There’s nothing quite like Luck Reunion. One day each year, Willie Nelson opens his ranch to ticket holders for an absurdly well-curated music festival, erecting stages across the still-standing western town from the set of Red Headed Stranger. Legend has it the script originally called for the town to be burned down, but Willie liked having it on his property so much that he had the ending rewritten to leave the town standing. Each March, Luck, as it’s become known, turns from ghost town into working western town, replete with a functioning saloon, vintage western wear shop, & a food court serving regional treats from some of Austin’s best food trucks.
Over the years, the fest has gone from a quiet SXSW getaway for a small, in-the-know crowd to an instant sell-out with a bonafide community where barefooted hippies, East Nashville hipsters, & general industry folk mingle with Willie’s own neighbors over free booze & great music. Each year, the Willie Faithful, replete with rabbit-ear braids, custom denim, & the leathery tans born of dedication to the cause, claim their spots in front of the main stage in anticipation of the headliner. But the community really starts with the musicians, & Luck is a place where you’ll find only-at-Luck pairings like Lukas Nelson & his band backing Kurt Vile or Band of Heathens supporting Margot Price for an intimate cover gig in the chapel. Just beyond earshot of the hustle & noise of SXSW, Luck is a place where it really is all about the music.
We were very fortunate to have Mike Dunn in tow to capture visuals from the festival.
Kicking off the festival was a song swap billed as Kevn Kinney & the next generation of songwriters. Sam Lewis, Caleb Caudle, & Courtney Marie Andrews traded songs with the Drivin’ N Cryin’ singer under a tent in front of Willie’s horses, as a crew of early arrivals looked on. Courtney stood out, particularly, delivering powerful songs with an earnest & gracious spirit (“If your money runs out & your good looks fade, may your kindness remain”), & Sam’s disarming wit anchored a performance that at times recalled John Wesley Harding-era Dylan as much as the soulful folk he’s known for. Still, a small interaction between Caleb & Kevn really encapsulated what the round was about. “I wrote this song in New York City when it was raining,” Caleb said, introducing a song, “because that’s what you do when you’re a songwriter, right?” Kevin, grinning, nodded his approval. “It’s called New York City Rain.” This cross-generational camaraderie is a large part of what Luck is. Each artist that performs is deeply rooted in the craft of songwriting, & fully aware of the giants upon whose shoulders they stand, & the living legends are keenly aware that the music doesn’t end with them. Forgoing a standard like Straight To Hell, Kevn closed the set in his signature storytelling style with Which Jesus Do You Know, a sprawling tale about an interaction with a “hostile pentecostal” in a North Carolina Piggly Wiggly parking lot. (“The Jesus that I know goes to Todd Snyder shows and screams Train Song at the top of his lungs!”) The audience hollered & the horses looked on with approval.
Discovery is a large part of Luck, & the tastemakers that throw the festival together can always be trusted. Big Thief’s Buck Meek, decked in stonewashed denim westernwear, debuted new songs from his upcoming solo LP under the same tent. Knowing his audience, Buck led off with material that could easily pass for vintage Willie (“You fool me with your tears every time”), & his band performed delicately despite the simmering energy of the musicians. They teetered through the set, both sonically & physically, on their toes for much of it, rocking back or bouncing in place with the music’s ebb and flow. “My home is where the milk shakes hands with the bourbon,” Buck sang, as the band, anchored by Twain on bass, teetered on.
Twain’s own set, while less polished, also had a manic quality. On stage, he wrestled with God (“Take me whole or leave me be, there is no in between”), love (“Learn to love the part of yourself you’ve hated for so long”), & life (“Lots of my heroes killed themselves or went insane… Some people will tell you this means we are living in a crooked life but I know it’s society that was poisoning them – and it’s poisoning me”). With a “You bet!” pin on his guitar strap & shoes that would be as at home in a bowling alley as on these dusty stages, Twain stretched tall to be heard or hunched down to quietly whisper, closing with the title track from his latest record, Rare Feeling, accompanied by a cello. Again, the horses looked on approvingly.
Collaborations oftentimes stole the show, like Margo Price jumping onstage with Paul Cauthen (and guitar phenom Daniel Donato) for Conway’s & Loretta’s You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly. Elsewhere, Nicole Atkins joined the Texas Gentlemen for Candi Staton’s Stand By Your Man, which proved to be one of the best performances of the entire day. And Nikki opened her late set with Ansley Oakley in tow, the youngest performer to ever take the stage at Luck. But the intimate performances also left a mark. Paul Thorn took questions, drank beer, & performed acoustic songs for a crowd outside of his trailer. Briefly speaking about his songwriting process in his thick Tupelo drawl, he told us he looks for ideas and phrases that remind him that we’re all more alike than we are different, & how nobody’s all bad or all good. Likening us to poultry, he observed that we’ve all got dark meat & white meat on the inside. And then he sang about how he doesn’t like everybody he loves, & about the tension of growing up with a preacher dad & a pimp uncle. It’s these acknowledgments of dichotomies that make Paul one of the most likable and approachable artists around, & make his everyman gospel tunes ring true.
But the main stage performances left their mark, too. Mid-day, Aaron Lee Tasjan took to the main stage with a band of East Nashville players as well-oiled & capable as any you’ll find, & they sweated through a set of mostly new material that sounded like the Beatles may have if they’d formed sometime after the New York Dolls & Neil Young. He briefly touched on his most recent album, Silver Tears, with Dime (“Everybody knows it, they tell me all the time, I’m worth at least a million & I barely have a dime”), but brought Kevn Kinney out on guitar to close the set with I’m Ready To Die, one of the boldest artistic statements I know of. When he likens Hank Williams’ backseat alcohol overdose to Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, then says he’s ready to die for a worthy cause, you believe the truth of every word.
By 10 pm, everyone is gathered at the main stage & Luck began to look less like a hipster Deadwood & a little bit more like the Sermon on the Mount. Tired, weary, drunk, &/or stoned, everyone in town is huddled together for the act we all came to see: Willie Nelson. It’s a familiar exercise for most in the crowd–Whiskey River, the hits, the Hank Williams covers, the weed songs, the gospel songs–but this year, Willie seemed in particularly good spirits. This year, all of the songs about mortality–Roll Me Up, Last Man Standing, Still Not Dead, I’ll Fly Away–really come across as they were intended, as a celebration of a life very well lived. Late in the set, he invited the Preservation Hall Jazz Band onstage to add horns to his gospel medley. Preservation Hall–a symbol of perseverance, themselves, as a rotating cast since 1964–added a very appropriately celebratory tone to the set. That’s what New Orleans music is about, anyhow… the celebration of life. And we celebrated Willie. And we celebrated Merle. And we celebrated Hank. And we celebrated the road. And whiskey & weed & country music & good times. We celebrated Luck. It’s no mystery to anyone who’s ever seen Willie perform why he keeps drawing so many fans after so many thousands of shows. It’s because of the celebration.
Perhaps the reason that there’s so much wrestling with mortality at Luck is that life looks pretty short compared to the music. You get the sense that none of this started with the organization of the festival. It didn’t even start the first time Willie put a pick to ol’ Trigger. It started with Hank. And every time Willie gets on stage, he’s picking songs from Hank’s songbook & he’s acknowledging the beginnings. And when he sings “roll me up & smoke me when I die,” he’s acknowledging the end of his own short chapter. But when he hands the mic to his son, Lukas, or invites Margo Price on stage, he’s passing the torch. He’s saying that this thing goes on & on, whether folks keep paying attention or start paying attention or lose interest altogether, it goes & it goes & it goes. It floats above our heads, right above the wispy clouds of marijuana, ever present, but crystal clear against the night sky, deep in the heart of Texas. And we’re there, soaking it up while we can. Enjoying our own short ride. Just trying to take a little piece of something that’s bigger than any of us & all of us. That’s Luck. Luck is the music. And thank God for it.
’Til next year.