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Willie Nelson Celebrates 80th Birthday With Old Friend by His Side

Our Country

Willie Nelson has taken his share of beatings through the decades: In his 80 years, he's been through three divorces, an allegedly unscrupulous accounting team, numerous brushes with the law, and a number of non-musical ventures yielding varying amounts of success.

Through it all, there's been a constant companion that's shared the ups and downs, and visibly weathered a beating of its own--Nelson's beloved, battered guitar, which he calls "Trigger" (after Roy Rogers's famous horse) and has credited with giving him his signature sound.

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Trigger in 2007 (Photo: Frazer Harrison)

The Martin acoustic, covered with scribbled autographs and sporting several wear-and-tear holes in the wood--including a huge one just below the sound hole--has "the greatest tone I've ever heard from a guitar, and I've played lots of guitars," Nelson, who turns 80 on Tuesday, noted in his 2007 memoir The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart.

"The two of us even look alike…we're both pretty bruised and battered."

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Trigger in 1980 (Photo: Chris Walter)

The acoustic Martin first came into Nelson's possession in 1969, after the iconic star busted up an electric guitar gifted to him by the Baldwin company. He sent the broken instrument to Nashville guitarist Shot Jackson for repairs, but Jackson regretfully called him up and said it was too far gone to fix. Nelson asked over the phone if Jackson had something else around he could purchase. Jackson offered up a $750 Martin he had up on a shelf; Nelson agreed, and requested Jackson put the pickup from his broken Baldwin into the Martin.

When he received the new guitar, Nelson liked the sound of it right off the bat, comparing its tone to the sound achieved by one of his favorite players ever, Django Reinhardt. One small issue: Nelson's Martin didn't have a pick guard to protect the polished wood--which posed a bit of a problem for a guitarist who plays with a pick.

However, of course, it turns out the problem was actually not so much of a problem at all. "The holes I've worn in Trigger are from my pick zinging up and down a million times on the face of an acoustic guitar that's not supposed to be played with a pick, but at this point those holes are part of what makes Trigger sound exactly right," Nelson explained.

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Trigger in 1986 (Photo: Paul Natkin)

Another standout feature of the battered Martin is its collection of signatures, which Nelson has been gathering over the years. He explained to Jimmy Fallon that his first signature came from musician Leon Russell. "I played a show one time with [him], and he said 'sign my guitar.' And I said okay, and I grabbed a marker--and he said 'No, take this ballpoint and scratch it in there." I said why? And he said 'It's going to be worth something later on.' So, I said hell, sign mine!"

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Trigger in 1996 (Photo: Paul Natkin)

Since then, Trigger has collected dozens of signatures--from musicians as well as other friends and professionals, including a lawyer!--and has seen countless stages over its more than four decades. Trigger even has its own fan page where users can upload their own photos of Nelson playing it, as well as share anecdotes. In 1998, Martin issued a limited-edition replica of the beloved guitar, with a release of just 100.

Nelson is so protective of his treasured Trigger that, in 1991 when he was being investigated by the IRS for tax fraud, his mind went directly to the guitar.

Fearful that it may be seized and auctioned, he had his daughter Lana run to his studio and grab the guitar before any agents arrived on the scene. Lana sent Trigger to his house in Maui, and Nelson then had his manager hide it until he paid off all debts two years later.

Over the years, Nelson's worked on the guitar in order to keep it playable, but he refuses to fix the holes, saying it makes the sound better.

Some may find Nelson's attachment to Trigger to be a bit eccentric, but as the singer wisely points out: "Trigger has outlasted every musician I've played with, and after all these years, I have come to believe we were fated for each other."

In fact, the country legend even goes so far as to describe the instrument as "a part of me."

Note: Over the past week, Nelson's organization Farm Aid has collected birthday wishes from musicians, farmers, advocates and fans to compile into a special 80th birthday tribute video. The clip includes happy birthday greetings from Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Sting, Kenny Chesney, Norah Jones, and more. Check it out, and be sure to leave your own birthday greetings for him!

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