For a soiree that had a lot going on — a quadruple-Nelson headlining rush on the main stage, a tiny chapel venue with big-buzz acts including Nathaniel Rateliff and J.S. Ondara, pop-up shops promoting a range of Willie's Reserve products — this year's Luck Reunion was most memorable for one thing: the Mavis Staples "Stronger" Stage.
The legendary gospel and soul singer's name graced one of the smaller stages on Willie Nelson's property west of Austin that hosts this event every year during South by Southwest. The theme for her stage was all female artists, and the talent was indeed "stronger" from start to finish than anywhere else on site. Willie's annual Fourth of July Picnic has sometimes seemed a bit of a boys' club, but there was none of that in Luck, where the women carried the day.
We arrived just in time for a 1 p.m. set by British country soul upstart Yola, whose new Dan Auerbach-produced album "Walk Through Fire" just came out on Auerbach's Easy Eye Sound label. Backed by a four-piece crew that included former Austin guitarist Anthony da Costa, Yola set the bar high early in the afternoon, her powerful voice immediately drawing early-arrivers toward the Stronger Stage. Within the first 10 minutes of the set, I heard about a half dozen people ask, "Who is this?" The secret won't be kept long.
Two late-afternoon highlights on the same stage were country-folk rising star Courtney Marie Andrews, another singer with a show-stopping voice and songs good enough to earn her an Emerging Artist of the Year nomination at last year's Americana Music Awards; and Mountain Man, a minimalist folk trio whose harmonies were so enchanting that a bubble of hushed reverence seemed to surround the immediate area of the stage during their set.
We'd headed back to Austin by the time Mavis took her namesake stage around sundown, but there's no doubt that was another highlight, with Staples expected to preview some material from a new Ben Harper-produced record due out in June. Others who played the Stronger Stage across the late morning and early afternoon included Haley Heynderickx, Angie McMahon, Sunny War and Brandy Zdan.
Female artists stood out on other stages too, including Bonnie Bishop on the Saloon Stage, Nicole Atkins in the Chapel and main stage opener Katie Pruitt, who won the "Artist on the Rise" contest for that slot. Acts who followed on the main stage included Austin's own Shakey Graves and Matthew Logan Vasquez and Americana veteran Steve Earle, who devoted most of his set to Guy Clark songs from a Clark tribute album he's releasing later this month.
By sundown, though, the main stage was an all-Nelson affair, with daughter Paula (accompanied by Austin guitarist Jesse Dayton) paving the way for youngest son Micah, a.k.a. Particle Kid and the red-hot Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. We were long gone by the time Willie was set to hit the stage just before 11 p.m., as it's a long day's journey into Luck for those of us burning the SXSW candle at both ends. But we have no doubt he left all the late-stayers with smiles on their faces. Given how much women seemed to rule the day, though, we wouldn't be surprised if Sister Bobbie was the star of the night.
There's news on the Willie front, too: A new album, "Ride Me Back Home," is due in June. Recorded at Nelson's Spicewood studio with his longtime producer Buddy Cannon, it includes covers of the old Mac Davis favorite "Hard to Be Humble" and … was that Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are" that we heard?