Country Outlaw

Willie Nelson talks Trigger and wild path that led him back to Austin

Willie Nelson on Trigger and wild path that led him back to Austin

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Willie Nelson and his guitar, Trigger, have a history that is as rich and powerful of outlaw country itself. Photo by Rick Kern

As part of a new music series, Rolling Stone has created a short documentary on the history behind Trigger, Willie Nelson's favorite Martin acoustic guitar. Narrated by Woody Harrelson, the 11-minute video features such musical stalwarts as Nelson's Austin-based biographer, Joe Nick Patoski, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, Jerry Jeff Walker and the Red Headed Stranger himself. Although Trigger and Nelson have since become pillars of Austin's music scene, their story actually begins in Nashville with a fire.

 "Austin offered the opportunity for reinvention and Willie didn't just reinvent himself — he created a whole new musical genre," says Joe Nick Patoski about Nelson's move to Austin in the early 1970s. 

This sweet little documentary starts with Nelson's stint in Tennessee in the 1960s and the beginning of his relationship with Trigger. Nashville had made Nelson a more straight-laced, clean cut performer. But as Harrelson points out, the famous house fire of 1969 (where Nelson braved the flames to save only Trigger and a pound of weed) was a "blessing in disguise" because the musician took it as a sign to retire and move back to Texas.

Patoski argues that Nelson migrated from the Music City to the Live Music Capital of the World (and resurrected himself from retirement) at the the perfect time. It was an era when the Armadillo World Headquarters reigned supreme and was populated with the likes of Walker, Townes Van Zandt and other country outlaws.

"Austin offered the opportunity for reinvention and Willie didn't just reinvent himself — he created a whole new musical genre," said Patoski. "He's basically reinvented himself as this new, hybrid, country-rock master of the universe, and at the center of that was his instrument."

Nelson goes on to talk about how "that instrument," Trigger, completely shaped the tone of his music. There was no other classical six-string with an electric pick-up blaring outlaw country — the combination was as weird as Austin itself. "The Austin scene always was a little bit different, it was always an eclectic mix," said Walker. "That's where the term 'outlaw' came from. It was people outside of the norm — and that's what Willie was tapping in to."

Today, Trigger is beat up, its body marred with holes and scratches. But thanks to "Trigger Doctor" and guitar master Mark Erlewine of Austin-based Erlewine Guitars, the old acoustic is still breathing — and so is Nelson. As long as Trigger keeps going, then Nelson can keep going, he told Erlewine.

"We'll give out at the same time. Probably Trigger will outlast me, I think," said Wilson. "We're both pretty old. Got a few scars here and there, but we still manage to make a sound every now and then."

Watch the full documentary from Rolling Stone below.