Willie Nelson Is At Home in Luck (a Reunion Recap)

photo: Brad Coolidge

(See photo gallery from Luck below)

Some may remember that it was right before the annual SXSW gathering in Austin in March of 2020 when the world first began shutting down due to COVID-19. SXSW and Willie Nelson’s annual Luck Reunion at his little Western town in the Texas Hill Country were some of the first casualties. It seemed wild at the time we would shut down such a massive, international event. Little did we know that was just the very beginning.

Two years later, lucky patrons were able to congregate again on St. Patrick’s Day (3-17), even though the universe of music around Willie Nelson has lost some key members, including Willie Nelson’s sister Bobbie, who passed away on March 10th. But Willie Nelson is still around, even if these days he’s sitting on a stool instead of standing at center stage, and is flanked by his two youngest sons Lukas and Micah, who spell pops when needed, while picking and harmonizing too.

To be completely honest, Willie Nelson’s set did not start off well at all. When he started into his evergreen set opener of “Whiskey River,” you could barely hear his voice, and he seemed immediately winded. His guitar playing was little more than swatting at the strings, hoping to hit them in the right rhythm, and in the right places. As Willie transitioned into “Still Is Still Moving,” it didn’t get any better. It appeared like it could be a long night for the 88-year-old who turns 89 next month, or a very short one.

But after Micah Nelson and Lukas Nelson sang a bit—including Lukas singing his song “Just Outside of Austin” that was written about Luck, Willie found his footing, and his breath. Singing “Crazy,” and picking out the melody, you could tell Willie just needed to get warmed up. After Lukas Nelson performed “Forget About Georgia,” Willie answered with an rousing rendition of “Georgia On My Mind,” followed by Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia on a Fast Train,” and any worries about Willie were soon put to rest.

By the time Willie lit into “On The Road Again,” he was in top form and didn’t want to stop. He ended up going beyond the time originally allotted for his set, of course finishing with a Gospel medley where numerous other performers from earlier in the day joined Willie on stage. Yes, Willie is showing his age. But he’s also showing a continued resiliency that has kept his career and output going well beyond what any of us ever imagined. He’s also someone who is still essential to see while you still can.

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Encompassing five stages across the grounds—including limited-capacity venues like the little chapel that sits on the property (cap. 49)—there’s no way to see every artist the Luck Reunion offers annually. Not exclusively a country or even an Americana event, the 2022 Luck Reunion saw an even greater shift towards the indie rock realm, perhaps facilitated by the lack of big names from country and Americana in town for SXSW in general.

Some of the indie rock bands like Delta Spirit and Bendigo Fletcher do have ties back to the Americana world and made more sense on the lineup. Memphis-based Lucero closed out the evening on the fest’s 2nd biggest “Revival” stage, and though not really country at all these days, frontman Ben Nichols might be one of the most influential songwriters in Americana over the last 25 years. But Japanese Breakfast was a bit of a head scratcher, though singer Michelle Zauner’s denim outfit (see below) did fit the Luck “mood,” and they did play a pretty damn good version of Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again.”

There was also ample country and roots music to partake in, and ample amounts of soul as well. One of the early names that impressed many was Danielle Ponder, who played early on the Revival Stage. With a howitzer for a voice, the Rochester, NY powerhouse definitely brought revival to those who showed up early enough to see it.

Canadian-born, and New Zealand-based country soul queen Tami Neilson traveled halfway across the globe to take advantage of the Luck Reunion slot she was first offered in 2020 before the COVID shutdown, and was responsible for arguably the most memorable moment of the whole event. At the end of her set early in the day, none other than Willie Nelson himself made an unannounced appearance, coming out to sing a duet with Tami that may be on a future album. Singing one on one with Willie is a White Whale moment for any artist, and was a career achievement for Tami Neilson. Tears were shed, and souls were saved.

Though many of Willie Nelson’s old friends from Texas such as Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver, and others had passed on since that last Luck Reunion, one artist who is still very much around is Michael Martin Murphey. Though many regard Murphy distinctly as the “Wildfire” guy, he was one of the very founders of the music scene in Austin along with Jerry Jeff Walker and Roky Erickson, both who’ve passed recently. Along with the Lost Gonzo Band, they put Austin music on the map.

The story goes that Michael Martin Murphy hired the Lost Gonzo Band with Bob Livingston, Gary P. Nunn and the rest to back him, only to have Jerry Jeff Walker steal the band from him. Well at the Luck Reunion 2022, Michael Martin Murphy stole them back, coming out to sing some of his bigger hits like “Geronimo’s Cadillac” and “Wildfire” backed by the legendary Texas band.

One point of frustration at the Luck Reunion from the beginning has been how hard it is to find a seat in the tiny chapel for what end up being some of the most important sets of the fest. 49 Winchester is one of the fastest-rising bands in country roots, and put on a rousing set on the tiny stage, but even camping out early to see them, many were resigned to standing outside, and only being able to experience it vicariously through the lucky souls roaring their approval after each song. A similar fate fell to Texas songwriter Vincent Neil Emerson.

But many people got to see Charley Crockett take the main stage in the fading sunlight. He turned in one of the best sets of the festival—the first time the native Texan and reigning Saving Country Music Artist of the Year has appeared in Luck.

Every year there is always a “surprise” guest, and though some surmised Dolly Parton may show up (she was in town for SXSW), few were disappointed when Americana mainstay Jason Isbell and his band The 400 Unit took the stage. They were also scheduled to play a standalone show at Luck the next day, so the booking made sense.

The expanded, five-stage lineup always allows for a little discovery as well, especially on the Martindale Song Stage in Luck’s beer garden. This is where Lily Meola from Maui put on a great set, including a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” that had everyone singing along. At one point she was joined on stage by Lukas Nelson, who spends much of his time in Hawaii as well. Austin-based honky tonker Jonathan Terrell also put on one of the most country sets of the fest, turning in thundering renditions of “Damn Strait” (Mike and the Moonpies version) and the Waylon version of “Ain’t Living Long Like This” (written by Rodney Crowell).

The Luck Reunion continues to create little choke points that recuse it from being perfect. It’s almost impossible for the wide public to secure tickets due to the limited capacity, and due to the amount of industry who get first preference. It’s also frustrating for the bands and artists that play the Chapel, but can only be seen by so few people. Perhaps a monitor and PA setup with a feed to those outside could help expand that experience to those standing outside. And since the entrance/exit to the property is one way (still), access is a nightmare, and one begging to be solved, especially if Luck continues to have more and more events there.

But the Luck Reunion remains one of the most important events that happens each year, where artists are discovered, while others are cemented into their current prominence. And of course these days, nobody should ever pass up the opportunity to see Willie.

Photos below by Brad Coolidge (marked), and Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos.

Remembering Bobbie Nelson (photo: Brad Coolidge)
Tami Neilson (photo: Brad Coolidge)
Tami Neilson with Willie
Jay Neilson
Danielle Ponder
S.G. Goodman
Gary P. Nunn (photo: Brad Coolidge)
Michael Martin Murphy (photo: Brad Coolidge)
Lost Gonzo Band / Bob Livingston
Lukas Nelson
David Beck’s Tejano Weekend
The Delta Spirit (and a Croc for a slide) (photo: Brad Coolidge)
Allison Russell
Jonathan Terrell
Charley Crockett (photo: Brad Coolidge)
Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner
Ben Nichols of Lucero
The Texas Moon over Willie Nelson’s World Headquarters (photo: Brad Coolidge)
Jason Isbell (photo: Brad Coolidge)
Sadler Vaden of the 400 Unit with the Guitar Chop
Lily Meola, Tami Neilson, Jay Neilson, Charley Crockett, Jason Isbell & More join Willie Nelson in Gospel Revelry (photo: Brad Coolidge)
(photo: Brad Coolidge)
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