Shut up n' play the guitar
Six strings and a bit of attitude are all you need in this life
Willie Nelson is 89 years old. At this point, he’s mostly weed, gristle and barbecue smoke, held together by braids and a bandanna. Yet there he was, on a perfect early-autumn Friday night in Alpharetta, Georgia, working his way through his hits, from “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” to the closer of “Georgia On My Mind.” These were songs we’d heard our whole lives, as familiar as our elementary school’s name, sung by that fellow right up there onstage.
The night wasn’t about virtuosic showmanship — Willie stayed seated, as is only fitting for a man of his years, and his guitar playing ambled alongside the band rather than leading it. His son Lukas sang lead on a few songs with a high, rich voice reminiscent of his old man’s. Willie didn’t need to wow us with his performance; just being in his presence for an hour or so was more than enough.
And then. During “You Were Always On My Mind,” a song Willie’s probably played something like 10,000 times, magic happened. Willie leaned forward over Trigger — his battered, beaten, beloved Martin acoustic guitar — and began fingerpicking out a delicate, beautiful, Mexico-tinged solo on Trigger’s nylon strings.
It wasn’t long, just a few bars, and then the band picked back up and rolled onward into the next song, a lovely cover of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe.” (Really.) But just for that moment, it was Willie and Trigger, and it was perfection.
Trigger has been Willie’s constant companion since the 1960s, a ragged beauty that wears the scars of half a century’s worth of love. He’s worn a hole in the spruce-pine top, a hole he refuses to get repaired. The frets are all original, worn down from so many chords over so many years that Trigger’s notes have aged like Willie’s own voice.
Trigger saved Willie’s ass on more than one occasion — once, while needing some fast cash to pay off the IRS, Willie recorded an entire solo-guitar album of his hits. Willie has returned the favor — when fire tore through one of his houses, one story goes, Willie grabbed only Trigger … well, Trigger and a pound of weed. During his cash-poor days on the run from the feds, Willie was so scared of the IRS nabbing Trigger that he stashed it at his manager’s house.
Those days are long past, and now Willie and Trigger tour the country bringing joy and a trailing haze of smoke wherever they go. (One particular highlight of Friday’s show: Willie and crew singing “Halfway To Heaven,” a song written for him by his son Micah. Chorus: “If I die when I’m high, I’ll be halfway to heaven / Or I might have a long way to fall.”) We should all be so lucky to live so long doing what we love, with a constant companion like Trigger.
One of my favorite lyrics in “Thunder Road” is autobiographical: “Well I got this guitar,” Springsteen sings, “and I learned how to make it talk.” I’ve got a few guitars of my own, but I haven’t quite learned how to make them talk. Burp, maybe, or gurgle. But talk? Eh, that’d be a stretch. If a song’s in the key of G — “Take It Easy,” say, or “Leaving On A Jet Plane” or “Time of Your Life,” man, I can nail it. I still can’t make a decent F Major chord to save my life, but that’s not really the point here.
For those of us not getting paid to play music, any attempt is by definition a success. I’m always a little leery of people who say they don’t listen to music, and even more so of those who won’t sing along. (Yes, even to “Sweet Caroline.”) There’s something liberating about just flat-out surrendering to the beat, the melody, the groove, the funk, the grind, whatever you want to call it, whatever gets you going and keeps you moving. I wrote earlier this summer about how live music can save your soul, but so can playing a little bit of your own. As always, Willie’s known the truth all along; it just takes the rest of us awhile to catch up to him.
Willie and Trigger wound down Friday’s show with a singalong performance of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”/ “I’ll Fly Away,” a little bit of spiritualism in suburbia. The other performers on Willie’s rambling “Outlaw Tour” — Jason Isbell, Billy Strings and more — joined him onstage. It was one of those communal moments you can’t get from words alone, that don’t arise at a movie theater or ballgame. And when I got home, the first thing I did was pull my own far-less-bruised acoustic guitar off its wall hook and fumble my way through “I’ll Fly Away”’s chords.1 My guitar didn't talk, but it chirped a bit, and that's more than fine.
So this weekend, go play a guitar. Or a piano. Or drum along to a tune on your steering wheel, or sing in the shower. The world always needs more music.
Southern reads (and watches) of the week
TrueSouth, SEC TV, Sunday night: The fifth season of this rambling, glorious, have-a-plate-and-tell-me-a-story story documenting the South through its food debuts this weekend. Tiny family restaurants, gorgeous shots of rural two-lane roads, stories of local history, perfectly chosen music … damn, I love this show. Watch the season preview on Instagram above, then tune in so it’ll get as many seasons as “The Simpsons.”
“Who is Samford University, and why are they playing the University of Georgia?” (me @ Yahoo Sports): Let’s be real: most of the time, Goliath whups David’s ass. As I write this, that hasn’t happened yet in Athens, but it almost surely will when Samford plays Georgia on Sept. 10. I wanted to see what a coach tells his team when certain doom awaits, and Samford’s head coach gave me the answer. It’s not quite the St. Crispin’s Day speech, but it’s inspiring all the same.
Song of the week: “Know It All,” Billy Strings
Willie’s 89. Joining him on this Outlaw Tour is Billy Strings, a bluegrass flamethrower who is 60 (!) years younger than him. The guy’s a guitar-picking legend already, and a listen to this song, the lead cut off his latest album, tells you why: he marries a heart-on-the-sleeve ethos and a punk attitude to the older-than-rock-music bluegrass tradition for something that’s at once timeless and of-the-moment. Listen above, or on the ever-growing Flashlight & A Biscuit playlist below:
Have a fine weekend, everybody. And learn the lyrics to “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” so we can sing it together at a fire pit this fall.
This is issue #72 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. If you’re new around here, check out some of our recent hits:
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What does “Flashlight & A Biscuit” mean, anyway?
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G-C-G, G-C-G, D-G, thank God.