“Make way for Mabel, y’all! We gotta get her up to see WILLIE!”
Mabel — tiny, delicate, and snowy-haired though she may be — was going to see Willie Nelson live and in the flesh if her life depended on it, and she had enlisted the help of two taller and burlier guys to plow into the flannel-clad shoulders of the crowd in the Revival Tent at Nelson’s Luck Reunion to do it. One of her pals lead the charge, distributing plastic cups to the people he was trying to squeeze past. Mabel was right behind him, also handing cups to every person she bumped into, and another gentleman brought up the rear with a handle of Jim Beam, spilling and filling the the cups as the onlookers toasted, amused and confused. Mabel’s daughter followed a few minutes later, and with a bewildered “Wait — that’s my MOM!” she chucked her own drink and took off in the direction of her determined mama. By the end of the next song, a cover of Ed Bruce’s “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” the guys had worked their way from the front to the back of the tent with no Jim Beam and no Mabel. Mission accomplished — and this went down before Jenny Lewis hopped onstage in a suit embroidered with rainbow pot leaves to sing back-up for the country outlaw.
A few circumstances contributed to both the beyond-packed quality of the Revival Tent and the intensity of Mabel’s mission. Nelson had opened up his Luck, Texas, ranch for the Luck Reunion, a day-long mini–music festival boasting a veritable lineup of a country and folk-rock ilk featuring Jenny Lewis, Lucius, Blitzen Trapper, Robert Ellis, and more on March 18. Luck sprawls across rolling hills rife with gnarled trees and rattlesnakes; it looks more like a tiny town ripped from the frames of a Western picture than a ranch for rescue horses, as its various buildings (a chapel, a barn, a tiny post office, etc.) were constructed for the set of Red Headed Stranger, the 1986 film starring the long-braided owner of the property. Situated 35 miles outside of Austin, Luck is a lengthy detour from the downtown stretch of SXSW, and 6th Street serves as the festival’s starting line. The trek is an effort for fans who otherwise would have spent the hour and a half watching bands instead of watching miles of Texan highway roll by, and they easily could’ve caught the majority of the Luck Reunion lineup on various stages scattered across the city throughout the week. (Margo Price, for example, played the parking lot of Waterloo Records hours before she played the Luck Reunion.) But this was Willie Nelson’s ranch, and he was scheduled to perform a headlining set of his own to close out the festivities. That was reason enough to board a shuttle bus in downtown Austin and head out into the Texan brush for a brief respite from South By madness, even if the sky had turned steely and promised an inevitable downpour.
That’s exactly what happened about halfway through the Reunion, when the rain fell in sheets and attendees were encouraged to wait out the storm in their cars or give up altogether and split. Several opted for the latter, assuming that the surly clouds would lay heavy and brooding over Luck, thus spoiling Nelson’s set, not to mention the remaining four hours of performances leading up to his big event. Those who chose to stay took shelter in the Revival Tent, standing in groups or sitting cross-legged beneath the strings of lights that hung waiting from the tent poles. About an hour into the storm, one of the Luck Reunion volunteers came out with good and bad news: They still had no idea when they’d be able to turn the power back on to juice up the amps and commence with the revelry, but in the meantime, Lissie, the singer-songwriter whose set had been rained out just an hour prior, was ready with an acoustic guitar and a bottle of wine, should anyone care to listen. The crowd cheered, Lissie walked onstage in the dark, and proceeded to perform a stunning eight songs, formidable thunderclaps serving as her rhythm section and lightning briefly illuminating her face as her voice soared higher and higher. She shared tracks from My Wild West, her recently released full-length, with “Hero” and “Ojai” sketching out all of the tumbleweeds, desert landscapes, and endless melancholy the title implies. The tent burst with cries of “THANK YOU!” and “YOU’RE A BADASS!” every time Lissie paused, and those cheers swelled into roars when the lights flickered on and the Luck Reunion scrambled to right its course.
What ensued was a series of happy accidents, a sequence of events that could’ve only gone down in a place called Luck. As the grounds were waterlogged, the only available venues for the rest of the evening were the chapel, which sat a paltry 49 people in its adorable confines, and the Revival Tent. The main stage was effectively closed up for the night, thus forcing all of the talent who had been scheduled to play it onto the smaller stages. Within minutes of Lissie packing up her acoustic guitar in the Revival Tent, the chapel next door was brimming with eager listeners, as Jenny Lewis — the day’s headliner after its host — had also been rained out, and thus took to the tiny clapboard room full of ramshackle pews for a treat of an acoustic set. Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe of Lucius sang back-up for Lewis on “Voyager” and other tracks from her 2014 record of the same name, 2008’s Acid Tongue, and a “new-ish” song without a name. Lucius popped in for their own acoustic mini-set, reaching the chapels rafters with “Dusty Trails” off their just-released Good Grief and “Two Of Us On the Run,” a track from 2013’s Wildewoman they typically perform in the middle of the crowd.
The tide in the Revival Tent turned raucous with an abbreviated set from Margo Price, Third Man Record’s latest boast of a spitfire singer; that energy was sustained with the boisterous charm of Parker Millsap before the emotional heart-punch thrown by John Moreland leveled the crowd, who had begun to press in, standing on hay bales while hoping to take shelter from the tent should the skies split again. Murmurs of Nelson’s arrival had started to circulate by the time Insects vs. Robots — which features Nelson’s son, Micah, on lead vocals and guitar — had taken the stage. Micah then moved back to the drum kit and relinquished the mic, as his pops, with the strap of Trigger, his trusty, beaten guitar, slung over his shoulder, sauntered into his headlining slot.
Nelson sang the outlaw country staples (“Cowboys,” “Good Hearted Woman,” which he co-wrote with Waylon Jennings, and a cover of Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya [On the Bayou]”), his newer cuts (“Beer For My Horses,” his collaboration with Toby Keith, and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”) and sing-along standards, closing with “Let the Circle Be Unbroken” and his own “I’ll Fly Away.” At some point, Lewis hopped onstage in time for the grand finale, and the whole tent was one massive, bouncing, boot-stompin’ jam gleefully belting along with Nelson. The storm may have ravaged the Luck Reunion’s schedule, but it hardly dampened the spirits of the talent involved and the fans who’d hauled out to the ranch to see them, major delays and logistical curve balls aside.
When a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see an American icon on his literal home turf sing selections from his storied career presents itself, patience is a virtue that pays off in spades. Those who waited for the clouds to dissipate, the winds to die down, and the rain to cease reaped the rewards of an excellent set from Nelson, along with those oh-so-special, improvisational performances from Lewis, Lucius, and the rest of the lineup who scrambled to give the people what they want. (And extra points to Mabel, who came prepared with a plan and enough liquid courage to pull it off.) What seemed like a definitively ill-fated stretch of bad weather turned into an appropriately fortunate happenstance, and it was the kind of mercurial magic that did right by Luck, Texas.