High Times at Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion
Generations of Willie devotees came together to revel in music and good times with the Red Headed Stranger in his own backyard.
o get to Willie Nelson’s ranch from Austin, you head west on Texas Highway 71, slowly leaving the glass-paneled skyscrapers and SXSW traffic behind for the limestone hills that give this part of the state its name. Just past Sweetwater, a “master planned community” of look-alike McMansions and sparkling pools, you veer north on a county road toward the Colorado River. Bluebonnets blanket the ground here in solid bands, and paint horses graze in grass pastures. Though it’s only thirty miles from the granite dome of the Capitol, by the time you hook a right on the dirt path that leads to Willie’s home, Austin seems like a distant memory.
The Luck Reunion is a one-day music festival held every year on the ranch as a companion to—or, perhaps, a reprieve from—SXSW. Although this year marked the sixth anniversary of the event, Thursday was my first visit to Willie’s legendary property. When I arrived in the early afternoon with my fiancée, Lauren, a security guard in the parking area pointed out a green tin roof one hill to the south. “That over yonder’s Willie’s place,” he informed us. Only then did I fully understand that I was standing in Willie’s backyard. I had the feeling that a long pilgrimage had just come to an end, one I hadn’t even realized I was undertaking.
We entered the little “town” of Luck where the music was already underway. Originally constructed for the 1986 film, Red Headed Stranger, the miniature village still feels like stepping onto the set of a western movie. Luck was buzzing with a diverse crowd of Willie devotees: tattooed hipsters in short brim Stetsons, crop-topped girls in long flowing skirts, retirees rocking faux pigtails. Mixed among the sea of denim and bolo ties were tweed blazers and dickie bows. Several women were dressed—for reasons unknown to me—as train conductors, complete with pinstripe cap.
I made my way to the Revival Tent to watch Paul Cauthen sing with the Texas Gentlemen, a revolving cast of Dallas-based musicians who were serving as the house band. Cauthen’s brand of outlaw-inspired, gospel-tinged country, anchored by his powerful baritone, was a good start to the day. I stuck around to hear Ray Benson, who had celebrated his sixty-sixth birthday a couple nights before at a big bash in Austin. Nelson had shown up as the special guest, and Benson praised his longtime running buddy. He ended with a blistering version of “Boogie Back to Texas” that nearly caught the canvas tent on fire.
“We are so blessed in this state,” Ryan Ake, one of the Gents, said as Benson exited the stage and Ray Wylie Hubbard came on to take his place. The Gentlemen moved effortlessly from Benson’s western swing to Hubbard’s lowdown talkin’ blues. During “Snake Farm” Hubbard was accompanied by his son Lucas, as well as three-fourths of the Trishas.
En route to procure a cup of complimentary booze, I met Wes Wammer, who had driven the Gibson Guitars charter bus down from Nashville. The bus driver told me he spent ten years on the road with Sabbath, and affectionately spoke of Ozzy and bassist Geezer Butler. Wammer also mentioned he’d known Waylon Jennings, and that he was himself a songwriter. I asked him which of Willie’s albums had been the most meaningful to him. “Red Headed Stranger changed country music,” he said. “I still play it. If I have a moment to myself, I’ll put it on the turntable. It’s relaxing, and yet it’s also energizing. That album had a huge influence on artists, especially songwriters.”
On the main World Headquarters stage, Valerie June sparkled in a red sequined dress as she worked through several tracks from her recently released second album, The Order of Time. June seemed more comfortable performing the new material than she had a few weeks earlier when she headlined at the Paramount Theatre in Austin. “I get the blues,” she said in her thick Tennessean twang between songs. “They visit me often. I had ’em last night. But the blues ain’t meant to be sad.” She flashed a grin and with a lilting vibrato launched into the first lines of “Astral Plane.” The ethereal lullaby was fitting for this gathering. The crowd swayed rhythmically, while further from the stage families sprawled on blankets in the grass. A couple of curly-haired kids read Shel Silverstein while their parents closed their eyes and listened.
In the VIP area, the scene was equally mellow, though slightly more surreal, as artists and special guests chatted under disco balls hanging from the branches of tall live oaks. Musician Charley Crockett strutted by in a tan suit, his hat cocked to one side and looking like Jett Rink after his well came in. One of the festival’s main acts, Aaron Lee Tasjan, played an acoustic porch session also sporting a glittering black and white ensemble he bedazzled himself.
Not dressed in formalwear, for once, was Bob Schieffer. The veteran CBS News contributor had ditched his anchorman outfit for Wranglers, cowboy boots, and a belt with his last name tattooed on the leather. He looked almost rugged with white whiskers smattered across his typically clean-shaven cheeks and tufts of hair peeking out from his TCU ball cap. “I’m not sure Willie’s not at the peak of his powers right now,” Schieffer told me. “He’s writing great songs. He’s touring. He’s selling a lot of records. He’s selling tickets. I think his sway is probably as great as it’s ever been.” When I asked Schieffer if he had a favorite Willie song, he cited two of Nelson’s earliest songwriting hits (“Hello Walls” and “Night Life”), then proceeded to quote a couplet verbatim from a song off God’s Problem Child, which doesn’t come out until April.
At 80, Schieffer was on the senior end of the festival attendees, though he pointed out that he was still three years younger than Willie. “There was a guy here last night who was 93 years old, and he’s a Willie groupie,” Schieffer said. “People of all ages are here today, and they all like Willie’s music.”
Another media stalwart lounging in this area was Jim Ferguson, the man who brought us the immortal slogan, “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.” He regaled folks with tales of life in seventies Lubbock, like when Terry Allen premiered Lubbock (On Everything) at the original Stubb’s barbecue shack, or that time the Clash went with Joe Ely to pay their respects to Buddy Holly. (Joe Strummer, the band’s late frontman, supposedly laid on Holly’s grave that night and begged the rock legend, “Enter my soul!”)
Ferguson was posted up next to media newcomer Weed and Whiskey TV. All day bands filed in and out of the fledgling channel’s Airstream trailer to give interviews or play a couple of songs for what will be released as four-minute, twenty-second videos. Besides the music-themed programming, other categories on Weed and Whiskey will include “Club Cannabis Comedy,”“History Written in Stoned,” and “Higher than Space” (the business card I was given features two aliens blowing lava lamp-green smoke). The channel will make its debut on, you guessed it, April 20.
Jerry Joyner, Weed and Whiskey TV’s founder, refers to Nelson as “the Dalai Lama of Texas” and credits his first Luck Reunion as the motivation behind his foray into the entertainment industry. “I’ve been smoking cannabis for forty years,” Joyner said. “For thirty-eight of those years, I didn’t want anybody to know. Now I’m open about it. Willie was an inspiration in the sense that he said, ‘Look, I do a hundred fifty shows a year, and I enjoy this plant.’ He’s been instrumental in helping people understand that cannabis isn’t just for stoners. That it can be an alternative to things that aren’t as good for us. That’s what Willie means to me.”
Back on the main stage, country royalty Margo Price proved she’s more than one of Nashville’s finest lyricists. Her raucous set was a highlight of the day, electrified by ample doses of honky-tonk piano and steel guitar that had the blissed-out crowd boogying—or at least enthusiastically swaying—to the beat.
Shovels & Rope picked up where Price left off with their perfectly in-sync country rock and roll. The sky had been overcast most of the day, but by six when the husband and wife duo closed with the barnburner “Birmingham,” the heavy gray had cleared. The last few wisps of clouds glowed pink and gold as the sun sank behind the hills.
Exploring Luck further, I found that the festival offered more than the standard merch tables. Outside the post office a woman stitched Willie’s Reserve (Nelson’s pot company) patches on jackets and satchels. I overheard one guy waiting to have the Texas-shaped patch sewn onto his bag say, “I don’t smoke, but I love Willie and I love Texas.” In the tannery, Odin Clack of Odin’s Leather Goods tooled designs into scraps of tanned hide, while festival-goers imprinted their initials into give-away leather luggage tags. Vendors inside a round corral made from rough-hewn cedar posts hawked vinyl records and vintage threads.
No matter where I went, music was omnipresent. A line snaked out the door of the wood-paneled chapel where artists such as Lillie Mae and Langhorne Slim played to a few dozen fans. Festival attendees strummed mandolins, guitars, or ukuleles borrowed from the Pick N Play wall. When I ducked into the opry house/saloon, a denim-clad singer not listed on the official schedule was performing cowboy songs such as “The Old Chisholm Trail” in front of an American flag.
As someone who grew up fantasizing about the Willie Picnics of yore, I had the sense that this might be the closest I’d come to experiencing those fabled gatherings of cosmic cowboys. It was certainly closer to what I had imagined than the dusty Fourth of July Picnic I attended a few years back at Billy Bob’s, where the vibe felt manufactured and David Allan Coe performed a set so bad that it sounded like he was playing from the deep end of a pool. Not so at Luck. Artists and fans alike seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves. A mother and her daughter played on a swing set together. When I passed by a half hour later, a young lady in a paisley halter top was rocking back and forth on the swing, a joint casually burning between her lips.
One of the many performers stalking between stages was Paul Cauthen. After we slammed shots of Japanese whisky, I asked the Tyler native what our host meant to him as an artist. “Willie Nelson is the person who inspired me to pick a guitar,” Cauthen said, exhaling a drag from his Marlboro. “After my granddad died, my grandmother gave me his old Gibson and a copy of Red Headed Stranger. She said, ‘If you can pick Willie’s leads, you’ll be able to play guitar for the rest of your life.’ I didn’t have a CD player inside, so I’d sit in the garage listening in the front seat of her car. I about burned the battery down trying to learn Red Headed Stranger.”
I returned to the main stage in time to hear the Felice Brothers, M. Ward, and Conor Oberst jam together. The improvised amalgam of alt-country and indie-folk reminded me of a modern incarnation of the Band, had the group been reared on psychedelia and new wave. The day’s most overtly political moment came when Oberst, who presided over the jam session, delivered a scathing takedown of the current administration before blowing the first notes of “Gossamer Thin” through his harmonica.
After the set ended, I spoke with Ward backstage about the impact Nelson has had on music. “Well, ‘On the Road Again’ is a song that will outlive all of us,” he told me. “Besides his own songs, he’s shone this great light on amazing writers—not just the standards, but also Kris Kristofferson and Lefty Frizzell. I really look up to him for that. It takes a lot of humility to say, ‘My next couple records are going to be cover songs.’”
The latest beneficiary of Nelson’s generous support of emerging artists is Maui-born singer Lily Meola. The surfer-songwriter kicked off the “Nelson Family” portion of the night with R&B-influenced tunes that would not have sounded out of place on an Amy Winehouse record. While Meola sang, I spoke with Kelly Dugan, the founding editor-in-chief of Peach Fuzz Magazine. Dugan, who grew up in Austin, skipped school to catch Willie’s set whenever he’d play at ACL. She said Nelson had been her gateway into country music. “This is probably cliché,” she confided, “but my favorite Willie song is ‘Always On My Mind.’ I want that to be the first song at my wedding. When I told someone that recently, they were like, ‘That’s funny, because that is a really sad song.’ But it’s also real and it’s true and it’s honest.”
By the time J. Micah Nelson, Willie’s youngest son took the stage with his trippy jam band, Insects vs. Robots, the free booze that had been flowing all day seemed to be working through the veins of the restless crowd, or maybe they were just anxious for the main event. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real was the penultimate act, and when the bearded, bespectacled frontman emerged in his plaid shirt, I could have sworn that David Foster Wallace had returned from the afterlife to wail on the electric guitar. (This might be an appropriate time to admit that the spirits were definitely coursing through my veins.)
Around ten, Willie Nelson climbed the steps of the World Headquarters stage just as he had done countless times at the Armadillo. Sister Bobbie took her seat at the grand piano, Mickey Raphael readied his harmonica, and Paul English lifted his sticks from the snare. Following a ritual they’ve practiced for years, the music began with Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River.”
To see Willie Nelson play Trigger is nothing short of beholding genius manifested. Like watching Michelangelo carve marble or Nolan Ryan throw a fastball. I’ll confess I had been worried by the recent news of cancelled gigs. When I had expressed my concern to a Texas Monthly colleague, he shrugged me off. “That’s all tabloid, clickbait shit,” he practically spat.
Now I believed him. Willie still picks with the same dexterity of Django Reinhardt. He still croons with all the emotive power of Frank Sinatra. And he still commands a crowd—not with slick moves or an eye-melting laser show but with charm and old-school charisma. When you see Willie Nelson, you feel like you’re in the presence of your oldest, closest friend.
When Billy Joe Shaver made a surprise appearance during “On the Road Again,” I accused the wafts of smoke for making me misty eyed. But when the weathered troubadour stuck around to sing “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me” and Charlie Sexton came out to accompany on guitar, no amount of smoke could be blamed for the tears that refused to stop running my down my cheeks.
A cool breeze blew through, almost justifying all those buckskin leather fringe jackets. Not that anyone noticed. A hailstorm could have blown through and it wouldn’t have mattered. The crowd was transfixed, and underneath a huge half-moon we all sang along to old (“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys”) and new favorites (“It’s All Going to Pot”).
Nelson threw us a curveball by adding a tune from his forthcoming album to the setlist. On “Still not Dead,” Willie sings, “Don’t bury me, I’ve got a show to play/I woke up still not dead again today.” The song shines as yet another example of his wry sense of humor, though the recent losses of Leon Russell and Merle Haggard paint the context surrounding the comedy with a black brush. Death, that great egalitarian, is a biological inevitability for all of us. But if ever there is someone able to indefinitely postpone his ride with the dark horseman, I know the 2,500 people in Luck on Thursday—who closed the night singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”—were hoping that person is Willie.