On a winding stretch of road 30 miles west of Austin, a couple of miles down from a hamburger shack and an auto-repair shop, there’s an iron gate with the image of a cowboy silhouette. Type in a key code and ride up a steep, muddy incline surrounded by oaks, cedars and patchy grass. After a left turn at a barn, you will enter a ghost town: a white, wood-frame church, a jailhouse, a bank, a dance hall, a water tower and a saloon.
Willie Nelson built Luck, Texas, on a corner of his 700-acre Hill Country property for his 1986 cowboy film Red Headed Stranger. Nelson wanted the movie to come out a decade earlier, at the same time as his classic album of the same name, but then Robert Redford, who was supposed to star in it, dropped out and Hollywood lost interest. Nelson, who had dreamed of owning an Old West town since he was a young Roy Rogers fan, pushed forward, despite the fact that he owed the government millions in taxes. He raised money with the help of investor friends. He cast his family and band in the movie, and enlisted University of Texas architecture students to build Luck. The movie originally called for the town to burn down, but Nelson had the ending changed.
“Oh, we never were going to tear it down,” Nelson says in a low, husky twang as he drives a ’94 Chevy through Luck on a clear, blue winter morning, before letting out a heavy cough. “We wanted to get all the movie money we could and then get them out of town!”
Today, Luck is one of the last standing Western film sets in the country, though “standing” may be an overstatement: The planking has fallen off a barn that houses a John Deere tractor, the imitation rock has almost completely peeled off the bank, and the post office has almost collapsed entirely. When the town’s architect returned recently, he thought it needed to be bulldozed.
The ranch and surrounding area are known to locals as Willie World. Nelson also owns Pedernales Cut-N-Putt, a nine-hole course you can see from his house. Next to that is a recording studio, and condos for friends, family and longtime crew members. Poodie’s Hilltop Roadhouse, a burger joint full of old Nelson posters and stage props, opened by his late stage manager Poodie Locke, is down the road on Highway 71; Nelson has been known to drop by for a surprise set. Drive to downtown Austin, and you’ll find the new Willie Nelson statue on Willie Nelson Boulevard.
With his youngest kids, Lukas and Micah, grown up and out of the house, Nelson spends his rare nontouring days driving around, listening to his Sirius XM station, Willie’s Roadhouse, sometimes going off-roading and carving out paths. “I’ve thought I was going to die a few times with him in the truck,” says his daughter Paula. “He’s like a kid, doing the whole cowboys-and-Indians thing. It’s his playground.”
Today, Nelson is wearing a black hoodie, sunglasses and dirty New Balance sneakers, his semibraided hair tumbling out of a black baseball cap that says ZEKE’S SOCIAL CLUB. He steers his Chevy through the property with sharp, jagged turns, occasionally lighting up a burned-out joint in a cup holder. At one point, he stops the truck and singles out a stable: “I have a sick horse in there – we tried to isolate him from the herd a little bit,” he says. “This is just old, rough country. A lot of room to drive around, a lot of privacy. I like Texas.”
We pull up next to a rickety building in the center of town with a sign reading WORLD HEADQUARTERS LUCK, TEXAS. The musty wooden interior is packed with dominoes and poker and pool tables; Nelson frequently hosts Texas Hold ‘Em games with a group of local musicians and businessmen. The walls are covered with novelty signs (OLD MUSICIANS NEVER DIE – THEY JUST DECOMPOSE; FOR A GOOD TIME CALL MATILDA: SHE GIVES DISCOUNTS). There’s a WILLIE NELSON FOR PRESIDENT 2008 sign, posters advertising his famous Fourth of July picnics, which he’s mostly hosted in Texas every year since 1973. Behind the bar are fan paintings and photos of Nelson with old friends – the late moonshiner Popcorn Sutton, Doug Sahm, singer-author Kinky Friedman – and a live shot of Johnny Cash. “He used to call me for jokes in the middle of the night – ‘What’s the latest?'” Nelson says.
He fires up his coffee maker, then reaches into a 1950s-style Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox packed with loose green pot and pulls out a tightly wrapped, torpedoshaped joint. He takes a slow hit, holding it in as he looks at a mounted cow’s skull near the fireplace. Next, he produces a vaporizer pen. “Do you ever smoke these?” he asks. “It’s just pot – no smoke, no heat. You can smoke ’em on the plane!”
Nelson has been arrested at least four times on marijuana offenses. In Waco, Texas, in 1994, police found him asleep in his Mercedes on the side of the road, a joint on him, after a late poker game. In Louisiana in 2006, en route to Texas Gov. Ann Richards’ funeral, Nelson’s bus was pulled over and police seized 1.5 pounds of weed and two ounces of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Four years later, he was driving back from Thanksgiving in California when the border patrol arrested him in Sierra Blanca, Texas. (“He feels great – he said he lost six ounces!” joked his harmonica player Mickey Raphael at the time.) “They mostly want autographs now,” Nelson says of the law. “They don’t really bother me anymore for the weed, because you can bust me now and I’ll pay my fine or go to jail, get out and burn one on the way home. They know they’re not stopping me.
“Weed is good for you,” he says. “Jesus said one time that it’s not what you put in your mouth, it’s what comes out of your mouth. I saw the other day that [medical] weed is legal in Israel – there’s an old-folks home there, and all these old men were walking around with bongs and shit. Fuck! They got it figured out before we did!”
Abruptly, he changes the subject. “Wanna ride around a bit?”