A Chilly Luck Reunion Delivered a Line-up of Legends, Locals, and Luminaries
By S. Pulse
One of the most extraordinary live music experiences in the country, the Luck Reunion, is held each spring in the hills just outside of Austin. Coinciding with the SXSW fest, the Reunion provides fans a relaxing and personal event for sampling some of the best artists in the industry. Ticket sales are limited to a couple thousand attendees, the list of artists includes a carefully curated genre-crossing mix, and the show is set in the literal backyard of Willie Nelson’s ranch home. Artists play stages strewn across an old-time wild west village that was originally constructed for Willie’s film “Red Headed Stranger”. This year, stages included the Main HQ Stage, the Revival Tent, the indoor Saloon Stage, the small church venue known as The Chapel, and the newly added Barn Tent. Mostly outside, the venue can be susceptible to weather, but usually the small town setting “lucks out”. Not this year. Severe thunderstorms postponed the Reunion show by a day, however, there were very few cancellations by musicians; a testament to how much artists adore participating in this unusual “anti-fest”.
Each year’s Reunion develops its own unique personality. This year’s festival will be remembered for its celebration of Outlaw Music legends, a remarkable tribute to Leon Russell, and an unprecedented number of Austin musicians on the roster. Emerging artists, from various genres, are always a part of the Luck tradition and this year definitely checked that box by delivering a hearty tasting of the hottest new acts in the industry.
A Grand Exhibition of OG Outlaws
If you are an aficionado of Outlaw Music, then we hope you were at Luck as this year’s line up delivered a bonanza of notable legends. Terry Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band ignited the afternoon crowd at the mainstage with “Amarillo Highway”. Shawn Sahm, son of celebrated Tex-Mex musician Doug Sahm, performed with his late father’s band The Texas Tornados and turned the Revival Tent into a dance hall. Crowds packed the Barn Tent to see Michael Martin Murphey sing “Wildfire”, as well as other hits. In the Chapel, Willis Alan Ramsey performed a rare and magical set that included the “Ballad of Spider John”. The renowned Jimmie Dale Gilmore and his band the West Texas Exiles closed out the night at the Revival Tent with Jimmie Dale’s honey-dripped voice asking “Have you ever seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night?”.
Of course, each of these legendary artists were here at the request of the evening’s ultimate Outlaw headliner and host Willie Nelson who performed with family members and friends including Ray Benson, son Micah (aka Particle Kid), Billie English, and Kevin Smith. Nelson performed a slew of his most loved hits but it was his 2022 song “I Will Love You Till The Day I Die”, that was one of our favorites. The song was co-written by Rodney Crowell and Chris Stapleton.
About to celebrate his 90th birthday with a fete at the Hollywood Bowl in April, Willie proved that he’s still an ardent performer with strong vocals and an unwavering ability to jam on his old guitar, Trigger. Fresh off his Grammy win for Best Country Album (A Beautiful Time), Willie remains a fresh and innovative force that other artists idealize. As is tradition, Willie invited various performers to join him on stage for a sing-along finale. Artists Margo Price, Sierra Ferrell, Nicky Diamonds, Nikki Morgan, Aaron Vance, Sug Daniels, Tami Neilson, Jay Neilson, and Grace Bowers were happy to oblige and delivered a lively version of “I’ll Fly Away”.
More on the set by the amazing Willis Alan Ramsey. His one and only self-titled album was recorded in 1972 and is considered by many notable musicians, including Lyle Lovett and Kurt Vile, to be the most influential singer-songwriter album of all time. Ramsey’s hard-core devotees gladly lined up in the cold for their chance to see the often-reclusive Ramsey perform an acoustic set inside the tiny old church that houses the Chapel Stage. Margo Price could be seen crouching atop the backstage steps with tears in her eyes as she peered around the corner to see Ramsey play. Ramsey’s set included his hits “Geraldine and The Honeybee”, “Mockingbird Blues”, and “Boy from Oklahoma”. While singing “Northeast Texas Woman”, a tune that includes a rapid-fire list of towns, Ramsey briefly stumbled on lyrics, but his fans came to his aid by singing along and he quickly resumed his vocals. Every one of the fortunate folks in attendance knew they had witnessed one of the most memorable sets of their lifetime.
While the late Leon Russell may not be considered an Outlaw, he was considered a legend and a part of Willie’s tribe. The addition of Russell to the first ever Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic served to broaden the line-up’s appeal to more traditional rock fans. Therefore, it was only apt, that Luck Reunion hosted a tribute to Russell, and it turned out to be one of the most talked about sets of the night. Organized by Robert Ellis and Beau Bedford, the set included performances by a host of musicians including Margo Price, Sir Woman, Sierra Ferrell, and Taylor Hanson. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the homage was Ferrell’s lead vocals on the Russell song that Joe Cocker made famous, “With a Little Help from My Friends”; a fitting song given the collaborative nature of the tribute.
Top-Notch Talent & Emerging Artists are Featured at Luck
Margo Price, who was not listed on the Luck roster, appeared as the anticipated “secret guest” with Band of Heathens; a perfect blend of two acts experiencing well-earned success. Price’s a cappella version of “Mercedes Benz” made us feel as if Janis Joplin was present. Rising star Sierra Ferrell’s solo set stunned the crowd when she sang a beautiful cover of Willie and Ray Charles’ duet hit “Seven Spanish Angels”. The duo War and Treaty closed out the evening at the Barn Stage with their soul-stirring vocals in a set that many attendees called out as a highlight performance. Another group led by strong vocals, Shane Smith and the Saints, delivered a buzz-worthy set at a tightly packed set at the Saloon Stage.
As an emerging artist, being selected to perform at Luck is confirmation that your star is on the rise, and this year the curators of the line-up nailed it. Katie Pruitt, with the voice of an angel, delivered her heartfelt lyrics to a mesmerized crowd at the Chapel. Singer-songwriter Bella White won over the crowd instantly by opening with Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” in the Saloon. Several emerging acts, including Devon Gilfillian, Thee Sacred Souls, and The Heavy Heavy, attracted fans who revelled in each of the artists’ unique interpretation of 70s throwback sounds; perhaps signaling a coming resurgence of feel-good soul. Dallas Burrow, a champion of singer-songwriters, introduced the Luck audience to his sturdy baritone voice backed by rhythm-driven swampy blues. Hailing from Oklahoma, Jason Scott and High Heat, served up a healthy portion of their groove-infused Southern-rock. Singer-songwriter and member of the Panhandlers, John Baumann, lit up the crowd at the BMI songwriter showcase with his new solo-project anthem “South Texas Tradition”. Baumann traded-off songs with label-mate Poet Hawkins who serenaded the crowd with his soothing sounds as the early afternoon sun broke through the clouds.
Compared to previous years, this year’s roster of musicians contained more Austin-based artists. Indie rock deities Spoon, lead by Austin-based Britt Daniel played a set on the main stage that included songs from across Spoon’s broad catalogue, as well as a beautiful cover of John Lennon’s “Isolation”. Local favorite Bob Schneider delivered a rousing performance at the Barn Tent. Kelsey Wilson performed with both of her bands, Sir Woman and Wild Child, at the Revival Tent. Guitarist Charlie Sexton, a true musician’s musician, lent his talents to the Main Stage for several sets. Other artists on the bill with Austin connections included Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Shane Smith & The Saints, Band of Heathens, Willis Alan Ramsey, Night Cap, and Rattlesnake Milk.
Luck Attracts the Kindest Crowd
It can be a difficult task to secure one of the exclusive tickets to the Luck Reunion. Perhaps that’s why attendees tend to be a grateful crew of folks that will gladly trade places with strangers so they can get a better view, lend you a blanket to warm up, or even fetch you a drink.
Logistics Tweaks Needed, but Luck Still Delivers
There is room for improvement on the remote parking lot and shuttle service. The mini buses were too small, resulting in long lines and when dropped off, fans still had to walk a fair distance from the road to the event.
Despite these hitches in Luck’s giddy-up, the Reunion continues to be one of the most exclusive and well-curated musical events in the country. Attendees receive generous swag, free top-shelf drinks, and up-close access to top musical talent. It truly is an unparalleled experience and we look forward to 2024’s Reunion.
Check out all our Luck photos and past coverage on Austin 101 Magazine.