Growing up in the little town of Reidsville, North Carolina, the only Trigger I knew was the trusty steed of Roy Rogers, which I discovered while watching westerns after school at my grandfather's house. But that all changed one Saturday night in the late nineties, when I stayed up to watch an Austin City Limits rerun on PBS.
My father was a huge Willie Nelson fan, so I knew the hits—"Whiskey River," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "On the Road Again." Those songs guided me toward a lifelong love affair with country music, helped along by the times my father would let us go into his office and listen to his records. I knew what Willie looked like from those album covers and commercials, but I never paid any attention to the guitar that made those songs come to life until that Saturday night two decades ago.
To many, it's just a beat-up guitar. To gear nuts, it's a 1969 Martin N-20. But to Willie fans, it's a weathered extension of the wrinkled man himself—it's Trigger, perhaps the most famous guitar in all of music. It's a veritable piece of American history, and, last Sunday night, I got to hold it.
My band, American Aquarium, was opening for Willie in LaGrange, Georgia. Before the show, Willie's drummer, Billy English, texted to ask if I'd like to come to the bus and meet the band. I introduced myself and took a seat, joining the standard "band guy" banter: Where you from? How long you guys been doing this? Where y'all heading next?
Everything changed when Billy asked, "Do you wanna meet Trigger?"
When they brought out that guitar case, I turned into a child on Christmas morning. They popped the latches, and there it was—the guitar I have associated with country music for most of my life. "Well, don't just look at it, kid," someone said. "Play it." I lifted it from the case and stared at names like Leon Russell, Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, just a few of those who had played the guitar before me and offered their signature in black marker or by etching it into the wood itself. One instrument held almost fifty years of blood, sweat, and musical royalty. I played a John Prine tune and one of my own, then gently placed Trigger back in the case. I watched it disappear into the belly of the bus.
One day, I will take my children to the Smithsonian, introduce them to Trigger, and tell them the story of one of the coolest opportunities my career has afforded me. That guitar has been held by country music legends, presidents, and professional athletes—and now, a kid from Reidsville, too.