Willie Nelson may have been the marquee name at the “Rally With Willie & Beto” in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, but the rock star of the night was the candidate himself, Beto O’Rourke. The onetime punk musician and Democratic Texas Senate candidate had just given a stirring speech to the nearly 60,000 people gathered at Auditorium Shores, and it was all but inevitable that Nelson would call him back out during his headlining set.
“Beto, come help me do this one,” the 85-year-old country legend said from the small, uncovered stage along the Colorado River, with the skyline of downtown Austin behind him. O’Rourke, his shirt covered in sweat and his sleeves rolled up — both hallmarks of his energetic and improbable run against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz — ambled out to help sing “On the Road Again,” then stood there watching with a broad grin as Nelson played a solo on his trusty guitar Trigger.
Nelson’s short, rapid-fire set leaned heavily on outlaw staples like “Whiskey River” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” and his son Lukas Nelson delivered a furious reading of “Texas Flood.” But it was the spirited performance of Nelson’s new political anthem, “Vote ‘Em Out,” that was the night’s spry call to action, in which he sings, “The biggest gun we’ve got is called the ballot box.” For the most part, however, the Red Headed Stranger, dressed in a Beto hat and T-shirt, left the commentary to the politicians, saying simply, “All right, Beto!” in between songs.
Though Nelson’s decision to play the free event, which also included Leon Bridges as a name draw, in support of the Democratic candidate had been met ahead of time with backlash from some fans, there was no hint of rancor or tension to be found Saturday. There weren’t even gates for entry, as the public was allowed to simply walk up from the street. O’Rourke’s speech emphasized the night’s air of spontaneity and inclusiveness.
“We are not running against anyone or anything or any political party. We are running for one another and for this country that we love so much,” O’Rourke said, to hearty cheers from the audience. “This is a campaign for the future, because the people of the future — our kids and our grandkids — are depending on what we do at this moment. Let tonight be a message to the future. Let them know who we are, what we believe in, and what we’re willing to do to accomplish our goals.”
The goals O’Rourke laid out were certainly lofty ones, particularly in a state that traditionally votes as red as the Lone Star State. Universal health care, global warming, the legalization of marijuana, and women’s reproductive rights were all key points that he touched upon in his 15-minute speech, through which his recurring message was that Texas, as “the front door to the rest of the world,” “can lead the way.”
“This is a campaign of people, all people, and I don’t care about the differences between us. If you’re a Republican, you’re in the right place. If you’re a Democrat, you’re in the right place. If you’re an independent, you’re in the right place,” he said. “Whoever you pray to, whether you pray at all, whoever you love, however many generations you’ve been in this country or whether you just got here yesterday, we’re all in the same boat, we’re all human beings, and we’re going to start treating one another that way.”
Many of O’Rourke’s sentiments were echoed throughout the night, starting with Austin mayor Steve Adler’s opening remarks, where he touted the city as a sanctuary to immigrants and LGBTQ rights, as well as its $15-an-hour minimum wage and paid sick leave. Adler seized on what he referred to as the “crazy week” just past, voicing his support for survivors of sexual assault, a reference to the Senate hearings over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Whether such opinions will be shared by voters outside the liberal mecca of its capitol is another matter, but Carrie Rodriguez, one of the artists performing on the bill, believes they should be. “Beto is this white guy with a Spanish nickname who speaks fluent Spanish. To me, that’s who we are in Texas. We’re at our best when cultures come together to create new cultural identities, and Beto really represents that,” Rodriguez told Rolling Stone Country. “His growing up on the border in a bicultural community [in El Paso] gives him this perspective in knowing what our needs are as a state.”
Rodriguez, a singer from Austin whose mother is Chicana, delivered a bilingual set early in the night that got the crowd moving for the first time with her sawing fiddle solos. Joe Ely preceded her, opening the musical portion of the rally with its strongest political statement, his 2009 song with the Flatlanders “Borderless Love.” Though many fans didn’t seem to recognize it, they cheered when Ely reached the line, “There’s no need for a wall.”
“It feels like a necessary thing. It’s not just another show, it’s a necessary gathering of like minds,” Ely said to Rolling Stone Country. He says his “optimism has gone straight up for Beto” during the campaign. “I think Ted Cruz is a little afraid of what’s going on now. His message is a little far-fetched, it’s like he’s not in this century. He’s in a different time zone.”
Cruz was referenced by various speakers throughout the night, including by local representative Lloyd Doggett, who quipped, “He’s been to 99 counties and they’re all in Iowa.” The fact that O’Rourke has visited all 254 counties in Texas was cited several times as a sign of his commitment to the job, and no doubt a motivating factor in the choice to have him join Nelson specifically for “On the Road Again.”
O’Rourke capped off his speech by pointing attendees toward the dozens of volunteers on hand to help them register to vote, as well as encouraging them to sign up as canvassers. When asked how many had already registered, cheers came from the crowd. Then, when asked who was still planning to register, it fell silent. The question mark — with only three weeks to go until early voting begins — is how many of those who showed up to hear Nelson sing will actually show up to the polls.