Willie Nelson and Trigger, the love story between a man and a guitar

By Sergio Ariza

Music history is full of legendary guitarists and their guitars, B.B. King and Lucille, Eric Clapton and Blackie or Peter Green and Greenie, but none is more iconic than that of Willie Nelson (born 29 April 1933) and his guitar Trigger. Together for 48 years, Nelson has a lasting faith in his guitar, despite, he says, “ We are both quite old, we’ve got scars here and there, but we still manage to sound decent from time to time”. His loyalty is such that, a few years ago, Nelson ceded that when Trigger breaks, he’ll retire from music. 

A story like theirs would have  best been described as love at first sight, but it wasn’t, it was actually over a casual date. It was the year 1969 and Nelson was mainly using an electrified classic Baldwin with a Prismatone pickup. During a show he left it on the floor for a minute and a drunk stepped on it by accident. He was so fond of it that he sent it to a luthier in Nashville to see if it could be repaired. Shortly after he got a call saying nothing could be done to save it, and offered him a classic Martin N-20 with nylon strings for 750$. Without having seen or heard it, Nelson considered it a bargain, and decided to accept the offer, but asked him to use the old  for a Baldwin pickup to amplify his sound. Never before did such a profound love story get off to such a less-promising start. When he received it, he was delighted with the sound. It reminded him of his 6-string hero Django Reinhardt, and he decided to name it Trigger, after the horse of his childhood idol, TV star Roy Rogers. He didn’t know it yet, but that guitar would cast the sound that would make him a star and one of country music’s icons.  

In 1969 Nelson was a long way from being a rookie in the music world, having recorded his first song in 1956 and, in the early 60s, he had become one of the most wanted composers in country music history with such emblematic songs as Night Life, which became a hit for Ray Price, Funny How Time Slips Away, recorded by Billy Walker, Pretty Paper by Roy Orbison, or the top of the list, the wonderful Crazy which found a perfect fit with the marvelous voice of Patsy Cline. However, his career as singer never got off the ground and, what is worse, it seemed to be coming to an end, confined to the restrictive sound of Nashville. Trigger did not appear on one of his records until My own peculiar way, Nelson’s 9th work. How else could it be, it’s the one responsible for opening it, but wound up feeling buried in the typical sweet sound of country music’s capital. As you can see on the album cover, a shaven Willie with short hair, dressed in a turtleneck sweater, still looking for his own voice and look. 

1970 wasn't a good year either; his record sales continued to fall , a tour almost ruined him, his 2nd wife filed for divorce after finding out he was fathering another woman’s child, and to top it off, his ranch in Tennessee burnt to the ground. In the middle of the lapping flames, Willie, the hero, went in and saved the only two things that mattered, a bag of pot, and Trigger. He pulled it off! After a number of misfortunes, he figured it was time for a change, so he left Nashville for his native Texas where he bought a ranch in Bandera, married for the 3rd time, and began to write new material more inspired by grass roots musicians like Bob Dylan or The Band. Not long after, he returned to Nashville to record the best work of his career to that point. It was Yesterday’s Wine, his first concept album in which such lovely songs would appear such as the title track or the autobiographical Me & Paul, where the sound that would make him great was already there, with his fragile yet agile voice, Trigger, a bass and a simple percussion. Despite it all, success kept avoiding him, and he became disillusioned, so he quit the music scene.  

After a short stint raising pigs on his farm, Willie moved to Austin, where he would find the perfect place to rediscover himself. Soon after he noticed that many of the young rock fans were listening to country through the return of grassroots led by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Grateful Dead, and Creedence. He suddenly saw an opportunity and jumped at it, got back to performing and changed his rigid Nashville image into the outlaw rocker, letting his hair and beard grow, dressed in blue jeans and shirts, and of course the legendary bandana. The place he would accomplish his takeover was in Armadillo World Headquarters, a renowned club where the likes of Ry Cooder, Zappa, and Captain Beefheart had played, and would become the Mecca of the new Austin sound one August 12, 1972 when Nelson and his band took the stage to delight two audiences at odds with each other until that moment, the hippies and the rednecks.  

Nelson got back to recruiting some old live band members like his sister Bobbie, Bee Spears on bass and Paul English’s faithful drums (of Me & Paul) and brought in some new blood with Mickey Raphael on harp, and Merle Haggard’s guitarist Jody Payne. They were known as The Family and played with Nelson for the following decades.  News of his return didn’t go unnoticed and he landed a contract on a label far from country music: Atlantic Records. 

His signing was a personal bet of one of the bigwigs of the company, Jerry Wexler who personally produced two of his most essential records, Shotgun Willie in 1973, and Phases and Stages the following year. On the first, Willie brings life to the fine lines that separate country from blues with some sweet solos on Trigger, and to round it off he brings in the funkiest wind section in the world, the Memphis Horns, and Django’s influence is there in She’s Not for You. Country took off and mixed with a rock attitude, jazzy phrasing, and powerful soul. On the second record he delivers a conceptual masterpiece in which he addresses divorce from her point of view, the first 5 songs, and from his, the last 5 songs. Neither were much of a success but anyone with their ears open could see that Nelson had found himself and had created a new genre of music. Spurred on by the release to freedom of his good friend Waylon Jennings, he he got a new contract with his company with total creative control and Honky Tonk Heroes is released, and ‘outlaw country’ is born.           

Austin became a type of music Mecca but much freer and less fettered than Nashville, with people like Doug Sahm, Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Walker. That’s where talk began of these outlaws who don’t abide the rules, and played without Nashville sponsors, a thaw reflected in their look; long hair, hippy garb, and besides, pot was smoked in broad daylight. In the middle of it all, this musical reinvention, was Trigger, now in its country roots and rock swagger he filled the boots of his long time favourite guitarist, Django Reinhardt. His solos sounded fresh, with a classic guitar amplified and played with a pick. 

The record where Trigger shines the most is perhaps Red Headed Stranger,  Willie Nelson’s masterpiece, a concept album about a character, like a preacher from a John Ford film that becomes something like a Sgt. Pepper’s of country. It’s a record where Nelson’s voice and Trigger are the deal, his music had gone from shedding the skin to landing in his pure zone, Willie and Trigger, the cowboy and his horse. It was the album that made him the star we know today, and includes his first #1 Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.  

Riding the wave of success, the following year he put out a compilation album Wanted! The Outlaws on which they compile old Nelson and Jennings songs and it became the first country album to sell over a million copies. In the years to follow we would see interesting releases such as Waylon & Willie, and Stardust, where Nelson showed his restless personality t, leaving the ‘outlaw’ aside for the moment and refreshingly creating together with trigger  the best of American Songbook (basically the same as Dylan is doing now).    


The following decades would solidify him as the visible face of country and the man to make a deal with basically anyone, the ‘Angel from Hell’ or his grandmother. His career and romance with Trigger still work perfectly. The only moment of doubt was when the IRS (taxman) sued him for a few million dollars. And as in years gone by, Willie got off, and fearing they would take all of his possessions, he kidnapped his own guitar and sent it to his sister in Hawaii. As compensation, Trigger helped him pay off a debt by being the star on a record to settle it, The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?.  

And you know, despite the big hole in the bridge, after years of playing a classic guitar with a pick, Willie Nelson knows that his career is completely linked to his guitar. When Trigger breaks, or fails to make sound, he will retire, but his relationship is so symbolic that it seems Trigger will still be heard until Nelson’s body says enough and then it will fade alone...we hope that it will be in many years. 

(Images: ©CordonPress)