One Sunday night not too long ago, I went to see Willie Nelson play one of his occasional shows at his Luck, Texas, ranch near Briarcliff, about 45 minutes west of Austin. His performance was as expected, the set list shorter than it once was, and Willie was seated, not standing. But he played a great many hits, fan favorites such as “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “Good Hearted Woman” that the crowd of just under three thousand ate up whole. What really struck me, though, was that crowd itself. An unexpectedly diverse bunch in terms of age and color, they acted like they all knew one another, sharing glances of recognition and teary-eyed hugs with the opening chords to each new song. Just as impressive, they threw their empties in trash cans, rather than on the ground. They were behaving not like concert attendees, but houseguests. Taking note, I half-jokingly asked a fan there whom I knew—Jeremy Tepper, the format manager for Willie’s two Sirius XM stations, Willie’s Roadhouse and Outlaw Country—if we were technically in Willie’s front yard or back. “It depends,” he replied without pausing. “If Willie spends the night in his house, this is his backyard; if he stays on the bus, it’s his front yard.”
That’s the magic of a show at Luck. But it only partly explains the heated anticipation in the run-up to the Luck Reunion back in March. The annual event, spread out over five stages in Luck proper, the Old West town built for Willie’s 1986 film adaptation of Red Headed Stranger, started in 2012 as an unofficial, invite-only, South by Southwest day party. It grew quickly, however, into one of the most coveted tickets of the conference. It’s a day when some 3,500-odd fans from all corners make the pilgrimage to Willie World to take in lineups built around a mix of storied legends and hot, young comers—like the 2019 festival, which featured, among others, R&B/gospel giant Mavis Staples and bluegrass phenom Billy Strings. And while garden-party concerts at private residences have long been de rigueur at SXSW, the Luck fete is much more; it’s at Willie’s place, with Willie as gracious host and headlining act. But on top of all that, the festival this March would be the first one since COVID lockdowns scotched the previous two parties, and this year’s assemblage looked to live up to its “reunion” billing in a way prior years’ had not.
At Texas Monthly, we had our own reason to be fired up. Back in December, the duo who run Luck, Matt Bizer and Willie’s grandniece, Ellee Fletcher Durniak, had agreed to let our One by Willie podcast tape four episodes on-site at the 2022 Luck Reunion. The podcast’s concept is simple: on each episode, we talk to one notable Willie fan—people like Sheryl Crow, Lyle Lovett, and Kacey Musgraves—about one Willie song they love, before running down the kind of rabbit holes that open up when the topic is Willie. For this special miniseason, which we’ve subtitled Live From Luck!, Matt and Ellee also helped line up guests, all artists who’d take the stage later that day: sublime Montreal singer-songwriter Allison Russell, Austin neo-honky-tonker Charley Crockett, Brooklyn singer-songwriter and guitar virtuoso Steve Gunn, and elegant L.A. singer-composer-arranger Natalie Mering, who performs as Weyes Blood. The interviews would be conducted in an old Boles Aero camper-trailer tricked out specifically for that purpose by Ellee’s husband, Joe, and parked beneath some shade trees in the alfresco artists’ lounge behind Willie’s saloon.
That last tidbit points to what makes Luck and the Luck Reunion so special: like Willie himself, this event is all about family. Ellee, granddaughter of Willie’s sister, piano player Bobbie Nelson, all but grew up there in the nineties, putting on plays in Luck’s opry house and running the grounds with her cousins, Willie’s kids Lukas and Micah, who were essentially her brothers. She is a uniquely invested and plugged-in concert organizer.
She and Matt conceived of the idea when they became friends in New York in the early 2000s, and after getting the initial green light at a Nelson family outing to Maudie’s Tex-Mex in Austin—“Sure,” said Willie, between margarita sips through a straw; “Get insurance,” said his wife, Annie—Matt enlisted his own family to help out. His father, a New Braunfels cabinetmaker and contractor, restored the buildings, which had fallen into severe disrepair. His sister, whom Matt calls an impassioned “vintage kid,” decked out the common areas with old couches and signs. Their contributions are unmissable as you enter the grounds. On a scrubby hill overlooking the town stand four white, ten-foot-tall block letters spelling out “L-U-C-K,” a nod to the Hollywood sign in L.A. That was the elder Bizer’s idea; unsolicited, he made the letters, showed up with them in the back of his truck, and planted them on the hill. Willie and Annie thought it was funny, and the sign is still up.
That sense of family also drives how Ellee and Matt build their crowds and treat their performers. Luck Reunion tickets are sold on a rolling, randomly announced, lottery basis that die-hard fans know to watch for; scalpers are discouraged by the availability of a Luck-verified resale platform meant to keep tickets close to face value. Artist invites go to acts Ellee and Matt believe will sync with the Willie vibe, and rather than hand them big swag bags filled with sponsors’ wares when they arrive, as most music festivals do, Ellee and Matt present them special silver rings with “Luck” engraved on the head. “We want it to feel like home and family,” Matt, now CEO of the Luck Reunion, told me over Zoom earlier this month. “Getting that Luck ring is like being inducted into the family.” It’s a welcome that makes artists want to come back. “Our new joke is that every year we’ll get a call two weeks before the show from Nathaniel Rateliff’s team. It’s like he just called them and said, ‘Yo, what the heck? Why am I not in Luck?’ And so we fit him in. He’s played the chapel”—capacity: 49—“and made guest appearances, whatever. It’s always so cool that he comes down for it.”
What they are building is community, and I got a feel for how successful they are when we taped our Live from Luck! interviews. I’ll confess to some concern when the four artists submitted their selections for focus songs to discuss. These weren’t our typical guests; pretty much all of the preceding 27 episodes had featured people who have collaborated with Willie and have long-standing friendships with him. These guests, on the other hand, would be younger, indie acts who hadn’t even met him before, and three picked songs from his two most famous albums, Red Headed Stranger and Stardust. I worried that those were the only albums they’d heard of, that they’d only agreed to the interviews because their management, sensing the podcast was associated with Willie, had told them they had to.
I needn’t have worried. While they didn’t have significant, personal relationships with the man, they absolutely did with his music. Case in point: Allison Russell, whose episode debuted two weeks ago. She talked about the title track of Stardust, going far beyond her appreciation for Hoagy Carmichael’s exquisite melody and what Willie borrowed and forsook from Frank Sinatra’s 1940 version with Tommy Dorsey. Powerfully, she added that when her daughter, Ida, was born eight years ago, she and her husband, JT Nero, played Stardust nonstop and on repeat for the first three months. Allison and JT are touring musicians; they had to get back on the road, Ida in tow, after just four weeks. And on the long bus rides and transatlantic flights that ensued, Stardust was the only reliable way to soothe her. “I’ve listened to this record maybe more than any other,” Allison recalled, real gratitude in her tone. “We kind of grew together as a family listening to this album.”
She spoke like that for some thirty minutes, with intimacy, insight, and grace, until finally, near the end, she tried to pay back to Willie a little of what he had given her. The eleventh-hour subtext that had surfaced for the festival was a sad one. Exactly one week before we all got together, Sister Bobbie, as Willie called his lifelong musical soul mate, had died at age 91. It was a loss felt by everyone in attendance—the artists, the fans, the crew, the volunteers, everyone. When Allison brought it up, she sounded like she was talking directly to Willie.
“Very few life relationships last for eighty-eight years,” she said. “Particularly a deep, spiritual, musical connection like that. To share it with a sibling makes it even more precious. And yeah, his kids have that too, which is amazing. I was really struck by that at Farm Aid, hearing Micah and Lucas playing together, playing individually, playing with their dad—and how beautiful that was.”
“I do believe love never dies,” she continued. “I know that she generated and gave a great deal of love, and that’s not going to go anywhere.”
The evidence to back her up was barely fifty yards away. After Bobbie died, Ellee had gathered a number of photos and mementos and hung them in Willie’s barn, the same one featured on the cover of his 2010 album, Country Music. Throughout the day, a steady stream of fans took breaks from the revelry to quietly walk the space and pay their respects.
“There was a lot of weight in that period for all of us,” said Matt. “But for Ellee, who’s our partner . . . that’s her grandmom. That’s a granddaughter putting a picture of her grandmother on the wall so we can honor her. And you know, that’s the real story of Luck. It’s not three degrees of separation. It’s zero.”
Upcoming Live from Luck! episodes
August 18: Charley Crockett, on “Face of a Fighter”
September 1: Steve Gunn, on “Hands on the Wheel”
September 15: Weyes Blood, on “September Song”
(All episodes can be found on One by Willie’s web page.)
Upcoming events at Luck, Texas
October 1: The Flaming Lips
October 28–November 6: Lucktoberfest, a ten-day festival of music, food, and happenings featuring Los Lobos, Fantastic Negrito, Tanya Tucker, Orville Peck, Shinyribs, and dozens of others
(Tickets to events at Luck can be purchased online.)
(Allison Russell’s podcast quotes have been lightly edited for length and readability.)