Guitar Aficionado

Willie Nelson Receives Guitar Handmade by Death Row Inmates

"This guitar is an absolute work of art," writes Nelson. "Every single hour you spent on it is appreciated.”
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By Christopher Scapelliti

Willie Nelson recently received this new handmade acoustic guitar courtesy of a few fans who have a special appreciation for his brand of outlaw country music. According to Nelson's website, the guitar and its hand-tooled leather case were crafted by death-row inmates at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas.

Nelson posted images of the guitar on his site and quoted from the letter that accompanied it.

“I know you’ll probably never play it,” wrote Ketch, the inmate who built the instrument, “but I am satisfied in my heart that I did the best I could do with what I had to work with.”

He would certainly be surprised to learn how wrong he was. As Willie replied on his site, “This guitar is an absolute work of art. Every single hour you spent on it is appreciated. What an honor.”

Ketch branded the guitar Sawyer, and included the clever motto, “Born on Death Row.” According to an image on Nelson’s site, the guitar is called The Ovaro. The leather case was tooled by Ricky Dotson, and the metal work was performed by Joey Ferraro.

The Allan B. Polunsky Unit is a supermax—super-maximum security—prison and houses all of Texas’s death row inmates. Robert Perkinson, the author of Texas Tough, called Polunsky “the hardest place to do time in Texas,” and Mother Jones magazine ranked it one of the 10 worst U.S. prisons in May 2013.

The Sawyer will join another guitar in Nelson’s collection that has done some hard time: Trigger, his Martin N-20 nylon-string classical guitar. Nelson purchased the guitar after his Guild acoustic was destroyed in 1969, and he’s played it ever since, making it the much-loved—and extremely well-worn—iconic instrument that it is today.

You can learn everything you need to know about Trigger’s history in this Rolling Stone film, The Tale of Trigger.