two belong together. This is the case Carlisle kept this J-185 in, even signing the back of it. With time, the signature has faded, but we found a photo of the signature when it was in better condition. We have placed it inside the case in hopes that the two will never be separated, even if the signature is no longer visible. 

When watching videos of Carlisle performing, you can feel his joy for his music, family, and instruments. We couldn’t help but fall in love with him and his beaming personality and thought it only fitting to honor his memory with this story about his life and treasured J-185.

Bill Carlisle performing the gospel hit he wrote, “Gone Home”, at 90 years old on the Country Family Reunion Gospel Series.

For more photos and info about this guitar, click here.

Works Consulted:

“The Carlisles.” Bear Family Records, www.bear-family.com/carlisles/. Accessed 29 Aug. 2023.

Down on Music Row. Photo of Bill Carlisle and Children Performing. Facebook, June 16, 2016, 7:59 PM. https://www.facebook.com/downonmusicrow/photos/a.994149903965804/1085344368179690/

“Jumpin Bill Carlisle 1954 J-185 – Update 6/29/14.” The Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum, 29 June 2014, umgf.com/jumpin-bill-carlisle-1954-j-185-update-6-29-14-t133521.html.

Variety Staff. “Jumpin’ Bill Carlisle.” Variety, Variety, 4 Apr. 2003, variety.com/2003/scene/people-news/jumpin-bill-carlisle-1117884164/.