The chapel at Luck has been home to several parties over the years. Photo courtesy Luck Presents

The Western movie set located on Willie Nelson’s property about 30 miles west of Austin was, well, down on its luck. A few years removed from its construction in 1985 to serve as the town of Driscoll, Montana, in the Red Headed Stranger, starring Nelson, and then as Fort Smith, Arkansas, in the acclaimed miniseries Lonesome Dove, the set—including a church, an Opry House, and a saloon—was falling apart.

“The horses would roam around in the town and there were holes in the sidewalk and grass up to your waist,” recalls Bob Wishoff, who worked for Nelson for years and was known as “Computer Bob.”

But every Easter, the set would be revived. “We’d have a party up at the church and all kinds of people went to it,” Wishoff says. Celebrities would come—Dolly Parton attended one year—and mingle with the locals during the picnic following the Easter service. “It was the most wonderful time, one of the freest times.”

Today, the 500-acre ranch is home to rescue horses and a regenerative farming operation, but the town—which Nelson named Luck—remains the star attraction. The property adjoins the community of Briarcliff and is just south of the Pedernales Country Club, which Nelson purchased in 1979. Having dabbled in farming while living in Nashville in the 1960s, Nelson appreciated the ranch. And when it came time to film Red Headed Stranger, the dusty and rocky site seemed to be a natural fit. (See Nelson’s video for “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore” for a good look at Luck.)

Luck is still in pretty rough shape, though—like most movie sets, the dozen-or-so structures were either just facades or buildings not built to last. But salvation is nigh. Luck Presents, the collective that has managed the property for more than a decade, is working to preserve Luck’s history.

In 2012, Luck Presents hosted its first show at Luck during South by Southwest, attracting about 700 people to the town to see performers such as Gary Clark Jr., James McMurtry, Father John Misty, and Joe Pug (Willie wasn’t on the bill). That first show would become the organizers’ signature annual event, the Luck Reunion, which now draws a crowd of 4,000 and features a wide diversity of artists, food trucks, merchandise, and all that you would expect from a music festival. This year’s event, which takes place on March 14, includes Tyler Childers, John Oates, Dawes and Lucius, and Willie Nelson and Family.

Luck, an Old West town located in Willie Nelson’s backyard, was built as the backdrop for the film Red Headed Stranger in 1985. Photo courtesy Luck Presents

Over the years, one of the key performance spaces for the Reunion has been inside the Luck Opry House. But by 2019, the Opry House was in critical disrepair.

Matt Bizer, who co-founded Luck Presents with Ellee Fletcher Durniak, reached out to Austin-based Cushing Terrell architects with the goal of preserving the remaining original elements of the town, while refashioning the town’s buildings as usable spaces for events. “We looked at the original structures and did some research on the movies to find out what the original town looked like,” Bizer says. “And started kind of drawing up a master plan.”

Along with contractor Bill Ball, Luck Presents raced to get the Opry House finished in time for the 2020 Luck Reunion, which ended up having to be canceled because of COVID-19. The pandemic changed plans and slowed progress, but the successful rehabilitation of the Opry House paved the way for more improvements.

“They did a great job with the Opry House,” says Buddy Prewitt, Nelson’s longtime lighting director who recalls a performance there in the 1990s which seemed a little dangerous. “It was kind of shaky in there, like, ‘Don’t go up those stairs, don’t take that step.’”

Bizer says the chapel is next. Eventually, he hopes to restore the town to its Red Headed Stranger glory, saving all of what’s left and rebuilding what’s not. The original saloon was destroyed by a tornado in the 1990s and another storm in 2014 took out a few more buildings and forced the complete reconstruction of the Western set’s hotel, a two-story building with a saloon on the bottom floor, which had become Luck World Headquarters, Nelson’s personal clubhouse.

“It was kind of scary to see the World Headquarters leaning sideways,” Prewitt says. “That’s Willie’s main place to go when he’s not on his bus.”

The town has seen a lot in its nearly 40 years. The Ballad of the Sad Café and Waiting for the Miracle to Come were also filmed there. There’s been commercial shoots, private parties, weddings, and all those concerts; Luck has also hosted many, many music videos. A week before this year’s Reunion, a van was backed up to the Opry House and workers were loading up neon beer signs and other set pieces from an Orville Peck music video that had just wrapped up filming.

Bizer says Luck Presents will continue to hold more events as they create the infrastructure needed to do so. “It’s a transitional time,” Bizer says. “How do we take what was there and give it functionality so that it has value in the long term for the Nelson family and for the public?”

The longevity and legacy of Luck is yet to be determined. There’s no word on whether it will continue after Nelson, who turned 90 last year, is gone. “We have an internal policy, which is we don’t talk about a world where Willie’s not in it,” Bizer says.

Any changes, however, won’t come fast. After all, Luck is still one of Nelson’s favorite hangouts. Bizer says when Nelson is in town, he’ll sometimes drive his pickup into Luck and stay late into the night playing poker at the World Headquarters.

“We’re not in a hurry to change too much,” Bizer says. “We don’t want to interfere with Willie’s vibe.”

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