On his family ranch in the Hill Country of Texas, some 30 miles northwest of Austin, Willie Nelson many years ago turned a former Western movie set on his land into the make-believe town of Luck, Texas — which has been a music festival site for the past decade.

After a two-year break during the pandemic, the Luck Reunion, a music, food and crafts festival, returned Thursday. It was preceded the previous evening by the Potluck dinner and concert, raising funds for Nelson’s Farm Aid, which supports a family-farm-based agriculture system; Wholesome Wave, which promotes healthy food choices; and the Texas Food and Wine Alliance, which advocates for the regional culinary community.

The Potluck — a multi-course al fresco feast including eggs and pork bellies raised on the Luck ranch — concluded with Nelson’s first public performance since the death of his younger sister Bobbie, his lifelong friend and piano player, who died March 10 at the age of 91.

Those close to Nelson predicted he would not speak onstage about his loss, and he did not. But as he sat onstage, dressed in a black jacket in the cool Texas night, flanked by sons Lukas and Micah, illuminated stars shone against a dark-blue backdrop and a projection reading: “In Loving Memory of Bobbie Nelson 1931-2022,” above an image of her trademark white cowboy hat.

“Bobbie was a cherished member of the Farm Aid family, and her incredible piano talents delighted our audiences for more than 36 years,” said Carolyn Mugar, executive director of Farm Aid. “Bobbie was a quiet, steadfast champion for Farm Aid and farmers, and we know our entire community is grateful to have experienced her musical gifts.”

Nelson closed his Potluck set with classics that have concluded his shows for years: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I Saw the Light.” (For Thursday’s show, he would segue instead into the gospel hymn “I’ll Fly Away”). All are songs of loss, love, hope and faith in the hereafter — the greatest tribute Willie Nelson could offer his beloved sister.

The day of the Luck Reunion opened cool and gray, perfect for finding a spot under one of the live oak trees scattered about Willie’s land and soaking up songs and artistry. Here are seven more great moments from the festival.

Love Conquers Hate

Amid the relentless news of intolerant legislation flowing from Texas politicians, songwriter Aaron Raitiere offered a musical counterpoint. In an early set on the Beer Garden stage, Raitiere sang: “I guess I’m anti-hate/ ‘Cause that ain’t what it takes/ It’s the love that makes this crazy world go round.” The line comes from his song “For the Birds” from his upcoming album Single Wide Dreamer, which was co-produced by Miranda Lambert and Anderson East.

Daydream Believer

Also on the Beer Garden stage, Lily Meola’s voice floated high and bright, like the clouds she appliquéd on her blue denim jacket and jeans, a visual complement to her three-piece female band, all dressed in white. She showcased songs like “Smaller Things” from her just-released EP Daydreams and, among the many acts on the Luck Reunion bill, Meola could boast an endorsement from Nelson, who has said: “Lily is on a stellar rise and rightfully so. She is a great writer, singer and performer and has a wonderful future.”

Going to the Chapel

Beside the front door of the worn wooden chapel on the Luck ranch, a weathered, wooden sign reads: “Sunday Service, 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m., featuring Willie Nelson and Bobbie Nelson and The Bells of Joy.” In the years before the Luck festival, Easter services welcomed visitors to Nelson’s ranch. Here, on the evening of the Potluck, Nathaniel Rateliff gave a powerful solo performance for Farm Aid supporters who crowded into the chapel’s half-dozen pews. Early in the afternoon on Thursday, the chapel was packed again for the ferocious blues of Adia Victoria, showcasing her aptly named debut album A Southern Gothic. “The blues are just a prayer,” she told the crowd.

Fighting for Stolen Land

Aside from Nelson, of all the acts on the Luck Reunion bill, none can claim deeper Texas roots than Michael Martin Murphey and the Lost Gonzo Band. These musicians helped put Austin on the national musical map in the early 1970s with their recordings, including the title track of Murphey’s album Geronimo’s Cadillac, with its tale of stolen land. On stage, Murphey drew a historical line between the struggle of Native Americans for recognition and rights, which inspired his song, and the current war raging in Eastern Europe. “Today, the Ukrainians are in the same situation,” said Murphey. “Hold on Volodymyr, we’re coming!”

Outside Child, Inside the Revival Tent

With the spring day growing hotter, the tent over the Revival Stage offered shelter from the Texas sun — and provided the setting for the beautiful music of Allison Russell. Accompanied by an electric guitarist, an acoustic guitarist, both providing harmonies, a cellist and her own clarinet, Russell’s musical pallet was as striking as the songs on her 2021 album Outside Child, which has received nominations for Grammy Awards in three categories, including best Americana album.

Playwright, Poet, Rocker

“Who’s luckier than us, to be at the Luck Reunion on St. Patrick’s Day?” Jason Isbell asked the crowd, as he took the main stage as the penultimate performer of the day with his band the 400 Unit. A late addition to the festival bill, Isbell offered a preview of the headlining set he would play the following evening. (Luck Presents, promoters of the festival, have expanded their use of the ranch with additional events this spring.) Isbell and his band, including Drivin N Cryin guitarist Sadler Vaden, played gloriously ringing, rocking, arm-windmilling guitar, as Isbell sang some of the most exquisitely penned songs in rock ’n’ roll today. Isbell is as much a playwright as a poet and he happily has brought his lyrical gifts to songwriting.

Beneath a Texas Sky

Strings of lights glowed along the old wooden Western-style buildings of Luck, Texas — the chapel, the Opry house, the general store, the jail — as Willie Nelson and his sons Lukas and Micah came out to close the festival. In a set of his classics, the 88-year-old American icon sang and played guitar solos with strength and dexterity that belied his age. But a standout song of the evening came from Lukas, a love song “about this place right here,” he said. Aptly titled “Just Outside of Austin,” the song began: “Cedar trees, the morning air/ The way the dew sits on her hair/ So peacefully below a Texas sky.” It captured the beauty of Willie Nelson’s family sanctuary, which the promoters of Luck Presents have made accessible to all, at least for a few magical nights each year.

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