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The Nation; COLUMN ONE; Always on His Mind; Willie Nelson once vowed that when his guitar, Trigger, was finished, so was he. Decades later, they remain inseparable.

Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.
Jul 5, 2003
Scott Gold

(Copyright The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 2003. All rights reserved.)

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.

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