Lilly Hiatt had just led her quartet through a rocked-up set at the seventh annual Luck Reunion, the eclectic festival held at Willie Nelson's Luck Ranch outside of Austin, when she paused to take in her surroundings. She was on the Chapel Stage, a tiny and cozily crowded church with an overflow crowd outside pressed against the windows.
"What a cool thing," Hiatt marveled, nodding at the scene. "We're at Willie’s ranch – Shit!"
Truly, Nelson's world has become one of the coolest hangouts during South by Southwest, the annual mega-festival that draws six-figure mobs to Austin every March. About 3,000 in-the-know attendees make this pilgrimage to Nelson's country spread about 45 minutes from town, to get a slice of the "old" Austin that fell to bulldozers and skyscrapers years ago.
Luck Reunion, produced by Ellee Fletcher, Matt Bizer, Scott Marsh and Nelson's wife Annie, happens on what was originally a movie set, a small town's worth of houses, barns and saloons constructed for the 1986 film version of Nelson's classic mid-Seventies concept album Red Headed Stranger. And with some three-dozen acts playing on four stages over the course of 12 hours, it was impossible not to feel like you were missing something every single moment.
Nelson himself was the main headliner, of course, and he was also tangentially present during the Americana-as-big-tent undercard, which featured plenty of his family and friends. Rising guitar god Lukas Nelson, Willie's 29-year-old son, led his band the Promise of the Real through a set of powerful six-string excursions that evoked the feeling of distant galaxies exploding. And he was preceded by younger brother Micah "Particle Kid" Nelson crooning "Everything Is Bullshit." Meanwhile, Hiss Golden Messenger was playing a quietly lovely acoustic set on a smaller stage just far enough away to not be drowned out.
Bucolic splendor was the order of the day, courtesy of the ruggedly beautiful Texas Hill Country. At the same time Hiatt was playing the Chapel Stage, an acoustic song swap was in progress over at the nearby Revival Tent Stage with Kevn Kinney, Caleb Caudle, Sam Lewis and Courtney Marie Andrews. An inquisitive horse wandered over from a nearby pasture to nose through the fence behind the stage as longtime Drivin' N Cryin' frontman Kinny sang about the "Sun-Tangled Angel Revival."
Other highlights included Margo Price's set in the Chapel, complete with a solo piano reading of her "All American Made"; Nashville's Devon Gilfillian, an old-school soul man with the perfect knack for salting each sweet song with just the right amount of guitar grit; the superhumanly multi-talented Aaron Lee Tasjan, who closed his set with a great guitar duel with cameo guest Kinny; and the high-volume atmospherics of Liz Cooper & the Stampede.
Then there were Texas Gentlemen, the Lone Star State's very own Wrecking Crew and session band for countless Americana-leaning albums. Their "Gents & Dames" program brought up some of the distaff singers they've backed up recently, including Nicole Atkins, Australian singer-songwriter Ruby Boots and Heartless Bastards leader Erika Wennerstrom, for a pointed version of the late great Warren Zevon's "Lawyers, Guns and Money."
Of course, you don't build a lasting empire like Nelson's without tending to the details. A highlight of this year's Luck Reunion was an on-the-bus listening party for Nelson's upcoming album Last Man Standing – which is terrific, equal parts heartfelt and funny, and often both at the same time. But the kicker was that Nelson's organization also used that listening party to unveil the new strain of Willie's Reserve brand marijuana, with a representative passing samples around the bus.
Like the album, it's also called "Last Man Standing."