I love when Budrock sends pictures of the crew, hard at work setting up for a Willie Nelson and Family Show that night. These are the guys that make it all happen, so that Willie Nelson and his band can come out and perform for us fans. This is Tunin’ Tom, a/k/a Tom Hawkins. He must have an amazing ear to do that job for so long, so well.
After 34 years, Willie Nelson and his strings are deeply attached
Los Angeles Times
HOUSTON — There are some things you just don’t do in Texas. You don’t ask ranchers how many head of cattle they have. You don’t try on another man’s hat. And whatever you do, you don’t step on Willie Nelson’s guitar.
At a honky-tonk show back in 1969, in a bustling country town, a reveler with a full tank of whiskey in him did just that.
Nelson rushed the crippled instrument to Shot Jackson, a friend in Nashville who could fix anything. “I can’t fix it,” Jackson told him. “But I’ve got another one here I can give you.”
“Is it any good?” Nelson asked.
The rest, as they say in Texas, is the Willie way.
Nelson has been performing for six decades. He has appeared on more than 200 albums and written more than 2,000 songs. The truth, though, or so Nelson has always claimed, is that he’s only really good at one thing: dumb luck.
So it was that a solitary, drunken misstep at a forgotten dance hall led to an extraordinary relationship. Willie Nelson, a practical man, became enchanted with a guitar, named it “Trigger” and, 34 years later, hasn’t put it down.
As the man known as the redheaded stranger goes gray and music aficionados celebrate his 70th birthday this year, it’s clear that this is no solo act, but a lovely duet entering its golden years.
“Even before I plugged it in the first time, just by strumming it, I knew I had something special,” Nelson said last week aboard his customized bus, the Honeysuckle Rose III. “I got a good one.
“They say it about Stradivarius violins and wine, that they get better and better each year,” he said. “That’s what you’re supposed to do, I guess. Some things just get better with age.”
Shortly after making Trigger’s acquaintance, Nelson made a pledge: The day the guitar gave out, he told friends, he would quit performing forever. Nelson chuckled when reminded of that vow. “That was pretty safe at the time,” he said. The guitar was fresh and new and Nelson, well, was not. He was touring hard and living harder.
Today, the pistol-packing Pied Piper of Outlaw Music has become Citizen Willie. He plays at least 200 dates a year, jogs, jumps rope, drinks soy-milk lattes and seems surprised that anyone is surprised that he made it to 70.
The guitar, meanwhile, looks like a disaster.
Trigger’s portage and care are entrusted to a man named “Tunin” Tom Hawkins. He was hired in 1979 during the filming of “Honeysuckle Rose,” in which Nelson essentially played himself in a movie about a musician torn between his family and life on the road.
Hawkins’ job was to tune the piano of Bobbie Nelson, whom Willie Nelson still plays with each night, habitually calling her “Little Sister Bobbie,” though she is his older sister, now 72 years old. Hawkins’ story seems to be the same as everyone else’s in Nelson’s entourage: “I just never went away,” he said with a shrug.
More than 100 musicians and friends, from Johnny Cash to Leon Russell, have signed and etched their names into Trigger’s amber face. The late Roger Miller is the John Hancock of the bunch; his scrawled signature dominates the lower third of the guitar. Nelson’s fourth wife, Annie, has her name on one corner.
“Here’s a little damage that appears to have been rectified with a half-inch bolt and some Superglue,” Hawkins said with a laugh, pointing to a section on the underside of the guitar. “It’s taken some abuse, just like the rest of us.”
Beyond its iconic status, Nelson believes the guitar has played an important role in the development of popular music.
Nelson’s career was gaining momentum — he had already written “Crazy,” a song Patsy Cline would make famous — but had not achieved a breakthrough. It happened shortly after he bought Trigger, when he left Nashville, moved back home to Texas and released a series of albums, “Shotgun Willie,” “Phases and Stages” and “Red Headed Stranger.”
The recordings featured Nelson’s spare and haunting picking of Trigger’s gut strings, and shook up what was then a conservative, production-heavy country-music establishment. The albums were hits and made Nelson a crossover star, popular on the pop charts as well as the country charts.
By 1973 or so, Nelson began to notice his audience was becoming a strange blend of American culture — straight-and-narrow rednecks and counterculture hippies, folks who wouldn’t normally be caught dead together, were attending his shows in equal number.
A new world of “Redneck Hip” had been ushered in, and Nelson was branded the first “Cosmic Cowboy.” He dumped his Nashville suits and short hair for braids and jeans and developed an inimitable and influential style that blended country, pop, jazz, gospel and blues. That evolution continues today, as creative and experimental musicians such as Beck and Ryan Adams fold traditional folk and country themes into popular rock songs.
“If you steal from enough people, somehow you wind up doing your own thing,” Nelson said. “Music changed. It had to. And the sound of this guitar had a lot to do with that.”
Said Hawkins: “At this point, they play together. They know each other, and it’s hard to imagine one without the other. There’s only one Trigger. And there’s only one Willie. And we’ve got to take care of them both. I think it can last forever.”