Willie Nelson and His Famous Guitar: The Tale of Trigger: Watch the Short Film Narrated by Woody Harrelson

There are those albums that can change some­one’s per­cep­tion of an entire genre of music. Willie Nelson’s Red Head­ed Stranger was such an album for me. But Nelson’s approach on his 1975 con­cept record not only chal­lenged my pre­con­cep­tions, it chal­lenged the sureties of the coun­try scene of the time. By per­fect­ing the music’s capac­i­ty for aching beau­ty and sad­ness in spare, aus­tere folk songs, Nel­son para­dox­i­cal­ly expand­ed its pos­si­bil­i­ties. His fel­low artists thought it was “prac­ti­cal­ly blas­phe­mous and insub­or­di­nate,” notes Kelsey But­ter­worth, “to record coun­try in so spar­ing a man­ner.”

Record buy­ers dis­agreed. Nel­son fans loved Red-Head­ed Stranger’s dusty, wide open spaces, its bal­lads full of lone­li­ness and regret. With­out the over­wrought pro­duc­tion so many coun­try singers received at the time, the songs became show­cas­es for the plain­tive crag­gi­ness of Nelson’s voice, and for the unmis­tak­able sound of Trig­ger, his famous Mar­tin N‑20 clas­si­cal, “a gor­geous instru­ment,” writes Texas Month­ly, “with a warm, sweet tone,” bought in 1969 by “a strug­gling coun­try singer, a guy who had a pig farm, a fail­ing mar­riage, and a crap­py record deal.”

Trig­ger has been with Willie Nel­son ever since, a com­pan­ion as faith­ful as the horse it’s named after. The instru­ment is famous, most­ly, for its beat-up con­di­tion, includ­ing a large hole near the bridge. But in the video above from Rolling Stone (nar­rat­ed by Woody Har­rel­son) we learn much more about the rela­tion­ship between man and gui­tar. The love was first kin­dled by Nel­son find­ing in Trig­ger the tone he had been search­ing for—the tone of his gui­tar hero Djan­go Rein­hardt, “the best gui­tar play­er ever.”

But in Nelson’s hands, and play­ing his songs, Trig­ger became the dis­tinc­tive sound of so much Out­law Coun­try, the “blas­phe­mous and insub­or­di­nate” sub­genre pio­neered by Nel­son, Way­lon Jen­nings, John­ny Cash and oth­ers. “You hear that gui­tar,” says luthi­er Mark Erlewine, “even with­out him singing, and you go, ‘That’s Trig­ger.’” I think even casu­al fans of Nel­son who only know his great­est hits can instant­ly pick up on the dis­tinc­tive­ness of his guitar’s mel­low voice. “There’s a Hoodoo about Trig­ger,” says Erlewine, “that you just can’t mess with it.”

The biog­ra­phy of Trig­ger is insep­a­ra­ble from the sto­ry of Willie Nelson’s rise to fame, and we get a brief tour of his career above. Nel­son began as a tra­di­tion­al but­toned-up Nashville croon­er, but he decid­ed to retire his act and move back to Texas to farm. Then he found Trig­ger. That meet­ing of play­er and gui­tar pos­si­bly rein­vig­o­rat­ed Nelson’s entire career, inspir­ing his move to Austin and his com­plete rein­ven­tion of coun­try music.

“Willie Nel­son and His Famous Gui­tar: The Tale of Trig­ger” will be added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Willie Nelson–Young, Clean-Shaven & Wear­ing a Suit–Sings Ear­ly Hits at the Grand Ole Opry (1962)

Willie Nel­son Audi­tions for The Hob­bit Film Sequel, Turns 80 Today

John­ny Cash: Singer, Out­law, and, Briefly, Tele­vi­sion Host

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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