Fans wedged into every nook and cranny of Spicewood ranch in Luck, Texas, on Thursday night for Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion — many trying to get a good view of Lukas Nelson. They stood along the wooden sidewalks in front of the old storefronts, on the steps of the western saloon and jailhouse, and the fortunate few looked down from a balcony above the general store. There, on stage, was Lukas, in a tall top hat and a black coat with his arms outstretched, doing a half turn to present all before them.
“Welcome to our place,” Lukas said, half Pied Piper, half Mad Hatter, with a neon Luck sign glowing behind him and his band, Promise of the Real. Eleven hours into the annual day of music outside Austin, a not-so-secret getaway from the bustle of South by Southwest, there was an air of whimsy that even the curious surroundings — built as a movie set for Willie’s 1986 adaptation of The Red Headed Stranger — couldn’t conjure on their own.
A few songs later, Lukas introduced “Just Outside of Austin,” saying he’d written it about Luck. As he sang of the birds and the creeks and how it’s such a nice place to raise a family, there was — be it from the hours in the sun, the free booze or something more intangible — a certain magic imbued in it all, as though there really may be a place on God’s green earth for a lonely old outlaw to get back to the basics of love.
It is, of course, a fantasy, but Luck Reunion does a particularly good job of selling its appeal — or at least of temporarily suspending reality. Now in its eighth year, the festival placed artists on six different stages — including one inside the saloon, another in a small chapel, a new one dedicated to women — ranging from Mavis Staples to Nathaniel Rateliff to the Foo Fighters’ Chris Shiflett. Though the event has grown in profile in recent years, it hasn’t gotten overcrowded, and it maintains an easy, laid-back atmosphere, even if the lines were long to get in the door to the Willie’s Reserve gift shop.
Out-of-town parties are nothing new at SXSW, but Luck has hit on a formula that’s clearly inspired its imitators, most noticeably a new first-year event — the similarly titled Revival — in nearby Dripping Springs that shared one of Luck’s headliners, Nathaniel Rateliff. But, as Seth Avett would say, Willie got there first: He held his first picnic in Dripping Springs in 1972, before the Hill Country became the unofficial outlaw Mecca and even before Jerry Jeff Walker invited his buddies out to Luckenbach to record ¡Viva Terlingua!.
Willie’s many failed ventures and wayward business dealings are the stuff of lore, and Luck — not a real town, but a ranch located in Spicewood, about 45 minutes from downtown Austin — is a unique testament to that checkered history, a vestige of one of his many flops. (That first festival 47 years ago was another bust, however influential it proved to be.) Peer through the windows of some of the storefronts, and you’re reminded that they’re nothing more than cutouts, a figment of Willie’s imagination.
Recent years have suggested an improved business sense on the octogenarian’s part, and Luck Reunion is at the center of that ecosystem. While the flagship Fourth of July Picnic has moved to the soulless Circuit of the Americas racetrack, Luck preserves the spirit of its hippie ethos and gypsy roots, even bringing in sustainably sourced vendors for a designated food court introduced this year. Much the same template has been copied by Willie’s Outlaw Tour, while Luck itself has grown into its own content-generating apparatus, setting up pop-up outposts in places like Nashville to host and record live performances.
The booking was strong throughout the day, with some of the most interesting and exciting acts playing earlier in the afternoon. Yola’s buzz has been strong all week at SXSW, and her set on the Mavis Staples “Stronger” Stage (dedicated to women artists) was a perfect, easy-listening match to the midday breeze. At roughly the same time, Illuminati Hotties put on a rip-roaring set of guitar-shredding punk rock, and there was a never-ending line to get inside the tight confines of the chapel, where folks crowded around the windows to get a glimpse of JS Ondara or a solo, teary-eyed Nathaniel Rateliff.
Besides the young up-and-comers and the modern-day zeitgeist, Mavis Staples joined Willie as Luck’s main legacy-act draw, although her ever-fiery performance, peppered with a new song or two, betrayed the sobriquet. Nearly a dozen other performers, including Yola, Courtney Marie Andrews, and the members of Mountain Man, joined Staples for “The Weight,” but the real chills came when she took to the proverbial pulpit before “Freedom Highway” to recall walking in the company of Martin Luther King Jr. during the Selma marches of 1965. “I was there! And I’m still here. I’m a witness,” she roared in her gravelly, indefatigable voice.
But the truth is that Mavis and Willie won’t be around forever, and for an event like Luck that poses a precarious question about the future. On the cusp of his 86th birthday, Willie remains remarkably spry for his age, and simply getting on stage night after night is a feat in and of itself. The buildup to his headlining set leaned heavily on his own family, with first daughter Paula, then son Micah’s band Particle Kid, and finally Lukas each taking the main stage in succession before him. As usual, Lukas was there riding shotgun during his father’s set, with Micah perched behind them both on percussion.
Willie’s sets don’t leave much to the imagination these days (nor do they need to), tearing through a typically rapid-fire song selection that doesn’t vary too much from night to night or year to year. Lukas took his typical turn with a searing “Texas Flood,” but the real fireworks came during his own set, which kicked off with the slithering guitar groove of a new song called “Simple Life,” which may as well be the Nelson family mantra in a nutshell. Willie’s kids have managed to establish themselves in their own rights, none more so than Lukas, who would seem to be the heir-apparent to his father’s mantle.
What remains to be seen is whether Willie has done enough to build the better future that his idyllic, nostalgia-tinged brand has so expertly cultivated. If events like Luck Reunion can continue to thrive even after he’s gone, be it through his family members or otherwise, it will be a whole new chapter in his legacy, proof that his promised land can be more than make believe.