With Strings Attached

Willie Nelson’s guitar is a very special instrument. He can touch it; you can’t.

Shotgun Willie’s longtime musical partner is showing its age, but it still plays with plenty of pluck.

Country music has always believed in the duet: Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette and George Jones. Yet, love fades, contracts expire, and inevitably most performing partners go their separate ways. One union that seems destined to last indefinitely, though, is the marriage of Willie Nelson and his guitar.

True love is blind, and Willie sees, feels, and hears only beauty when he plays his battered Martin, with its myriad autographs and a second hole worn just below the sixth string by 25 years of picking. The relationship dates back to the early days in Nashville, back when Willie was still primarily a songwriter and needed an acoustic round-hole guitar to pitch songs and play in motel rooms. Baldwin Music helped him out with a matching guitar and amp setup. After Willie broke the Baldwin guitar, it was replaced by the Martin classical, which along with its jury-rigged Baldwin pickup has been Willie’s companion ever since. When Willie took his Martin into the studio for the first time, in 1973, to record his album Shotgun Willie, his jaunty, haunting instrumental signature helped define a new sound called progressive country. “Sure, I’ve tried other amplifiers and other guitars, but they just don’t have the same tone,” Willie says. “I guess they just haven’t had as much beer poured through them.”

Indeed, his darling grows only more lovely with age. Never mind that its body looks like a retirement home for termites. “It doesn’t have a pick guard on it,” Willie explains. “A classical guitar’s not supposed to be played with a pick, so that’s why the second hole is there. Makes it sound better.”

And though the guitar can never be replaced, Willie refuses to treat it like a Stradivarius. He hasn’t called Lloyd’s of London, he says, because “there’s no need to insure something that’s worth more than they can insure it for.” Instead, it is protected by Willie’s law: Nobody but Willie messes with the guitar, unless he says so. Jerry Jeff Walker learned the hard way several years ago at an informal picking session. “Jerry Jeff wasn’t in any physical condition to be handling valuable equipment,” Willie says. When the high-living Walker made a move for the treasured instrument, ol’ Will simply coldcocked him.

Not that Willie’s a jealous kind of lover; he’s just a loyal one. “I wouldn’t die if anything happened to it,” the singer says, “but I sure would be unhappy. A good instrument is important to any musician. This one, though, is a little special. I hope we wear out on the same day.”

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