SXSW Friday: Braving the Weather at Willie Nelson’s Luck Ranch

Photo Credit: David Eduardo

The decision to leave the beautiful city of Austin at noon on Friday, just as SXSW was hitting its stride and the Texas sun was breaking through low-hanging clouds, was easy. Willie Nelson was throwing a party at his hill country ranch in nearby Spicewood, complete with food-truck rodeo, free beer and cocktails and a stellar lineup including Jenny Lewis, Blitzen Trapper, Robert Ellis and Billy Joe Shaver. Additional incentive to attend came in the form of a free downtown school bus shuttle to and from the hoedown. What an amazing host.

Rolling into Luck Ranch, you’re greeted by horses and cacti sharing rugged, arid terrain that suggests a high level of unlivability. If it isn’t a desert yet, it’s checked off quite a few boxes. The bus unloads in front of a makeshift bar offering something sweet mixed with Sailor Jerry spiced rum, for the short walk to will call. 

The party was served on an old spaghetti-western film set with all the expected trimmings—jail, barbershop, leather tanner, saloon. The rustic town was adorned with the best neon signs on Earth, courtesy of artist Todd Sanders from Roadside Relics. There were chandeliers with Edison bulbs hanging from ancient live oaks and comfortable couches everywhere. There was an Airstream trailer converted into a bar giving away fresh-squeezed lemonade and bourbon. Thank you, Barmadillo.

After a cursory review of the artists’ market and about an hour spent dodging the sun and bouncing between stages trying to establish the perfect music-blogger groove, the mood changed dramatically. Luck Reunion volunteers began asking people to evacuate, or at the very least leave the grounds temporarily, because a massive storm system carrying golf-ball sized hail with winds clocking in over 60 mph was headed right for the ranch.

Those who drove sought shelter in their vehicles. Those of us who took the shuttle were reminded that none of the buildings around us were real. The fire marshal arrived and cut off liquor service. Ominous charcoal clouds started to muscle their way from the west. Word spread quickly amongst the stoned yet concerned that the structure housing the Sirius FM and Garden & Gun sponsorship teams was the most structurally sound, so it was quickly commandeered.

For two hours it rained while beers and things were passed and a tall Canadian named Jonathan failed to get a single person on the porch to join him in a “Fuck Donald Trump” chant. (Even at Willie’s, you’re still in Texas.) Unfortunately for the Sirius FM crew broadcasting in the building, we all survived. 

After the storm passed, the main stage was no longer in service, but organizers, artists and volunteers rallied to entertain the handful of folks that endured the elements and stayed. As for the show…

Margo Price didn’t need a soundcheck, and the fluorescent lighting was killing her buzz, but none of it mattered much to this rising country star. She’s a firecracker, and her band is pocket tight. If there was a merch table, I would’ve bought whatever record “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)” is on, immediately.

The best thing I’ll experience in Texas this week is Parker Millsap. I love his brand of acerbic country blues, and he’s as handsome as Leonardo DiCaprio. 

As the night was winding down, Venice, CA-based jam quintet Insects vs Robots took the stage, and I’ll spare you the details, other than this: An 82-year-old icon sat offstage, waiting patiently, enjoying himself genuinely. And when he finally took the stage, he ripped right into “Whiskey River,” and everything was right in the world.