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More than the Reunion: Willie Nelson's Luck TX becoming music hot spot near Austin

Magic things happen in Luck, Texas.

"How the hell am I supposed to do anything after that?" gushed Tami Neilson, a New Zealand singer-songwriter who'd just sung a song onstage with Willie Nelson during the annual Luck Reunion last month at Nelson's ranch in Spicewood. Within weeks, that song, "Beyond the Stars," was released as Neilson's new single, complete with a video she filmed during the festival that captured her special moment onstage with Willie. She was in Luck, indeed.

2022 marked the Reunion's 10th anniversary, and its creators wanted to celebrate the occasion by expanding activities at the ranch beyond just that once-a-year showcase. And so we now have Luck Presents, a fledgling concert promotion company run by a handful of music industry mavericks with direct ties to the Nelson family and a vision to create a musical oasis that's "Just Outside of Austin" — as Willie's son Lukas Nelson described Luck in a song bearing that title.

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Such destinations in Central Texas are not uncommon, of course. Willie's pal Waylon Jennings made Luckenbach world-famous when he recorded a song name-checking the tiny Hill Country hamlet in the 1970s, shortly after Jerry Jeff Walker had recorded his landmark "Viva Terlingua" live album there. And plenty of Austinites have headed an hour south on Interstate 35 to attend shows at the 145-year-old Gruene Hall near New Braunfels.

Margo Price has played the Luck Reunion several times and will be at Luck Ranch on Sunday for a tribute concert celebrating Willie Nelson's 89th birthday.

But Luck has something different, something unique. This is Willie Nelson's home turf, the remains of a movie set built for his 1980s film "Red Headed Stranger." Originally, the set was to be burned in a fire that was part of the story, but the script was changed when Willie grew attached to the Old West structures that included a saloon, a post office and a chapel.

Fast-forward a few decades — long enough for Nelson's grand-niece, Ellee Fletcher Durniak, to be born and then come of age as a New York fashion school graduate turned budding music entrepreneur. While in New York, she met Matt Bizer at a show by short-lived but influential Austin band the Dedringers.

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Before long, she and Bizer were organizing a South by Southwest day party in Austin for the Dedringers and other bands. But Durniak — whose father, Freddy Fletcher, is the son of Willie’s late sister and pianist, Bobbie Nelson — had grown up on Willie’s expansive acreage, so it was perhaps only natural that her thoughts turned to the Luck Ranch.

How Luck Reunion got started

At dinner one night with Willie and his wife, Annie, they broached the subject. “It was like a pitch shot in the dark: ‘Would you let us use the property?’” Durniak recalls. “And they were like, ‘Yeah, just get a permit.’”

Bizer, who’d recently built up a film-crew resume in Texas on projects such as Turk Pipkin’s Christmas story “When Angels Sing,” didn’t think it could possibly be that simple. “I thought it was a joke,” he says with a chuckle. “And then a few weeks later, Ellee and I were talking, and she was like, ‘How’s it all coming with the planning?’

“I realized very quickly, that’s how they operate. If you’re part of the family or you’re in that conversation, all of a sudden you’re doing something.”

Willie Nelson and his son Lukas Nelson perform at the 2019 Luck Reunion. Nelson and his Family band close out the Reunion each year.

Durniak and Bizer organized their first show at Luck Ranch during SXSW 2012. For a few years, it was called the Heartbreaker Banquet, in conjunction with other partners who eventually departed. By 2016, the event had been re-christened the Luck Reunion. Despite a major rainstorm that year, which halted the music for several hours, the event was a big success, generating buzz that put the Reunion on the map as a sought-after SXSW stop for many prominent performers and rising stars.

After a 2019 event that included the first Austin-area show for Yola, who’d soon be nominated for best new artist at the Grammys, Bizer and Durniak began brainstorming for an 2020 expansion that would include more shows during SXSW’s second weekend. The pandemic grounded all of that, though the Luck Presents team managed to pull together a makeshift but fascinating livestreamed Reunion that included virtual performances by everyone from Neil Young and Paul Simon to Orville Peck and Courtney Barnett.

Their plans finally took root this year. After the traditional Thursday reunion, Luck booked shows with Americana luminaries Jason Isbell on Friday and Shakey Graves on Saturday. A late add was a Sunday performance by landlord Willie Nelson, who also played a second show the following weekend.

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Next up is a Friday concert by Pacific Northwest indie-rock band Modest Mouse, an indication that Luck Presents is more than willing to work beyond the outlaw country/Americana borders most commonly associated with the Nelson family. And they recently announced an Oct. 1 appearance by theatrical rockers Flaming Lips. [Update, April 27: The Modest Mouse show has been postponed after frontman Isaac Brock tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week.]

But there’s also still room for stuff that’s right down the center of the strike zone. That is why Willie, who turns 89 on April 29, is set to follow up Friday-Saturday shows with George Strait at Austin’s new Moody Center by taking part in a Sunday birthday tribute at Luck Ranch that will also feature performances by Margo Price, Nathaniel Rateliff, Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Vincent Neil Emerson and host Bruce Robison.

There’s more to come. In addition to the Flaming Lips concert, Durniak and Bizer are planning a series of shows this fall that they’ve tentatively dubbed Lucktoberfest. Performers have not yet been announced, but Luck Presents’ track record to date almost assures a slate of quality bookings.

What makes Luck special

Durniak says that this year’s schedule probably will amount to around a dozen shows total. That number could be higher next year, but she and Bizer don’t seem to have a specific target in mind. “We choose the people we want,” Durniak says. “It's acts that we really want to have out there.”

Part of what has made the Reunion such a success is a willingness to take chances on up-and-coming acts. The lone constant is Willie, who headlines the show with his Family band much like he does with his half-century-old Fourth of July Picnic. But whereas the Picnic tends to focus on established acts and longtime Willie compadres, the Reunion is more in the spirit of music discovery.

Willie Nelson's ranch west of Austin has been the site of the Luck Reunion every March for a decade, but now the site is featuring more shows through the spring and fall.

This year’s version was a prime example. Yes, there were a couple of Picnic-styled bookings: Isbell was a special guest at the Reunion in addition to playing his own Luck show the following night, and the 1970s-era Lost Gonzo Band provided a connection to Willie’s outlaw country glory years. But the Reunion’s most memorable moments came from rising stars such as Allison Russell and Japanese Breakfast — both of whom scored “Austin City Limits” TV tapings this spring — and Danielle Ponder, who seems poised for a breakout similar to Yola’s 2019 moment.

Luck’s ability to scout and present such talent is largely a matter of “making sure to look every place, and keeping that door open,” Bizer says. “We like to just try to raise up whatever we can out here. … Japanese Breakfast was obviously not the first (act) you’d think of playing Luck, But for us, it's really fun to expose people to (artists) like that.”

There is a precedent for such attempts at building bridges between audiences in the world of Willie. "What everybody talks about all the time in Austin is like, ‘Oh, he united the hippies and the cowboys,” Bizer says. “But we don't think consciously (about that). The music, and the diversity of people who are attracted to that music, is what creates it. We make a space where everybody is accepted, and you just forget about it when you're there.”

And so, even with more concerts being added on the property that don’t involve Willie’s onstage participation, his spirit runs through everything that happens at Luck Ranch. Indeed, what makes this place most special is simply that it is Nelson’s home turf, and that he’s willing to share it.

“There's just a joy that surrounds his sets when he's out there,” Durniak says. “I think it really is a sense of pride. He pulls up in his pickup truck, right up to the backstage, and just struts on. I can't speak for him, but I think he has the time of his life. I've seen a million Willie shows, but there's something different about him onstage at Luck.”

If you go to Luck Ranch

Friday: Modest Mouse with the Cribs, 7 p.m. (doors at 5:30 p.m.), $55 general admission ($125 VIP), $40 ranch parking pass (UPDATE: This show has been postponed after frontman Isaac Brock tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week)

Sunday: Willie Nelson birthday celebration with host Bruce Robison plus Margo Price, Nathaniel Rateliff, Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Vincent Neil Emerson, 7 p.m. (5:30 p.m. doors), $35 general admission ($150 VIP), $40 ranch parking pass, $50 shuttle from Austin's Arlyn Studios

Oct. 1: Flaming Lips, 7 p.m. (doors at 5:30 p.m.), $47.50 general admission  ($125 VIP)

Parking/shuttles: $40 parking at ranch; $50 shuttle from Austin's Arlyn Studios

Address: 1100 Bee Creek Road in Spicewood

More information: luckpresents.com