Always on His Mind

Times Staff Writer

There are some things you just don't do in Texas. You don't ask people how many head of cattle they have on their ranch. 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 300 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, and that's dumb luck.

So it was that a solitary, drunken misstep at a forgotten dancehall led to an extraordinary relationship. Willie Nelson, a practical man, became enchanted with a new 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."

Nelson was waiting to play the first of two shows in Camden, N.J., warm-ups of a sort for a two-day musical extravaganza this weekend. It's his 30th annual Fourth of July Picnic, held near Austin, and near his family compound known as Luck -- as in, you're either in Luck or out of Luck. Nelson's long braids were draped over his shoulders, and he seemed tired and distracted. But his jet-black pupils lit up when asked about his guitar.

"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."

Singer Emmylou Harris once said that if America had one voice, it would be Nelson's. If so, America would have one instrument too: Trigger.

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 pot-smoking, 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 else 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, with whom Willie Nelson still plays each night, habitually calling her "little sister Bobbie," though at 72 she is his older sister. 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, standing in the wings of the Camden stage.

As he spoke, roadies flitted about preparing for the show. Many had cigarettes dangling from their lips, with ashes so long they seemed to defy gravity. Hawkins' 24 years with the Nelson "family" make him something of a rookie; Nelson's best friend and drummer, Paul English, has been with him for close to 40 years.

Hawkins, a stocky man with flowing hair and a Fu Manchu mustache, pulled the guitar out of its black case to tune it. You hold your breath when you see it, not because it is a priceless object, but because you are suddenly gripped with fear that it might disintegrate if you exhale.

The acoustic guitar, a Martin N-20 model, has been dropped, mauled, scratched and carried in the back of a rumbling bus through countless miles of touring -- enough miles that Nelson's "band of gypsies," as he calls his entourage in the song "On the Road Again," wore out Honeysuckle Rose I and II.

Because it is a classical guitar, it is surprisingly small and was not meant to be played with a pick. As a result, 34 years of powerful down strokes have worn a gaping hole in its top, just below the sound hole. Another hole is nearly ready to break through above the sound hole.

The guitar has traveled by plane too. One flight stands out: In 1990, the IRS told Nelson that he owed $16.7 million in back taxes and penalties. The agency began seizing his assets, and Nelson feared they'd take Trigger and try to auction it off. While Nelson recovered, largely through the sales of an album called "The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories," Trigger was reportedly quietly whisked away to a home Nelson had in Hawaii.

Nelson demurred when asked about Trigger's whereabouts during those days.

"A couple people hid it for me," he said with a smile.

More than 100 musicians and friends, from Johnny Cash to Leon Russell, have signed and etched their names into its 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. A heart is over the I.

"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."

For the first 25 years or so, Nelson refused to let anyone work on Trigger. Finally, when it seemed that the guitar could no longer keep pace with Nelson, or the life of the road, a group of technicians persuaded him that surgery was overdue. Someone basically dumped a can of epoxy on the guitar to hold it together, said Martin Guitar's Dick Boak, a manager of artist relations and limited editions.

"It was not a conventional repair," Boak said. "We would never do that."

Nelson's pledge, that he would hang it up when Trigger gave out once carried mighty odds, and today he still insists that "the guitar will outlive me." In truth, though, it is a race against time, one that no one in his traveling family -- little sister Bobbie and 21 other musicians and roadies -- wants to see over.

"God, I hope it doesn't ever end," Hawkins said, affixing Nelson's sweat-stained, macrame red-white-and-blue shoulder strap to Trigger. "I'm 48 years old. How the hell am I going to get a new job now?"

Nelson's band mates joked that if one of them died, the never-ending tour would continue without a hitch.

"We would just be replaced," said harmonica player Mickey Rafael, who has played with Nelson for 30 years. "But if Trigger goes, that's it. Game over."

Many guitarists swear by older guitars -- Nelson paid $750 for Trigger, but pre-World War II Martins can fetch prices upward of $150,000 -- and their beliefs, often seen as superstition, are founded in science, Boak said.

After a few months, a guitar's lacquer loses its solvents, opening its sound. After five years, a guitar's wooden parts finish settling into place, and "the instrument gets used to vibrating as one thing," Boak said. Nelson is one of the few musicians to realize the third and final step in a guitar's evolution. After 30 years, the wood becomes dry and brittle, and its sound becomes deep and whole, Boak said.

"Every day I like to hit a few licks to see if the old fingers are still working," Nelson said. "And I really believe it's still getting better every day. People know exactly what guitar it is when they hear it, even before they hear me."

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 popular breakthrough when he bought Trigger. It happened shortly thereafter, 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 smash hits -- and made Nelson a crossover star, popular on the pop as well as country charts.

By 1973 or so, Nelson began to notice that his audience was becoming a strange blend of American culture -- that 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."

After all these years, Nelson still treats himself as a bona fide working musician, not a superstar, and on his bus he confessed he was a bit nervous about the show that night. He is not used to being an opening act, but the New Jersey shows marked the beginning of a mini-tour with The Dead -- surviving members of the Grateful Dead -- and Nelson was on stage first.

It was early on a Friday evening, and Nelson feared that most fans were either fighting traffic or tailgating in the parking lot. He was right. The amphitheater was largely empty when he strode on stage and strapped on Trigger.

" 'Whiskey River,' baby!" one man shouted, not that there was a question, because that's what Nelson plays to open virtually every show. The fact that the man could be heard, quite easily, in an amphitheater that holds 25,000 people made the place seem emptier.

A bit uninspired, Nelson picked his way through a few standards, strumming Trigger quickly on "Stay All Night, Stay a Little Longer," then caressing Trigger's low E string during "You Were Always on My Mind."

Slowly, the crowd began to file in, thousands of people, and the seats in front of Nelson began to fill up quickly. The Dead's drummer Mickey Hart and guitarist Bob Weir strolled into the wings of the stage to listen. Nelson seemed to sense the sudden commotion.

"Welcome to our part of the program!" he shouted into his microphone. He circled a red bandana around Trigger's neck, using the guitar as a brace to tie its ends into a knot. He placed the bandana on his head and jumped into a dizzying run of songs: "Crazy," "Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground," a tender version of Townes Van Zandt's ballad "Pancho and Lefty."

"Tunin' " Tom Hawkins has heard it all, thousands of times before.

Still, his work done for another night, he shook his head in appreciation as Nelson wrapped up his set and placed Trigger, gingerly, back on its stand.

"At this point, they play together. They know each other, and it's hard to imagine one without the other," Hawkins said. "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."

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