AUSTIN, Texas — Willie Nelson’s guitar is almost as iconic as he is. Trigger is named after Roy Rogers’ horse and has been by Willie’s side since 1969. Mark Erlewine is the Austin man that has kept Trigger going for almost 40 years.
Off the beaten path of Burnet Road, in a back warehouse, the science of sound marries the art of music in Mark Erlewine’s guitar shop.
“Whenever a guitar comes in, the first thing I do is tune it to pitch and measure the action at the 12th fret,” said Mark.
Erlewine is one of three boys and had an ear for music early on. His mother was also a musician, playing piano and singing and recognized that her son had a talent.
“When I first started guitar, I rented a guitar in Wheaton, Maryland. And it was the worst playing guitar I had ever had. And I thought ‘Is it me? Is guitar going to be this much of a challenge? Or could this play better?’ And that…was really the first time I tried to figure out and took an interest in guitars,” said Mark.
He answered the call to Austin in 1974 from Ann Arbor, Michigan where he owned a guitar repair shop.
“This was like the Mecca. Armadillo World Headquarters,” said Mark.
He spent a few nights sleeping on the table saw of his first shop on Guadalupe and would post flyers for his business along the drag. There was no AC in the shop. Mark would sweat and work on guitars. He was young and ambitious.
“I was right down the street from the Austin City Limits TV studio so often bands would come in that needed some work,” said Mark.
One day Poodie Locke came in with a repair order for B.W. Stevenson’s guitar.
“That was an introduction to people in the business,” said Mark.
At the end of the 1970s Mark met Willie Nelson for the first time at the Austin Opry House located on Academy Drive just off South Congress. Today it houses a software company and is still the site for Arlen recording studios. Poodie, Willie’s stage manager, took Mark through a series of back hallways to a private bar.
“Willie was sitting there at the bar. Introduced me and Willie said, ‘yeah I just want you to keep this guitar going for me. As long as it’s going, I’ll be going,'” said Mark. “I thought, ‘I can do that.'”
But Willie’s request wasn’t for repair.
“Willie wants Trigger to wear along with him,” said Mark.
Don’t tough the frets. Be careful of each signature but keep it playing. Willie was starting to wear a second hole in the wood.
“Trigger looked much younger then, as did I,” said Mark.
Willie and Trigger have played more than 10,000 shows. Between gigs, Trigger will come back to Mark for a list of repair work. He’s replaced 12 to 13 sets of tuners over the years and made sure Trigger’s iconic sound is still intact. The Martin N-20 guitar is Brazilian rosewood on the back and sides with a Spruce top.
“Much of his life is there handling Trigger,” said Mark.
Mark has a love song of his own waiting to be written. His wedding photo to wife Dianne is tucked in his toolbox at the shop where they both work. She takes care of the books after leaving the corporate world in 2009.
“I do love it when people come in and they put the guitar up on the case and open it up and start talking about it. I’ll usually wander up to the front just to listen,” said Dianne Erlewine.
They’ve been married for a dozen years and the stories keep coming.
“Jimmy Vaughn comes out and winks at him and I’m like, you know him?” recalls Dianne about one of their first dates.
“Sting or Bob Dylan’s guitar. Something I listen to and admire, yeah that’s exciting,” said Mark.
He never knows who will walk through his door.
“No…not until the credit card, says John Fogerty. And I said you know I play a lot of John Fogerty songs,” said Mark.
He’s made custom guitars for Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill of ZZ Top, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Johnny Winter, Don Felder and Joe Walsh of The Eagles, Paul McCartney and more. But for every famous face, he’s mended guitars for local musicians and possibly even repaired one marriage.
“She put it over his head and they were seeing a counselor now and they think things would get better but they were hoping we could put this thing back together for them. It’s symbolic of their relationship,” said Mark.
He was able to repair that guitar but others have to be pronounced dead. Not Trigger though. Mark spent time in December working on Trigger while Willie and the band rested for the holidays. Mark himself has had surgery for carpal tunnel on both hands. The guitar reflects the wear and tear too. Just like Willie wants it.
“I think Trigger will be there til the end. I really do,” said Mark.
You can learn more about Mark’s work at www.erlewineguitars.com.