A More Perfect Reunion Willie Nelson's Luck Reunion And Music's Unifying Power
SPICEWOOD, TX- The word “reunion” conjures up the juggernaut of extended family gatherings. “Reunification” has a somewhat different valence — the bringing together of East and West Germany, for instance, or immigration policy that allows family members to rejoin each other.
In either sense of the word, Luck Reunion lives up to its name. The annual gathering takes place on Willie Nelson’s family ranch in Spicewood, Texas, about an hour outside of Austin. Luck Reunion draws together musicians, artisans, and chefs for a day-long celebration of the outlaws and outliers who are constantly remaking the status quo. It’s an intimate affair, with ticket sales capped at 2,000 — a contrast to the ever-expanding SXSW, which takes place contemporaneously.
From the white clapboard houses to the diminutive frontier-outpost church, the clumps of catci and fenced enclosures where horses grazed, the ranch was an ideal setting for a day of exploring Americana music, with all its roots and branches. To say the location is picture-perfect is quite the literal statement — the ranch was used as a movie set for the filming of Red Headed Stranger, a western drama based on Willie Nelson’s album of the same name.
As in previous years, Luck featured a cross-generational lineup on four stages. The World Headquarters Stage hosted, among others, OG outlaw Steve Earle, psychedelic country rockers Marcus King Band, Delta Spirit’s Matthew Logan Vazquez, and Austin’s own folk/rock firecracker, Shakey Graves. The Source Stage featured, for the first time this year, an all-female lineup, including the blues-guitar trained, punk-untamed Sunny War, Melbourne-based Angie McMahon (who got her first taste of major touring in 2013 supporting none other than Bon Jovi), Courtney Marie Andrews (whose gospel-influenced country/soul album was named one of Rolling Stone’s top 25 Americana albums in 2018), and Mountain Man, the trio that includes Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath. The message implicit in that choice given the current climate was a powerful one, and made even more so when R&B/gospel queen Mavis Staples closed out the night in memorable fashion (more on that later).
The Revival Tent was a shaded stage, but the sun would have been no match anyways for the blistering set from Quaker City Nighthawks (hailing from my old hometown of Ft. Worth) and the intense kinetic soul-rock joy that is Philly-based Low Cut Connie (their website subheader reads”A New Boogie for All Mankind”). Other artists on that stage included country-punk Langhorne Slim and the Law, Strand of Oaks (whose new album, Eraserland, is achingly beautiful), and Hayes Carll.
And if the packed audience under the Revival Stage tent did not feel cozy enough, there was the Chapel Stage, for which the line of festival-goers stretched down the main thoroughfare much of the day. The stage featured stripped-down, intimate sets from Nathaniel Rateliff, Nicole Atkins & Jim Sclavunos, Cactus Blossoms, and Lola Kirke, among others. Those who couldn’t fit inside the narrow pews stood outside by the windows, on tiptoe, peering in (did Bill Murray really climb through the chapel window?).
Luck Reunion is structured so that music at the smaller stages wraps up before the night closes out on the World Headquarters stage with a quadruple-dose of Nelson family talent, with Paula Nelson (joined by Jesse Dayton), Particle Kid (Micah Nelson’s trippy, spacey, future-folk project), Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real, and finally, Willie himself.
The day was full of surprise collaborations. Among other notable pairings, Steve Earle jumped up on stage with Logan Ledger, and Mavis Staples invited Nathaniel Rateliff to join her on “What You Gonna Do.” The boundaries between artist and audience was erased — Langhorne Slim criss-crossed the Revival Tent floor; Nicole Atkins and Jim Sclavunos took the Chapel to a whole new level of communal worship; and Low Cut Connie’s Adam Weiner treated the photo pit railing as a balance beam rather than a barricade, with no shortage of fans offering up a steadying hand.
The joy of discovery extended beyond the musical experience, and to me, that was the singular magic of Luck Reunion. The pit and the artists’ area were a homecoming unto themselves, where ephemeral interactions of social media gave way to real-life hugs, and real names and faces took the place of ‘gram handles. For those of us who document live music, there’s a transcendent kind of moment when you pause for a few breaths from shooting to soak in the moment, and in so doing, lock eyes with another photographer down the photo pit who is doing the exact same thing, prompting your faces to split into matching grins.
I was worried my energy would flag during the day — because of flight delays and hotel mixups, I’d gotten just two hours of sleep the night before. But every interaction was a dose of joy and adrenaline. A dad pushed his kids on a swing, the older boy wearing a tee that listed the essentials of life: “late nights, loud music, backstage passes.” During a crowded chapel set, as festival goers stood on tiptoe to look through the windows of the overflowing room, a little kid stuck his head out and brandished a frisbee — a giveaway from Aviation Gin, though this little pilot was at least 18 years away from drinking age. He gazed at me with round eyes, as if inviting me to play. Maybe later, I whispered, winking at him and smiling at his mom.
Older fans camped out on the porch of the VIP lounge reliving concert memories, people queued up for a chance to play cornhole at the Mountain Valley Spring Water stand (they ensured we stayed well hydrated, while Chameleon Coffee and Guayaki Yerba Mate kept us at optimum caffeination — all the drinks at Luck Reunion are free, including the adult beverages). A pineapple grilling contraption rotated lazily in the sun, the charred oak smoker made with used Knob Creek barrels. And no ranch experience would be complete without the sartorial accessories — in the artisans’ tent, a woman hand-painted designs on denim jackets while a young man wielded tools to make equestrian-inspired jewelry. I witnessed folks discussing with great seriousness the differences between the western hats on sale and, of course, perusing the traditional medicinal offerings of Willie’s dispensary (in case you were in any doubt, a neon sign outside read: “Weed”).
Luck Reunion’s attention to detail in the festival-going experience is second to none. Scattered throughout the festival grounds were little memorials to musicians no longer with us — flowers and candles surrounding photos of Amy Winehouse and Aretha Franklin, among others. Colorful couches provided a place to lounge while stylists braided hair, and music lovers, young and old, finger-picked tunes on acoustic guitars laid out for communal use. (Backstage, Gibson set out a panoply of guitars and vintage amps in the artists’ lounge.) A hand-painted guitar signed by Willie Nelson was offered up as the ultimate prize for people who stopped to donate to Farm Aid.
In reviewing my scribbled notes and video clips from this day, I thought about the place of music in turbulent times. Bookended between a plane crash that killed UN staffers and a terrorist attack on two New Zealand mosques, it’s hard not to think of time spent doing this — traveling to shows, taking photos, editing photos, putting together write-ups — as an idle luxury. But that interpretation ignores what has always been essential about music, and what it gives us beyond the power of the spoken word.
Perhaps the moment that best encapsulated this was when Mavis Staples brought nearly every woman performer at Luck onto stage to sing “The Weight.” There were several generations on that stage, different backstories — but a unified radiance and shared harmonies. Brandy Zdan grinned ear to ear. Yola pressed her hand to her heart, a salute, a pledge of allegiance to this community. Nicole Atkins’ expression was sunnier than her beautiful yellow dress as she glanced stage left at Mavis. (I’d seen her earlier during the set, standing behind the stage, filming it with her iPhone — there may have been some 2000 of us, but I think in that moment, it probably just felt like her and Mavis.) Mountain Man’s Molly Sarle embraced Mavis at the end, her eyes bright with unshed tears.
It’s hard to overstate the symbolic import of this moment — an icon like Mavis sharing her light, passing on the torch to the next generation of fearless women artists. I reached into my bag for a lens wipe only to realize that it wasn’t the lens — it was me, blinking back this unexpected wave of emotion. As we left the pit, I turned to a Boston-based photographer friend. “That was so beautiful I almost cried,” I said. “Oh I totally teared up,” he replied without hesitation.
We document these moments as though we could crack open the pixels and crawl back into that feeling. We sing songs not just for now, but to reach some ear in the future. We go to shows to be simultaneously alone and together, cracked and repaired, lost and found.
In that way, I think of the music we love, made and experienced live, as something akin to kintsugi, the Japanese method of repairing broken ceramics by using a special laquer mixed with gold or silver. It highlights, rather than hides, the places that are cracked. By pointing out these cracks, and still being a whole world unto itself, the live music experience reminds us that being human is hard, yes, but that we’re not beautiful in spite of the imperfections, the regrets and mistakes. Rather, we’re beautiful because of what happens when we come together to repair those faults and fissures.
Wherever you hail from, whatever winding path brought you to the grassy field packed with music lovers, staring glassy-eyed, enraptured, singing along — this was a reunion for all of us — a family for the night. That feeling of communion is one we’d be fortunate to hold onto as we left the ranch, car headlights like fireflies dancing down the road, guiding each other home.
LINKS TO TO ALL OF THE ARTISTS WE WERE ABLE TO CATCH AT LUCK REUNION ARE COMING REAL SOON, SO BOOKMARK THIS PAGE STAY TUNED!