photo: Andrew Shaptner
by: Michael Hall
The guitar—a Martin N-20 classical, serial number 242830—was a gorgeous instrument, with a warm, sweet tone and a pretty “mellow yellow” coloring. The top was made of Sitka spruce, which came from the Pacific Northwest; the back and sides were Brazilian rosewood. The fretboard and bridge were ebony from Africa, and the neck was mahogany from the Amazon basin. The brass tuning pegs came from Germany. All of these components had been gathered in the Martin guitar factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and cut, bent, and glued together, then lacquered, buffed, and polished. If the guitar had been shipped to New York or Chicago, it might have been purchased by a budding flamenco guitarist or a Segovia wannabe. Instead it was sent to a guitarist in Nashville named Shot Jackson, who repaired and sold guitars out of a shop near the Grand Ole Opry. In 1969 it was bought by a struggling country singer, a guy who had a pig farm, a failing marriage, and a crappy record deal.
Willie Nelson had a new guitar.
Forty-three years later—after some 10,000 shows, recording sessions, jam sessions, songwriting sessions, and guitar pulls, most taking place amid a haze of tobacco and reefer smoke and carried out with a particular brand of string-pounding, neck-throttling violence—the guitar looks like hell. The frets are so worn it’s a wonder any tone emerges at all. The face is covered in scars, cuts, and autographs scraped into the wood. Next to the bridge is a giant maw, a gaping hole that looks like it was created by someone swinging a hammer.
Most guitars don’t have names. This one, of course, does. Trigger has a voice and a personality, and he bears a striking resemblance to his owner. Willie’s face is lined with age and his body is bent with experience. He’s been battered by divorce, the IRS, his son Billy’s suicide, and the loss of close friends like Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and his longtime bass player Bee Spears. In the past decade, Willie has had carpal tunnel surgery on his left hand, torn a rotator cuff, and ruptured a bicep. The man of flesh and bone has a lot in common with the guitar of wire and wood.
“Trigger’s like me,” Willie said with a laugh on a cool morning last April at his ranch by the Pedernales River. “Old and beat-up.”
He cradled the guitar in his lap, pulled out a pick, and began to play. The song was one of his favorites, Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages,” a melancholy instrumental that was popular in France during the Nazi occupation. Willie knows every square centimeter of Trigger, and the fingers on his left hand ascended the rough fretboard and played the high yearning riff that begins each verse, then descended, gently following the melody as the fingers on his right hand picked single notes and plucked chords. He played the riff again, this time descending quickly, bending a string and shaking the guitar’s battered neck. He started to play the melody again, then bounced a chord off it—da da!—and started to play some other notes, but they slammed into each other—blonk!—and he went back to the main theme. He played the verse again, rushing it slightly and throwing in a succession of loud, falling notes that changed the tune. At the end he paused and finished with a cascade of sounds, like a leaf falling from a tree.
After a sip of coffee, Willie bent his head and played another Django song, fingering a melody at the top of Trigger’s fretboard and playing a descending riff based around a jazz chord. Willie’s hands are large and veined, and his fingers moved quickly over the strings. They sped to the top again for the second verse, and this time the middle finger on his right hand strummed the strings Spanish-style so quickly it looked like a hummingbird. The song came to the bridge, and Willie played loud, clashing chords, then went back to the verse. He ended with a final clanging descent and a soft chord.
Willie Nelson, the country songwriter, pop crooner, outlaw hero, marijuana scofflaw, and farmer’s friend, is also a jazz musician. A really good jazz musician. He improvises, plays what he feels, makes mistakes, and plays some more, always coming back to the melody, buzzing around it like a bee. Some guitarists are careful about every note; they handle their instruments as carefully as a landscape artist handles a brush. Willie treats Trigger like a horse, and he rides him hard.
Willie became the guitarist he is by playing this instrument, which he has worn and shaped with his own hands, working his very personality into the wood until it sounds like no other guitar on earth. Most nylon-stringed guitars have a rich, round tone, and they are difficult to tell apart. Trigger is so distinctive—low tones that thump like they have mud on them, high ones that chime like glass—that you can hear one or two notes on the radio and know immediately whom you’re listening to.
No guitar is as beloved—or as famed. On Trigger’s face you can see the topography of modern music, the countless hours Willie has spent playing country, blues, jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, swing, folk, reggae, thirties pop, forties pop, and eighties pop. Trigger was there at the very beginning of outlaw country. He was there at the first Farm Aid. And he was there when Willie serenaded President Jimmy Carter. He has shared stage and studio with Ray Charles and Bob Dylan. He has hung from Willie’s neck as tens of thousands of fans sang along to “Whiskey River.” And he has sat in Willie’s lap as Willie comforted friends, such as the time the two of them played “Healing Hands of Time” to Darrell and Edith Royal in their home after their daughter’s death, and then again nine years later after their son’s death.
Without Willie, there would be no Trigger. And it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that without Trigger, there would be no Willie. Willie likes to say that his guitar will probably wear out just about the same time he does. But instead of slowing down, as most people do when they approach their ninth decade, Willie keeps doing the things he’s been doing for years, and so does Trigger. The pair did more than 150 shows this year, and they’ll likely do about that many in 2013. They’ll make some more albums and write some more songs. They’ll play as if they’re going to play forever.
It All Began With a Drunk
According to legend, Roy Rogers stumbled across his famous horse back in 1938 when he was preparing to shoot a movie. The horse was a palomino named Golden Cloud. Rogers rode him, fell in love with how he handled, bought him, and then changed his name. A singing cowboy with a guitar and a gun needed a horse with a name like Trigger.