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An Evening with Willie Nelson and Rolling Roadshow at Luck Ranch

Alamo Drafthouse’s Rolling Roadshow partnered up with Luck Productions to launch Luck Cinema, a unique film screening experience at Willie Nelson’s ranch in beautiful Luck, Texas. On Saturday, July 6, Luck Cinema debuted with a special viewing of “Red Headed Stranger,” an ’80s western featuring Willie Nelson himself.

Photo by Leigh Kettle

For the first time ever, attendees were able to view a digital presentation of the recently resurfaced classic western on Rolling Roadshow’s projector screen at Nelson’s homestead in Luck. What made this location so special, you may ask? Well, the movie was filmed right there on Nelson’s property, that’s what! In fact, the whole movie set is still standing and often utilized for various events hosted by the Nelson family. Though the script originally called for the town to be burned down, Nelson fought for a change in the storyline so he could preserve the western town he calls home.

I had the chance to visit Luck during SXSW for one of the most special events of the year, Luck Reunion. It was my first time on Willie’s ranch, and by far one of the most unique experiences I’ve had since moving to Austin (not even exaggerating, y’all). There is something magical about Luck, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. If you’ve been there, I’m sure you can understand. Perhaps it’s the history behind the town or the legendary musician who helped build it from scratch. Either way, I couldn’t wait to drive through the rolling hills outside of Austin and see the letters “L U C K” rise across the horizon.

Prior to the event, 50 lucky (see what I did there?) attendees were able to attend an intimate dinner event on the property prepared by chef Jesse Griffiths of Austin’s awarded Dai Due restaurant. Doors to the general admission opened near sunset, and excited fans soon rolled in to experience all Luck had to offer, including archival items from the Wittliff Collection, a collection of memorabilia and photographs from the film. The property was filled with several other activations as well, such as a Tito’s saloon, Willie’s Reserve gift shop and plenty of refreshment offerings from Fistful of Bourbon, White Claw and Don Julio. One thing is for sure: Willie sure does know how to throw a party!

After grabbing a drink and delicious food from one of the various food trucks on property, I cozied up in the seating area sponsored by Southwest Airlines and waited for the show to begin.

“Red Headed Stranger” tells the story of a preacher named Shay and his journey through sin and redemption. After having moved out to Montana to spread the gospel, Shay’s wife finds herself longing for the life she once had, leading her into a state of depression and unfortunate infidelity. This infidelity is the ultimate cause of Shay’s fall, as he seeks revenge by shooting both his wife and the man she left him for. Shunned and an outlaw, Shay begins to yearn for the faith he once had and turns away darkness to pursue atonement.

I’ll admit my experience with western films is few and far between (though I do love me some “Lonesome Dove”), but “Red Headed Stranger” was a classic. I was a bit ashamed to have not yet seen it and funny enough, my own father (a fellow Willie fan) wasn’t familiar with the movie either! He only knew of Nelson’s album “Red Headed Stranger,” which was actually the inspiration for the movie.

Following the movie, Willie Nelson joined journalist and broadcaster Andy Langer to chat about about the history of the film, his experience on set, and his home in Luck. Additional speakers included the film’s art director and set architect Cary White, actor Sonny Carl Davis, wardrobe designers Lana Nelson and Sharon Ely, and Nelson’s grandson Brian Fowler, who also acted in the film.

What did we learn? First and foremost, this movie created a family. While on stage, it was completely evident that each of these talented folks not only loved the movie itself, but also loved the connections that were made through it. Nelson spoke much about his relationship with the director Witliff, who he said “was a great writer and was also a good friend,” while his grandson Fowler expressed that working on the movie “was the best experience of my life,” as tears filled his eyes.

Behind the scenes, Nelson considered his technique as reacting more than acting: “I never thought of myself as an actor. I react a lot.” A humble man at heart, Nelson even joked how the movie would be better if Robert Redford would have taken the role: “I was singing cowboy before I could sing or ride a horse, though I acted like I could.” If there’s one role Nelson is a pro at, it’s being his darn, amazing, genuine self. Reminiscing on what a colleague had once told him, “Willie plays himself better than anybody.” You certainly do, Willie. And we love you for it.

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Featured image credit: Leigh Kettle

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