For a decade, Willie Nelson chased fame as a performer in the Nashville mold of the ’60s – hair coifed, striding to center stage at the Grand Ole Opry in sport coat and tie. Nelson had become one of country music’s most valued songwriters; Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” is a Willie song, as are Faron Young’s “Hello Walls,” Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Paper,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” – a 1961 hit for Billy Walker but also recorded by Elvis Presley, George Jones, The Supremes, Jerry Lee Lewis, Al Green, and even as a duet by Linda Ronstadt and Homer Simpson.
In 1970, Nelson – 37 years old, freshly divorced, financially drained by tours, weary of culturally conservative Nashville, and having watched a fire destroy his house – moved back to his native state of Texas and a year later “retired” from music in a contract dispute with RCA.
In ’72, though, he moved from the small town of Bandera to Austin, where a new musical movement was taking shape. That August, he played the Armadillo World Headquarters club, a converted armory that had opened as a concert hall run by hippies who welcomed all types of music. Nelson was arguably the highest-profile player it had seen to that point, and his performance provided a considerable boost to the club – and the cause.
The effect was mutual. The appearance rejuvenated Nelson professionally and spiritually as he became one of the town’s musical “outlaws.” A counterculture version of country music, outlaw country used rhythms, instrumentation, and lyrical sensibilities that borrowed far more from rockabilly, honky tonk, and folk than Hank Williams or Jimmie Rodgers. Earthy and honest, it also countered Nashville’s glitzy “product” piloted by producers like Chet Atkins.
But even before fellow outlaws Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Tompall Glaser, and Kris Kristofferson were helping forge the path, an oddly repurposed guitar was helping Nelson forge his unique sound.
For years, Fender and Gibson had been giving guitars to Nelson – Strats, Teles, 335s, etc. – but things changed when, before a gig in Houston in 1969, a rep for piano maker Baldwin (which had also bought Gretsch in a decidedly late rush to become a player in the “guitar boom”) gave him one of its 800C acoustic/electric classicals and C1 Custom amp. A devout fan of guitarist Django Reinhardt, Nelson had taken to emulating the Gypsy-jazzer’s sound and style, and the Baldwin pairing – marketed for its ability to produce true acoustic tone – fit the bill.
The magic of Baldwin’s Prismatone pickup lies in a ceramic sensor under each string. Regarded as perhaps the best pickup of its kind ever made, it offers a full, warm tone that rarely feeds back.
After a couple years of bonding, tragedy struck when a fan (lore has it, inebriated) at a show in the San Antonio suburb of Helotes stepped on the guitar while it was laying in its case. Two members of Nelson’s band drove the guitar to Nashville for a once-over by pedal-steel ace and guitar repairman Shot Jackson, owner of Sho-Bud Music. After Jackson deemed the Baldwin crushed beyond repair, Nelson asked for advice on a replacement. With only minor modification, Jackson said the Prismatone would fit on a $475 Martin N-20 hanging in his shop, enabling Willie to keep using the Baldwin amp through its proprietary stereo cord. The installation set Nelson back an additional $275.
In their 47 years together, Nelson and Trigger have performed more than 10,000 concerts on stages around the world and recorded nearly 70 studio albums (beginning with My Own Peculiar Way and including Red-Headed Stranger and Stardust) featuring an unequaled range of material – pop, country, Western swing, reggae, along with singer/songwriter gems like “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In the Rain.” Along the way, the guitar has been autographed by more than 100 artists who’ve shared stages with them, beginning with Leon Russell and including Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Gene Autry.
These days, they tour two weeks at a stretch and by the end of any given year play about 150 shows.
The task of keeping Trigger ready to ride has, for the last 40 years, fallen on Austin-based luthier/repairman Mark Erlewine, whose love for music started one day in 1958 when he and his brother took their pooled pennies to Moe’s Records and Candy store in Downers Grove, Illinois, to buy the Everly Brothers “Wake Up Little Suzy.” The rest of the summer was spent singing along and playing air guitar.
The boys’ father, John, worked for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and in 1961 moved the family to Brussels, Belgium. The cultural shift didn’t damper his sons’ love of music; instead of the Everlys, they listened to Cliff Richard and The Shadows, and later, The Beatles.
“There was music dribbling in from the U.S. – The Ventures, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and more,” said Erlewine. “And by the time we got back to the States in ’64, I was into soul and R&B like the Four Tops, psychedelic stuff like Jefferson Airplane and Jimmy Hendrix, along with urban blues by Johnny Winter, John Mayall, and Junior Wells.
Having stuck with piano and clarinet lessons since age seven, at 14 his parents let Mark start learning guitar on a rented Stella archtop. Though it was the sort of instrument that discouraged many a beginner – poorly constructed, with cheap tuners and nearly unplayable string height – it spurred his knack to tinker.
“It was so hard to play that I was pretty much forced to lower the bridge and nut slots,” he said. “That sparked my interest in guitar work.”
Within a couple years, he’d bought a new Martin D-18 that stayed with him through high school. At 21, he jumped to pedal-steel and has played it since, including for years in traditional country and Western-swing bands. Today, he plays mostly in church and for benefits.
We recently spoke with Erlewine to get the details on the path that led to his place as a revered builder and tech.
Because Vintage Guitar readers are so familiar with your cousin, Dan, through his “Guitar Rx” column, we should describe the role he has played in your life.
Dan and I got to know each other as kids, when our families spent a few summers at our grandmother’s cabin in rural Indiana. Those were such great times, and I remember having so much fun running around and playing in the river with my five cousins including Dan and his brother, Michael, who were several years older than me.
Years later, when they formed The Prime Movers and started hanging with heavy-hitter musicians, their lives became a source of fascination for me; I looked forward to hearing about their exploits.
Beyond the experience with that cheap Stella, what spurred your interest in working on guitars?
It was born out of simply trying to find my way. I’d decided college wasn’t for me, so at 19 I moved to Ann Arbor to spend time with Michael, Dan, and their brothers Stephen, Phillip, and Tom. I went to work in their family’s store, Circle Books, and did odd jobs until I approached Dan about doing an apprenticeship. My father was a woodworker and I learned a lot from him, but when I started working on guitars, I felt like I’d found something I was good at, and enjoyed.
I apprenticed under Dan for about a year, then we became partners. After a couple years, he went back to work at Herb David’s music store, so I bought out his interest in the shop. In ’74, I moved it to Austin after my friend, James Machin, had moved there for a job and told me I needed to experience the “hippie country music mecca” – Armadillo World Headquarters, Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, ZZ Top, and others.
What were those early days like in Austin?
I rented shop space on Guadalupe Street, by the University of Texas, and spent a few nights on the floor before finding a place to live. I’d plaster the street with small posters about my services. Part of my motivation for moving to Austin was that Gibson had approached me about starting a warranty service for them in the Southwest; Dan and I had friends in the repair shop at their factory in Kalamazoo. After I set that up, Martin, Fender, and Ovation asked me to do factory authorization work, which helped build my business.
Who were some of your first clients?
Initially, it was local players like B.W. Stevenson and Doug Sahm. When Albert King started playing the Armadillo, and later, Antones, I’d be called to do maintenance on Lucy, the Flying V copy that Dan had built for Albert while I was an apprentice with him; my role back then with Dan was mostly grunt work like sanding and rough shaping, but he let me help on Lucy and other guitars he made for Jerry Garcia and Otis Rush.
After “Austin City Limits” started filming up the street from my shop, I started seeing more high-profile players who needed quick fixes.
When were you introduced to Willie Nelson?
Poodie Locke, the road manager for B.W. Stevenson, had me keeping B.W.’s guitar in working order. When Willie hired Poodie, he started bringing Trigger for me to fix. In 1977, I was invited to meet Willie at a backstage bar in the Austin Opry, where he and the Family were holding court during a week-long stint. That was when he told me, “As long as this guitar keeps going, I’ll keep going.”
So, no pressure (laughs)!
While I’m honored to help keep Trigger up and running, I think of Willie as a unique force of nature in the world of music. He’ll outlive us all, one way or another (laughs).
What was the first repair you did to Trigger?
As I recall, it was trying to address the hole he was picking through the top. I started using various braces to shore it up.
What’s the most significant thing you’ve done to it?
Maintaining the top has been much of the focus, but all of the parts have needed work at some time. There’s damage to the body and neck from life on the road, and many of the frets are razor thin, but Willie doesn’t want those fixed. If he can plug it in, tune it, and play it, he’s happy.
Do you see it regularly?
Willie’s crew is charged with keeping it usable on the road, then they bring it in as needed when the band is on break. It most often just needs cleaning and re-sealing the top, and from time to time I have to glue loose parts, replace tuners, or fix the pickup, preamp, or jack.
Is that hole the simple product of a million strums, or is there something about Willie’s style or technique that contributed to it?
Willie loves Django Reinhardt’s music and plays aggressively to get that sound – it’s just from his fingernails and pick hitting the top.
The Martin N-20
by George Gruhn and Staff
Willie Nelson and his music are icons – his unique voice, jazzy phrasing, and distinctive appearance are immediately recognized all over the world. His choice of guitar is as unique as the man.
Named “Trigger” in memory of movie cowboy Roy Rogers’ horse, most people know the instrument because of the large hole worn in its top and the autographs carved in the body. It has been an important part of Willie’s sound since he acquired it in 1969.
Trigger is a style N-20, one of Martin’s attempts to enter the classical-guitar market of the mid 20th century. Offered beginning in 1968, the initial version (’68-’70) had a traditional Martin peghead and 25.4″ scale – longest offered by Martin at the time, but shorter than a typical concert Spanish classical. Only 277 were produced with these specs, including 12 in ’68, which means Willie’s guitar is rarer than a pre-war/14-fret D-28 with forward-shifted scalloped bracing.
The more-common N-20 is the second version with 26.375″ scale and classical-type pointed peghead, offered from late 1970 through ’92. Martin modeled this version after Spanish long-scale concert classical guitars; the company made a number of attempts to enter the classical market, with its G series in the 1930s, C series in ’62, and the N-10/N-20 in ’68. All were fine guitars, but none sold well primarily because of the popularity of Andrés Segovia. A strong proponent of Torres-style instruments, Segovia did not accept the Cadiz Spanish designs that influenced Martin.
The N-20 had a more-traditional Spanish classical shape than other Martin nylon-strings. Its Sitka spruce top had Spanish Torres fan-style bracing, while its back and sides were rosewood (Brazilian through ’69, East Indian afterward), and other details included a multi-ply back strip, ebony tie-block bridge with rounded end, traditional Spanish-style wood marquetry rosette, slotted peghead (traditional Martin shape through early 1970, pointed top afterward), side-mount tuners, 19-fret ebony fingerboard (12 frets clear of the body) with no inlay, and black/white binding on the top edge of its body, black binding on back.
The N-20 was designed to be played fingerstyle and so was never given a pickguard, which is why Nelson’s use of a flatpick has resulted in extreme wear of Trigger’s top, most seriously a hole between the bridge and sound hole.
In 1998, Martin introduced two versions of the N-20 in tribute to Nelson. The N-20WN had (1998-2001) had East Indian rosewood back and sides and Martin records indicate 59 were sold along with two prototypes having been built. The alternative N-20WNB (1998-’99) had Brazilian rosewood back and sides and only 30 were produced along with two prototypes.
Today, an N-20 with the short scale in excellent/original condition would command about $7,500. But the value of one particular ’69 example – in well-used condition – is incalculable.
Leaving a Mark
Beyond Willie Nelson, Mark Erlewine’s list of clients extends to more uber-famous players. Here are highlights from his work with some of biggest.
“Billy first came by my shop in 1978, I think it was, and we hit it off. He is a very interesting and creative guy and we soon started designing and building new guitars. It was in that period that we came up with the Chiquita, the Automatic, and a few other designs. At the time, he was was writing music for the El Loco album and had me play steel on ‘Leila’ when they recorded it in Memphis. So far, I’ve built 18 guitars for ZZ Top.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
“In the years before his career took off, Stevie brought in his guitars regularly. The work usually involved crowning or replacing frets because he played so much.”
“Mark came by and ordered a custom Automatic on Billy Gibbons’ recommendation, then used it on the Brothers in Arms album. He wanted the same crunch he heard Billy getting.”
“When Bo appeared on ‘Austin City Limits,’ he had me install a Tune-O-Matic on a guitar he’d built. Until then, he couldn’t get the intonation right. We had a nice visit.”
“I built a ’Burst copy and an Automatic for Joe.”
“Don had me build a doubleneck ’59 ’Burst copy to tour with for when the Eagles played ‘Hotel California.’ He also had me build another ’59 replica and an Automatic.”
“John came by when he played on ‘Austin City Limits.’ He bought a Chiquita, but I didn’t recognize him until he handed me his credit card, then I gushed about his music and how many times I’ve played his songs at gigs. He’s a really nice guy.”
“A week before he died, he ordered one of my Chiquita guitars, as he was about to start a tour.”
“Ted brought his favorite old Byrdland to our shop back in Ann Arbor, when Dan and I were partners. It was splintered, in pieces, and he carried it in a garbage bag. He had set it behind his Marshall stack, grabbed another Byrdland, and climbed on top of the high stack of amps, then leaped off as part of the show. Unfortunately, the amps fell over as he jumped, destroying the Byrdland. Dan and I were able to piece it back together.”
“I first met Johnny in 1970, when the Erlewine family ran the backstage bar for the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. I reconnected with him when he played the Austin Opry in the early ’80s. He bought a Chiquita, and later, one of my Lazer headless guitars. He had a total of six custom and factory-built Lazers, which he used on numerous tours and recordings.”
“Christopher Cross commissioned a left-handed Chiquita bass as a gift for Paul, and I have a copy of the telex Paul sent to Chris, telling him how Fab it was.”
Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello
“Separately, they came by the shop when their tours played Austin, but both bought old Teles I had refurbished.”
“I met Sting and Andy Summers when The Police first played here in the ’80s. I’ve since worked on Sting’s guitars a couple of times when his tour came to Austin.”
“I did some bridge and fret work on Bob’s old Gibson during a tour stop in Austin.
This article originally appeared in VG November 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.