You are probably in luck when your day begins with an up-and-coming band you’re just getting into (and have already raved over!) and ends with a performance from a legend on a drastically downsized stage. Yesterday, we were literally in Luck—Luck, Texas—on Willie Nelson’s ranch for Luck Reunion, a day of good music, food and drink that has become an annual institution for music fans and Austinites to escape Sixth Street for a smidge of SXSW and enjoy something a little more true to Texas.
The day started out well enough; we got on-site just in time to catch Amasa Hines, who had already wowed us in a tiny barbecue joint earlier this week and was putting on a predictably high-powered performance on the main stage, dubbed World Headquarters. The ranch is essentially a movie set for an old Western, complete with a chapel, country store, saloon and a building boasting itself as a legal weed dispensary—yes, it is Willie Nelson’s ranch, after all. (Disclaimer: I saw no marijuana dispensed here.)
After Amasa Hines won themselves some new fans in the sparse, sweaty audience, we sauntered over to see Ray Wylie Hubbard, a guy who is certainly still carrying the outlaw country torch with pride. He had even the baby-toting contingent singing along to songs like “Snake Farm”—”If this is the first time you’ve seen me perform, I’d like to remind you that I’m an acquired taste”—but there were less niche numbers, too. A co-write Hubbard had done with Hayes Carll, “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” was a highlight, and the show set the tone for a day of spontaneity and good times.
We milled around the grounds after that, taking in the food truck scene (lengthy lines yielded worth-it grub ranging from barbecue to burgers to lobster rolls) and grabbing drinks from the open bar before settling back down for Alberta Cross to serenade the grounds with tracks from last year’s self-titled full-length, including favorite “Western State.”
By 5:30, though, the once-sweltering sun had disappeared and the weather looked ready to take a turn for the worse. Security made announcements and took folks aside individually to tell them to seek shelter in their cars, a pretty dicey contingency plan for an event that had bused patrons out to the grounds from Austin en masse. But I hopped into a nearby SUV with some buddies and waited out the storm for about an hour as on-again, off-again lightning lit through the sky and we saw scattered showers. It wasn’t long before we got stir-crazy, so when it looked like the rain was letting up we hopped out of the car and slid through a fence to where we heard some ruckus in a nearby tent. We were pretty misguided leaving our shelter behind—the storm was just getting started—but we were met with a treat in the Revival Tent, where Lissie had taken to the stage with a bottle of wine and an acoustic guitar and begun making the best of it with a truly chilling unplugged set. The thunder added intensity to Lissie’s howling vocals and pleading lyrics while a rapt audience clung to her every word. The storm worsened and worsened during her performance, but it added a rapturous element to every note. “Further Away (Romance Police)” ran particularly hot, and I heard multiple people say they were happy the whole storm thing had happened—the first inkling that weather wasn’t going to stifle the good attitudes of this Willie crew. You had to come away from the experience with an immense respect for Lissie, both as a artist and, y’know, a human being—she most certainly had a dry trailer with a stocked bar she could’ve camped out in, but she made the entire day for many people and certainly won a bevy of lifetime fans for it.
The lights flickered back on around…9? Honestly, time was pretty fluid by that point, and the vaguely announced set times were thrown out the window. The break in the music—and the open bar—only left most of the crowd wide-eyed and ready to get back going, and it was beautiful to see so many people gravitate towards the stage ready to hear whatever music they were given, regardless of who it would be. I heard a rumor that Jenny Lewis played a set in the teeny chapel, doing a few numbers with Lucius as well, but having seen that the main stage looked to be getting packed up, I held my ground at the Revival Tent.
Margo Price gave a rousing performance followed by Parker Millsap—two artists who are riding a healthy amount of buzz and releasing fantastic full-lengths this month—and the performances they gave certainly gave weight to their reputations. I’d caught Margo on Thursday (and frankly, I’d catch her play again whenever and wherever I could), so Millsap’s set was a particular treat for me. Abbreviated set times allowed for another wish-fulfilling appearance in John Moreland, the Oklahoma singer/songwriter with a weathered voice and gutting approach to lyricism. “I’m the kind of love it hurts to look at,” he sang, and after a physically exhausting day in the cold, it was easy to assign whatever emotional baggage you were carrying to these endearingly weathered vocals and the words they articulated.
The mood got a bit more lighthearted after that with a short set from Insects vs. Robots, Willie’s son Micah Nelson’s band. Their appearance was an unexpected move—they replaced Billy Joe Shaver, who was taken to the stage in the itty bitty chapel, and were the first band to appear that hadn’t been slated for the Revival Tent at all—and with their banter came whispers about whether Willie was going to take the stage next. A collective gasp from the crowd preceded a thundering opening with “Whiskey River,” and despite a packed tent and virtually no clear visuals of the stage, it was unmistakeable that Willie Nelson was in the house. From there, it was nothing but merrymaking: an elderly woman named Mabel was escorted through the crowd by two young bartenders, pouring shots of Jim Beam for concertgoers at her command as they made their way to the stage to see Willie, and Nelson barreled through covers like “Whiskey for My Men, Beer for My Horses” and Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’” alongside beloved numbers like “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and the more recent “It’s All Going To Pot.” Protege Lily Meola joined him for a song before he capped things off with “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
The rain might have paused the party, but anyone who stuck around for the whole thing didn’t leave unsatisfied. I hope to be back next year (I just might bring a heavier jacket and some rain boots).