Steve Gunn was an eighteen-year-old music lover partial to hardcore punk and rap when he bought his first Willie album, a used copy of Red Headed Stranger, at a Philadelphia record store in the mid-nineties. Even then, his favorite song on the album was “Hands on the Wheel.” It’s RHS’s penultimate track, the song in which Willie’s roaming, vengeful preacher finally finds love and a home, and for Steve, who also happened to be a budding guitarist, Willie’s quiet, meditative Trigger solo at the end of the song was the perfect way to wrap up the story. “It was like he’d said what he had to say, and now he was expressing it with his guitar,” recalls Steve. “It was almost like he was riding into the sunset and going home.”

(Read a transcript of this episode below.)

In the thirty-odd years since, Steve’s appreciation of “Hands on the Wheel” has evolved and grown, especially once he became a devotee of Django Reinhardt, the legendary Romani-French jazz guitarist who is one of Willie’s biggest influences. In this third installment of One by Willie’s special Live From Luck! miniseason, Steve describes where he hears echoes of Django in Willie’s playing, before we get into Trigger’s biography, the deep-in-the-weeds reasons it sounds like no other guitar in the world, and then wrap up the conversation by listening together to an exceptionally rare Willie recording of one of Django’s signature classics, “Nuages.”

We’ve created an Apple Music playlist for this series that we’ll add to with each episode we publish. And if you like the show, please subscribe and drop us a rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

One by Willie is produced and engineered by Brian Standefer, with production by Isabella Van Trease and Patrick Michels. The show is produced by Megan Creydt. Graphic design is by Emily Kimbro and Victoria Millner.


John Spong (voice-over): Hey there, I’m John Spong with Texas Monthly magazine, and this is One by Willie, a podcast in which I talk each week to one notable Willie Nelson fan, about one Willie song that they really love. The show is brought to you by Boot Barn.

This week, another installment in our special, four-episode miniseason of the podcast that we are calling One by Willie: Live From Luck! That’s right . . . these are interviews taped this past March at Willie’s ranch/golf course/Old West town, with four artists who’d come to play his annual Luck Reunion, and that we recorded in an old Boles Aero camper-trailer that Willie’s great-nephew-in-law, Joe, tricked out just for these conversations and parked about one hundred yards from the main stage. And if, by chance, you are having a hard time picturing how cool that was, you need to get to the next big show in Luck and check it out for yourself.

This week, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Steve Gunn—who actually first made his name in the indie-rock world as a brilliant guitar player—talks about his favorite song on Red Headed Stranger, “Hands on the Wheel.” That album is, of course, set in the Old West, and it’s Willie’s first great statement on sin, revenge, and redemption. Well, “Hands on the Wheel” is the track where he wraps all that up, and Steve talks about the way Willie uses some incredibly subtle guitar-playing to bring a quiet, ruminative end to the tale. And from there we’ll get into where Steve hears Django Reinhardt’s influence in Willie’s picking and why Trigger sounds like no other guitar in the world.

So let’s do it.

[Willie Nelson singing “Hands on the Wheel”]

John Spong: Thanks for being here. As I was saying, where we typically start is what’s so cool with this song? The one you’ve picked is “Hands on the Wheel,” which is off of Red Headed Stranger, which should be a familiar album to most fans.

Steve Gunn: I think so.

John Spong: But what’s so cool about that song?

Steve Gunn: For me, well, I think my introduction to Willie, of course I heard the big hits and stuff, but as a deep appreciator of music, and as a young collector of records, this was the album that I purchased with my own money, and it was one that stayed with me and stuck with me. I didn’t have a way to explain it, when I was younger, what drew me to the music. But I understand now. And particularly, it’s a special album for me. And I think “Hands on the Wheel” was a song that always stuck out. It was a song that’s maybe perhaps a little overshadowed by the heaviness of the album and the songs preceding it. It’s way at the end. And I mean, it’s this incredible way to start wrapping up the story, the narrative of Red Headed Stranger. But to me, it’s this just incredibly beautiful love song. And it’s such this deep well of emotion. I mean, it’s a real tearjerker for me. It’s hard to hold back, it’s hard to not cry when I hear this song.

John Spong: Oh, wow.

Steve Gunn: What I also wanted to talk about in regards to this song, and in regards to Willie, is his exceptional and tasteful guitar playing. And this song has an extended lead towards the end . . . It’s not flashy. It holds this real depth and weight to it. And it just kind of rings through, and it’s another way of wrapping the record up without lyrics. And it’s interesting because it’s a longer solo, and it doesn’t veer into all these different territories. It’s super-simple, but it’s also very unique, and it perhaps shows some of his guitar influences that I didn’t really recognize a while back. In particular Django Reinhardt, and the way that he’s voicing the lead, and the way that he’s pulling the notes down, where there are like these little kind of runs. And it’s similar to the way that Django does his runs, where he’ll play sort of a top note, but flourish it down, downward. And Willie’s doing that. And also just the tonality of the guitar reminds me of Django as well.

[Willie Nelson singing “Hands on the Wheel”]

Steve Gunn: Yeah. What a way to end a song.

John Spong: I hadn’t thought about it before, but it’s like this is the moment of redemption. And you see him get redeemed. Guitar solos often come in the middle of a song. He saves it to the end to meditate, ruminate on redemption.

Steve Gunn: Right. I can’t think of another song that ends with a lead like that. And it fits so perfectly. It’s like, he’s sort of said what he had to say, and now he’s expressing that with his guitar. And one thing that’s beautiful . . . as we’re sitting here listening to it, and I’m reading the lyrics, for me as an aspiring songwriter and an aspiring person who writes lyrics and words, for me, some of the most beautiful music and lyrics ride the balance of darkness and light and hope, and also believing in love and the power of that. And it’s really interesting to listen to this song now, because even the first line, where “Everything is spinning out of control,” the world is upside down.

John Spong: This is a timely song, I’m afraid.

Steve Gunn: Yeah, and when songs have resonance in different times throughout their lives, to me,\ that’s real poetry. And his sentiment is basically saying, “The world’s on fire, but I love you.” And to receive that back is extremely important. And to nourish that, and to harness that, and to just generally believe in it, I think, is super beautiful. And it’s super important. And he’s not turning a blind eye to fear, and danger, and to the bad, and to the darkness, but he’s also finding the balance in between. And to me, also with this narrative of the album and the concept of it, and the fact that it’s almost like the sunset, riding into the sunset and going home. 

John Spong: Well, and for the five people who might be listening who don’t know the album, what’s the narrative? This is the moment of redemption. What’s being redeemed? Because it’s a sordid tale. He’s a preacher who found his wife with somebody . . .

Steve Gunn: Right.

John Spong: Killed them both.

Steve Gunn: Yeah.

John Spong: Wandered aimlessly, killed again.

Steve Gunn: Right.

John Spong: But when he falls in love finally, and I had never thought about it before, but the line, “I’m going home.”

Steve Gunn: I never thought about that.

John Spong: “I’m going home. I am finally . . .”

Steve Gunn: It’s a journey, and it’s ending. 

[Willie Nelson singing “Hands on the Wheel”]

John Spong: Wow. When did you discover this album? How old were you when Willie comes into your life?

Steve Gunn: I was probably around eighteen. Late teens.

John Spong: You’re in Pennsylvania still?

Steve Gunn: Philadelphia. Yeah.

John Spong: Philadelphia. Okay.

Steve Gunn: Yeah. And I±

John Spong: Playing guitar, obviously.

Steve Gunn: Playing guitar. Yeah. I started playing guitar at my early teens. Took lessons at the local guitar store. My parents were really into music, and a wide range of soul, and R&B, and rock and roll, and folk. So I was kind of steeped in it, and I was lucky enough to live around a few record stores that I would go to. And of course I knew the big hits.

Steve Gunn: But I wasn’t really that familiar with Red Headed Stranger. And I remember getting the LP and just being really struck by how simple it was, and how it wasn’t . . . It was unproduced, and it almost reminded me, because at the same time, I really fell in love with Townes Van Zandt’s music. And his poetry. It almost reminded me of this understated power that he had. And also later, knowing about how the record wasn’t received well by the original label, and it was kind of sent back, and Willie was like, “Hey, no.”

John Spong: “No, I’ve done it.”

Steve Gunn: “It’s not a demo.” And at the time, this is in the mid-nineties . . . there’s a certain aesthetic where music wasn’t . . . It was a point not to make it highly produced. There’s more depth and grittiness to music that sounds a little more homespun. There’s a warmth and a kind of starkness that gives it more depth. And for me, that’s what made me attach myself to the music. And it was also a record . . . it did tell a story. It was a narrative that . . . I wasn’t really familiar with a concept record. And just the fact that it was like reading a story, and you could go back and revisit it . . . it’s an album that I never got tired of.

John Spong: Growing up in Austin, I of course always knew of this record, but I didn’t get it until I was probably out of college, which is early nineties, late eighties. I think I got it late… It was early nineties. Found it at the Goodwill for a buck or whatever, on vinyl, because I was holding out against CDs as long as I could. And it was mythical, right?

Steve Gunn: Yeah.

John Spong: So I just imagined loving it instantly, and that’s precisely not what happened. It was not immediately accessible. For me, it was a lot like Pet Sounds, because the first time I heard it, I was like, “Okay, The two or three hits have sucked me in. But the rest of this is really headier and further out there than what I expected from them and from what I’m used to.” But that’s why they call stuff “growers,” or whatever the goofy term would be, because exactly that, this record is that for me. I can put it on. It doesn’t matter whether I start at the beginning, or the middle, or what, and it can play for a couple of days, and I’ll be happy walking in and out of the room.

Steve Gunn: Yeah. It has this warmth, and it has this sort of familiarity, and it’s welcoming, and it’s not egotistical. It’s not virtuosic in that way. It’s understated. It’s stark. It also makes it even more special because he was going against the formality. It wasn’t a formulaic, highly produced record, where it could have been easy for him to buckle under the pressure, and go to a producer, and fancy it up, and maybe try to make it these golden hits. And the fact that he stood behind it and said, “No, no, this is the record.” And to see how it was received, later on, is such a testament to just his will and his integrity as an artist.

John Spong: There’s a sense in which one of the basic sounds, elements of this record, is integrity, because the deal is he finally has creative control. He’s with Columbia, biggest record label in the world or whatever. But he’s got creative control, which nobody’s had. I don’t know what the budget for this was supposed to be. But Mickey, the longtime harmonica player, had just joined the band. He had a buddy with a new studio in Garland. Most people listening don’t know that there is a Garland, Texas.

Steve Gunn: Yeah, right.

John Spong: So they just go to Garland—

Steve Gunn: Amazing.

John Spong: . . . and record it in forty-eight hours with just the Family. And then the single, and of course in retrospect, of course the single is “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” It’s a classic song now. That has to be one of the quietest singles ever released. That is absolutely not what country music or anything in the world sounded like in 1975. But he believed in it. And it was as good as he thought it was, apparently.

Steve Gunn: Yeah. And that’s as pure as it gets. And the fact that it was received in that way is evidence to that. And the fact that he stood by it, and stood behind it, and the people that he trusted stood behind it too, and stuck up for him and said, “No, kiss my ass. This is it.”

[Willie Nelson singing “Hands on the Wheel”]

Steve Gunn: Also, I have to say, Willie’s guitar is so interesting, because the tone of it, it’s like a classical basically. And he’s playing lead guitar on, essentially, a classical guitar. Lead guitar in a country band, acoustic. I mean . . .

John Spong: That’s not the way it goes, typically?

Steve Gunn: That’s not the way it goes, particularly with a band and in this era. Obviously a lot of the songwriters from his era, and from any era in country music, have the baddest guitar player in the land on this—

John Spong: Yeah, Chet Atkins was a good guitar player.

Steve Gunn: Yeah. Yeah.

John Spong: He hated Willie’s playing.

Steve Gunn: Yeah. Yeah. And I think it’s not flashy, but it’s just solid. It goes along with the whole ethos of the music.

John Spong: Do you know much about Trigger, his guitar?

Steve Gunn: I know a little bit. I mean, I know it. I’m familiar with it. I know I can hear it. I know it’s special.

John Spong: Growing up here, the assumption as a casual fan, as a kid, is, “Oh, it sounds . . .” Because it sounds like no other guitar in the world.

Steve Gunn: I know. Yeah.

John Spong: And so you think, “Oh, it’s that hole in the guitar.” And then at one point, when I was in high school, a friend’s dad, who was a know-it-all, but I’m thankful that he said this, he said, “No, it’s actually because he’s a fan of Django’s, and that’s how he learned.”

Steve Gunn: No way.

John Spong: And so I learned it that way, but then I come to learn later, because everybody knows everybody, and here we are in Luck, Texas, now. And it’s just teeming with people that know Willie legends, and myths, and true stories.

Steve Gunn: Sure.

John Spong: So in the sixties, Baldwin is giving guitars to everybody. The piano company is giving guitars to everybody in Nashville because they’re trying to get in on the big guitar market. And they give him this Baldwin guitar that has a Prismatone—

Steve Gunn: Prismatone, yeah.

John Spong: . . . pickup on it. And so Dolly Parton’s playing one of these, and Chet’s playing one of these, I think. But Jerry Reed was playing one.

Steve Gunn: Okay, wow.

John Spong: And so Willie, supposedly, is playing near here. Somebody steps on the guitar. It’s busted, but he had liked the fact that it was an amplified acoustic guitar so he was more a part of the band when they played live on an acoustic, which he preferred to the, I think, Telecaster he had been playing before. So he sends it to Shot Jackson, in Nashville, when it’s been stepped on and crushed. Do you know Shot Jackson?

Steve Gunn: I know the name. Yeah.

John Spong: Okay. Well, so Shot Jackson, and Buddy Emmons, and Jimmy Day invent the steel guitar, right?

Steve Gunn: Yeah. Right.

John Spong: But he’s got a guitar shop. In Nashville. So Willie sends him the guitar, and Shot’s like, “It’s not going to work. This guitar is broke.” And Willie says, “Well, what do we do? I’ve enjoyed this pickup.” And he said, “I got a Martin D-20.” He said, “I’m going to put this on there, and then you’ll be set.” And so that’s where the classical guitar comes into his life. And I don’t understand this stuff at all. If you can explain it, I can’t wait to hear it. But it’s something about having . . . There’s a phantom power that comes through the cable into that acoustic, which just means that when he’s amplified, when he’s plugged in, there is an automatic, tee-tiny, scintilla of distortion. And suddenly, even though he’s going to play it in a way that’s going to sound like nobody else in the world, it is just wired such that it’s going to be its own distinct thing. Does that sound right?

Steve Gunn: Wow. It does.

John Spong: I think that’s right.

Steve Gunn: It does sound right.

John Spong: I hope that’s right.

Steve Gunn: I mean, it’s really fascinating because I play acoustic through pickups, through amplification. And I’ve gone through so many different phases of trying to figure out the tone. I think that’s another reason why his playing and just his tone is so fascinating and incredible to me. And I also, just from my own experience, I started acoustic, and started finger-picking and trying to navigate my own way through it. And I came to playing classical later. And I just fell in love with the tone of classical guitar.

Steve Gunn: And Django also, he used the early electric pickup, probably the earliest one invented, with that model of the acoustic. And it’s like a hybrid. It’s not exactly a classical, but it’s like that specific body. And I really wonder about that moment where he finally gets that guitar. And he may have had that sound in his mind, said, “Oh gosh, this is close . . . to what I love. And I’m going to go with it. And it’s unique.” It matches his uniqueness, and he really stuck out. And that ties into his whole personality and his whole legacy, is that specific tone. And the fact that he stuck with it in an ever-changing business, and with all the pressures and everything that was happening—

John Spong: And people telling him he was wrong.

Steve Gunn: Yeah. Yeah. Or like, “I hate his playing.” And, “What does he think he’s doing?” That kind of stuff. I mean, that’s punk rock to me. As a younger person who grew up listening to punk rock and understanding the intentions of not giving into formalities and not giving into pressure across the board. As I got older, I realized that other artists and musicians were doing similar stuff in an earlier time, when I wasn’t around. And Willie is definitely one of those people to me. He represents somebody who’s unique and just stuck with his craft. And we’re sitting here. Look at all these people celebrating him.

John Spong: He’s playing tonight.

Steve Gunn: He’s still playing. I mean, it’s incredible.

[Willie Nelson singing “Hands on the Wheel”]

John Spong: Before we got rolling, because you have to go at . . . I can’t keep you all day, because I’m dying to.

Steve Gunn: Yeah. Yeah. I could sit here and talk all day.

John Spong: You said that you were curious about Willie you didn’t know, and that you had been doing some thinking as you, thank you, prepped to come here, which you didn’t need to do. I really appreciate giving it any thought to this . . .

Steve Gunn: Of course. Yeah.

John Spong: . . . it’s really gracious. But is there Willie you’re curious about?

Steve Gunn: Well, yeah. I mean, I was doing a deep dive into Willie’s catalog. And I knew I wanted to talk about this song, but I found that there were some bootlegs floating around, that just reading about them were incredibly fascinating because it also, it tied into a lot of what we’re talking about and the aesthetic of Red Headed Stranger, and of just his unique style and the fact that he had all this integrity and individuality. And there are these bootleg recordings. Gosh, I don’t remember the name. They’re called The Red Tapes or something like that.

John Spong: The holy grail that I’ve found is the Luck, Texas Songbook, Volumes 1–4.

Steve Gunn: Okay.

John Spong: And that was recordings he did. Actually, we can see it from here. This saloon over there, around the corner from us here in Luck, has got a small studio that he put in. And basically, when Willie would be at home from the road, he would just want to go sit and pick. And he had so many friends living on the grounds here that there were a handful of them that just went to play guitar with him when he was in town. And so he put this thing out. It’s all . . . I don’t know the terms, but I mean, he’s not plugged in.

Steve Gunn: It’s just acoustic, gritty.

John Spong: Yeah. And the main thing is, the guy who painted murals on his bus, who had once been his bass player, David Zettner, was the guy he liked to sit with.

Steve Gunn: Amazing.

John Spong: And Zettner would play steel . . . or Freddy Powers would come play rhythm guitar.

Steve Gunn: See that’s the kind of stuff that I’m talking about. Yeah. That I was trying to dig around and find. And I found some stuff, just on the interweb, poking around.

John Spong: Well, let me give you two options. He does on this, an incredible version of “Nuages.”

Steve Gunn: Oh wow.

John Spong: If I pronounced it correctly.

Steve Gunn: Yeah.

John Spong: But also a great version, one of my favorites on here is “Nine-Pound Hammer.”

Steve Gunn: Oh gosh. Wow.

John Spong: Yeah. But so, does one of those sound like the way?

Steve Gunn: Either one. Yeah. Dealer’s choice. I’d love to hear both of them.

John Spong: Check this out.

[Willie Nelson singing “Nuages”]

Steve Gunn: Oh yeah. Beautiful. See? That’s Django right there.

John Spong: Yeah.

Steve Gunn: Yeah. Beautiful. And it’s the same setup. That’s like, there’s someone playing rhythm with him.

John Spong: Which is either this guy Zettner or Freddy Powers.

Steve Gunn: Yeah. And which is exactly—

John Spong: But it doesn’t sound like Freddy because Freddy shows off a little more.

Steve Gunn: Yeah. This is beautiful. What year is this from?

John Spong: It was released in 2002, and no one knows anything about it.

Steve Gunn: Incredible. What’s the title of the—

John Spong: It’s called the Luck, Texas Songbook.

Steve Gunn: Incredible. Wow. This is beautiful.

John Spong: They printed two thousand of them. Zettner died, and Willie loved him so much that he put this out as a tribute. Zettner’s the only musician on every record besides Willie, because it’s all just jam sessions, and they sold it from the merch table at shows until they ran out—

Steve Gunn: Oh my God, wow.

John Spong: . . .four discs.

Steve Gunn: Incredible. Yeah. This is beautiful. See? This is what I mean. It’s all there.

John Spong: Yeah.

Steve Gunn: He’s playing the Django. But it’s still Willie. You can tell it’s him. It’s a sound. It’s an extension of him. It’s beautiful. I love it.

John Spong: I’m so appreciative. It’s hot as blazes in here. I will keep you in here as long as you want, or as long as you can, but you might need to go back to your afternoon.

Steve Gunn: Yeah. I mean, that’s a great way to end it.

John Spong: Cool.

[Willie Nelson singing “Hands on the Wheel”]

John Spong (voice-over): All right, Willie fans, that was Steve Gunn talking about “Hands on the Wheel.” A huge thanks to him for coming on the show, a big thanks also to our sponsor, Boot Barn, and a big thanks to you for tuning in. If you dig the show, please subscribe, maybe tell a couple friends, and visit our page at Apple Podcasts and give us some stars. Oh, and please also check out our One by Willie playlist over at Apple Music.

Tune in next week when we will conclude this One by Willie: Live From Luck! miniseason with Weyes Blood, a.k.a. California singer-songwriter Natalie Mering, talking about her favorite song on Stardust, Kurt Weill’s “September Song.”