This is not the chorus Alejandro Rose-Garcia, a.k.a. Shakey Graves, expected to fill the room the first time he met Willie Nelson. And he never dreamed those sounds would come from carving his name into Trigger, Willie’s famously battered and autographed Martin N-20 classical guitar. But, indeed, earlier this month, at Willie’s recording studio in Pedernales, Willie handed Rose-Garcia to Trigger and told him, “Go ahead. Take that ballpoint and scratch your name in there.” And so he did.
“Obviously, I’m not worthy,” says Rose-Garcia, a born-and-raised Austinite who supported his critically acclaimed 2014 album, And The War Came, with an almost non-stop two-year run of high-profile festival gigs and sold-out headlining shows in mid-size clubs and theaters across the country. “I’m still trying to process it.”
Rose-Garcia met Willie October 3 as a guest host of Other Voices, an Irish television show often compared to Austin City Limits that recorded a series of episodes last week in Austin at Arlyn Studios and utilized a swath of acts playing the Austin City Limits Music Festival, including Mumford And Sons, Cage The Elephant, and Margo Price. The show’s session with Willie was the only one taped outside of Aryln.
Rose-Garcia says that for as many times as he’d seen pictures of Trigger, he’d never noticed the autographs until Willie handed him the guitar to inspect. But indeed, the signatures carved into the wood are a storied part of a storied guitar. Willie’s been collecting autographs on Trigger for the better part of four decades, ever since Leon Russell asked Willie to sign his guitar. Flattered Russell had asked him, Willie figured a swap was in order and had Russell sign Trigger at the same time. From there the collection grew. As Texas Monthly’s own Michael Hall wrote in a December 2012 profile of Willie’s guitar:
Some were famous musicians—Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson—and others were members of Willie’s band or crew: Paul English, Poodie, Budrock Prewitt, and Tune’n Tom, a.k.a. Tom Hawkins, who had become the guitar’s caretaker on the road, changing strings every three or four gigs and tuning it up. Some signed the guitar in Magic Marker or Sharpie, and their names were soon lost in the blood, sweat, and beers of the nightlife. Others scratched them in with a ballpoint pen but didn’t push deep enough, and their names too slowly faded. Soon Willie lost track of exactly who had signed his guitar.
“I know how it felt when Leon asked,” Willie said backstage last Thursday night at Austin City Limits’ Hall of Fame event. “So I try to pass that feeling along when I meet someone who I think would appreciate it. And Trigger knows I’m not going to hand him to nobody that’s gonna hurt him.”
John Selmen, Willie’s road manager, says prior to Rose-Garcia, the last time somebody signed Trigger was at a April 2013 celebration of Willie’s eightieth birthday. Just before taping CMT Crossroads: Willie Nelson & Friends From Third Man Records at Jack White’s record shop in Nashville, Willie asked both White and singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson to etch their names into the guitar. White’s signature is clearly visible at the very bottom of Trigger’s front side. Rose-Garcia’s now sits above and a few inches to the right—a place Willie chose for him.
Last week, we spoke to Rose-Garcia about the autograph he’d never dreamed of signing:
When did you know you’d be interviewing Willie?
I was in Los Angeles closing a round of shows with Gary Clark Jr. The Greek Theater was our last gig with Gary and my last night of touring for a while. I was supposed to go home after and get back to the drawing board. So it was kind of an emotional night, to end things at the Greek Theater playing with a dude I went to high school with in Austin [both Rose-Garcia and Clark went to Austin High School, a few grades apart]. Meanwhile my manager is there and says the Other Voices people hit us up and someone else was supposed to interview Willie Nelson but had some travel problems and got stuck in Europe. “Can you fly back early?” he asked. I said yes without hesitation.
So I land back in Austin at 1 p.m. the next day, and I’m supposed to start working for Other Voices at 2 p.m. I talked to the director and he said Willie is recording an album right now out at his home studio and we’re not even sure if he’ll talk to us. Nobody likes being busted in on when they’re recording. That’s sacred time. So there was a lot of doubt it would happen. But if it did, I figured I’d ask some questions about Ireland [where Other Voices is broadcast] and get out of there. I was down to fly by the seat of my pants.
Once you’re at Willie’s, he indeed agrees to stop the session and play some songs for the show?
Exactly. And it’s beautiful. Willie is just sitting there, smoking and playing music. His band are all in isolation booths. From our vantage point, the only person you can see in the room and hear is Willie- we’re only hearing his side of the songs. I’ve seen him play live only once—at Luck, on his property—and this time I’m in his space. And from ten feet away I watched him play “Always on My Mind.” It really shook me up. It was a really surreal experience. I love Willie. But I’m not a Willie Nelson historian. I have some albums I really love. But I’ve never gone down the well too far.
Is that because you grew up in Austin? Is it almost a rejection because it’s so expected that Willie would be the soundtrack of your life?
It’s not that at all. It’s that I don’t have to work too hard to listen to Willie Nelson. I feel like if you were from a different place and sought it out, you’d be more encyclopedic. But I have a good grasp on it. I love what he does and what he represents. But then he played “Always On My Mind” and my brain started turning. That song was written before I was born. And Willie’s version is from 1982. To me, it’s always just sort of existed. And it’s never been humanized in that way for me. And here, I’m watching him as an 83-year-old man working in a studio—something I also do for a living—sitting with headphones, a vape pen and a cup of coffee. And people are freaking out around him and he’s completely unphased by it. And here is this song I’ve heard so often in my life, but I’m really listening to it for the first time because he’s right here and I was only hearing his track. It freaked me out. I welled up. And while I’m still dealing with that, my mind and emotions reeling, they pull out a folding chair and put me in a seat next time him. I’ve never interviewed anyone in my life and didn’t know where to start.
He’s good with small talk. And jokes.
He was so easygoing. And so funny. We talked a little about Ireland. The show is taped in Dingle, and we laughed about it being where the berries come from. I think he might have sensed my nervousness, and he asked, “Do you pick?” I said, “Um. I do. A little bit?” With no hesitation he hands me Trigger. I genuinely didn’t feel the urge to touch it. At all. That’s his. But recently, I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan’s classic guitar, the SRV1, on display at the Texas State History Museum. Initially, I thought I wouldn’t care about it. But it’s similar to Trigger in that people have carved their initials in it—it’s a gnarly guitar. A guitar like that at some point stops being a guitar and becomes an artifact. This is that person’s life in a guitar. SRV1 took my breath away. And Trigger was obviously the same thing. I thought to myself, I’m not going to play a song. I don’t even want to handle it. I played really tentatively. And he asked, “What did you say your name was?” I said, “I’m Alejandro. But I play music as Shakey Graves. It’s a little confusing. I played your Fourth of July picnic.” Maybe it rang a bell. Maybe it didn’t. Right about then, I flipped Trigger up and took a minute to look at it. I saw the signatures all over it. So I pointed it out and said,”This is crazy. It feels like a lover’s lane—like Jesse + Francine = Love Forever.” And without hesitation he asks, “Does anyone have a ball point pen.” The room got real quiet real quick.
What’s going on in your head?
Part of me is thinking, ‘please let this go down. Do I have anything in my pocket? Am I maybe carrying a knife?’ I kind of see where this going, but it’s also not really believable A gentleman in the back—a photographer—threw out a ball point pen, Willie caught it, and he turns to me and says, “Scratch your name on in.” And in my head, I’m saying ‘What? No.’ I hesitated and he said, “Find yourself a good spot.” And then he pointed out a piece of real estate. I tried to be ginger and he said, “No. Really get in there. Your really have to scratch at it.” So I drew this little signature I’ve been doing before I was really a musician—a skull with an arrow through it with heart on the end of the arrow. And drew a little S and a G by its side. I said, “You like making people nervous, don’t you?” He laughed.
And yet your name is on Trigger. Forever.
Right after it happened I felt like I was in a car accident—my ears kind of popped. I went outside and couldn’t really fathom what just happened. Freddy, Willie’s nephew and one of the reasons Other Voices was in Austin, told me that kind of thing simply does not happen. He said over and over, “Did you just sign Trigger?”
And you know that at some point Trigger is headed to the Smithsonian. With your name etched in it.
What’s beautiful about the whole things is how illustrative it is of Willie’s generous spirit. And in my own personal sense, I’d really love to have a reason that my name is on that guitar. It makes me want to write something or create something that’s as lasting and enduring as my signature on Trigger. I’d like to be more than a local scratch-mark. But even if I am, I’ve made it, baby. I’d be fine with that.