Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion Makes a Triumphant Return [RECAP]
The world was a much different place the last time crowds descended upon Willie Nelson's ranch in the Texas Hill Country for a full day of live music. Back before the term "coronavirus" was in most of our vocabularies, a few thousand fans enjoyed sets from Yola, The Cactus Blossoms, Steve Earle and Shakey Graves at Luck Reunion 2019. The annual festival was scheduled to return in 2020, but the sudden emergence of COVID-19 forced the event to cancel just a week before it was scheduled to be held. The festival was again scrapped in 2021 due to health concerns as the U.S. continued to navigate a new wave of the pandemic. On March 17, 2022, fans who patiently waited for the event to return were able to head back to Nelson's sprawling property for Luck Reunion's tenth anniversary.
Although the event was a celebratory occasion, it was also one of mourning. Nelson's sister and longtime creative accomplice, Bobbie Nelson, died on March 10 at the age of 91. If you've seen Willie perform live, you've probably seen Bobbie with him on stage, clad in her trademark hat, accompanying him on piano and backing vocals. Though she wasn't there physically, Bobbie was represented and honored in areas all around the festival grounds.
The structures that make up the Luck Reunion festival area were originally built as the backdrop for Red Headed Stranger, the 1986 film starring Willie Nelson that was based around his influential album of the same name. Those sets have been preserved, renovated and expanded over the years to make visitors feel as though they are walking into an old west town. One of the most iconic landmarks on the property is the chapel, which serves as an intimate music venue during Luck Reunion. An alter in rememberance of Bobbie Nelson was assembled near the chapel's entrance, allowing visitors to stop and pay their respects.
Although there were moments for pause, Luck Reunion 2022 also brought plenty of joyful times, too. Luck Reunion consistently provides an eclectic mix of rising artists and established talent from a range of genres.
Among the standout performances was the Revival Tent set from Allison Russell, whose powerful, joyous set brought tears to the eyes of many festivalgoers. Experimental pop breakout Japanese Breakfast stood out among the Americana-leaning lineup, providing an engaging and refreshing change of pace. Along with her groovy original cuts like "Be Sweet," she charmed the crowd with a cover of Dolly Parton's "Here You Come Again," which has been a staple of her recent live shows.
The ranch's tiny chapel was swarmed with festivalgoers for Adia Victoria's set, attracting a four-person deep crowd around the building's windows as fans listened to a mix of older tracks like "Head Rot" with cuts from her critically acclaimed 2021 record A Southern Gothic, including "Whole World Knows." Nashville singer-songwriters Kirby Brown and Aaron Raitiere swapped songs during a mellow outdoor acoustic set, showcasing tracks from Brown's recent album Break Into Blossom and Raitiere's upcoming LP Single Wide Dreamer, which was co-produced by Miranda Lambert and Anderson East.
The mid-day crowd was treated to a cosmic country set from the modern incarnation of the Lost Gonzo Band, featuring a guest appearance by Michael Martin Murphey. S.G. Goodman, talented singer-songwriter and one of The Boot's 2021 Artist to Watch, supplied a cool, rock-edged performance of tracks from her acclaimed debut solo album Old Time Feeling. Soulful New Zealand-based breakout Tami Neilson's early set brought plenty of energy and charm, including tracks from her 2020 LP Chickaboom! and a surprise, crowd-pleasing duet with Willie himself.
Other noteworthy sets from the day included a high-charged performance from rising alt-country band 49 Winchester and the warm, traditional Texas country sounds of Charley Crockett, who gave the perfect soundtrack to a golden sunset as it fell on the ranch.
This year's festivities included a surprise lineup addition scheduled to perform at the main stage right before Nelson's closing performance. That unannounced artist was Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, who were also scheduled to play a special one-off show at the ranch the following day. They performed an abbreviated but powerful set that included "What've I Done to Help," "Honeysuckle Blue" led by Sadler Vaden on vocals, "Dreamsicle" and "Cover Me Up."
The night came to a close with a headlining set from Willie and his sons, Lukas and Micah. The trio kicked off their set with Nelson's live staple "Whiskey River," although Willie's vocals were hard to hear for most of the song. It didn't take long for the technical difficulties to be worked out and for Willie to get into his usual groove on stage. His band, which included harmonica legend Mickey Raphael, Kevin Smith and Billy English, helped to keep the performance rolling with style.
Still, Bobbie Nelson's absence was impossible to ignore. Her grand piano stayed on stage the entire day, draped with a tarp. A mic stand stood on stage with her signature hat sitting atop it. The backdrop of the stage featured a projection that read "In Loving Memory of Bobbie Nelson, 1931-2022."
Even through the sadness, it was clear that Willie was soaking up the time he spent on stage alongside his family members. He accompanied his sons as they performed some of their own original songs, including Lukas' "Forget About Georgia," and Micah's "Everything is Bulls---." Festivalgoers got to enjoy some of Nelson's trademark tunes as well, including "You Were Always on My Mind," "Crazy" and "On The Road Again."
It's easy to forget that Nelson will be turning 89 in April, and that performing on stage for any amount of time is a feat many artists wouldn't dare to attempt. Those who were lucky enough to be in attendance at Luck Reunion 2022 got to see the talents and true strength of the Nelson family on full display. Whether its the difficulties that come with aging, unpredictable weather, global pandemics or great personal loss, there's not much that will keep Willie Nelson from doing what he loves. That endless perserverance is a gift that should make country fans -- who are still able to enjoy Nelson's talents and music after all these years -- feel especially lucky.
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