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SXSW 2014

I Went to Willie Nelson’s Ranch in a Limo and Came Back on the Floor of a School Bus

I also drank a lot of moonshine.

by Caitlin White
17 March 2014, 10:00am

They took my mugshot. I don't know. This is SXSW. via

Amid the buzz-band cycle of SXSW, rounding up a bunch of people who are weird and country enough to still care about Willie Nelson is surprisingly a lot easier than you think. It was pretty sweet to get that invitation myself, however giving us free moonshine all night led to a drunk, awful ride home that rivaled the awfulness and debauchery I’ve only experienced at sorority formals in undergrad.

But let me back up.

Giving up a night of showcase hopping at SXSW might seem counterintuitive to some people, but this was fucking Willie Nelson’s ranch. If I’m being 100% real I was really counting on Willie to be the “surprise headliner” for the evening too. I knew he was already in Austin to headline the iTunes festival on Saturday and I also knew that SXSW (in all its benevolence) prohibits headliners from doing any other sort of official public performances during the week. I had high hopes that by the end of the night I’d be rolling a joint with Willie and talking about his plans for the future. I assume he keeps a blunt in each braid, so all I had to do was make it to the after party and convince him to smoke me out. We’d talk about the future and the past and what it all means, drinking and smoking till sunrise with my experience so full of epiphanies that I’d never have to come up with a new thought ever again in my life again because I’d have it all figured out. It honestly didn’t seem too hard.

Around 6 PM, I found myself waiting for a grey Escalade limo outside the Austin Convention Center instead of Instagramming at Fader Fort. I brought a friend with me because I had no idea who the hell else would agree to a situation so strange, but luckily, I found a friend waiting for the limo as well—and she was eager, as was I, to enjoy the free moonshine cocktails our gracious host served up on the bumpy ride out into the open country. Looking out the window at the passing barren landscape I felt like I got a real glimpse of Texas, not just the downtown party frenzy of 6th Street. Especially given the tragedy of Wednesday night, it felt good to get out into the country.

Arriving at the ranch felt like stepping into the set of an old Western flick. I half expected John Wayne, or at least a John Wayne impersonator who was paid hourly, to pop out of every building. Instead, we headed over to a saloon where they gave us even more moonshine and some temporary tattoos. I wondered how much moonshine I’d have to drink to make a moonshine tattoo seem like a good idea. Heading into a different old timey building, I found myself in a vintage hat store. My two companions had indeed drank enough moonshine to go drunk shopping—they both ended up with a new hat. Which meant by default I was to wear the Stetson that one of them had sported on the ride over. I was officially country, and I assumed, one step closer to getting Willie to hang out with me. A girl in a Stetson is a shoe-in. While they closed the deal on their hats I looked in back of the store, where some dude was genuinely getting a tattoo! It wasn’t moonshine affiliated ink, but it did seem impossibly idiotic, so of course I took a photo of him. (Note: I asked and received permission to take this photo. Then he asked me to hold his hand. I declined)

After seeing all the tourist sites, I got some more moonshine and went to check out one of the bands that was playing—J. Roddy Walston and the Business. These guys were one of the reasons I ventured out to the ranch and delivered their righteous cowpunk with unrivaled verve. Willie would’ve been proud. I checked the wings of the stage to see if he’d join them for a song or two but nah, Willie was waiting for his own time to shine. Officially drunk on moonshine, I realized that though the event was called “Heartbreakers Banquet” there was not a banquet in sight, only some old food trucks with impossibly long lines and high prices.

I waited a half hour at Fred's Texas BBQ truck—which was supposed to be the best in Fort Worth for whatever that's worth—only to be disappointed when they ran out of barbecue. They offered me a burger and I was like bro I can get In N Out here why would I care? I found myself eating “Rosemary Fries” that had literally no rosemary on them just tons and tons of salt, and a jalapeno and cheddar cheese sausage in a tortilla that they called a wrap. None of it tasted very good but it cut through the moonshine haze. I needed to focus.

Anyway, we waited for what seemed like two and a half more hours, even though it was probably only about 40 minutes. The wind had picked up and watching girls in cutoff denim shorts complain to their boyfriends about being cold was a fun people watching activity. I noticed in a nearby barn that there were some coffee canisters on a table, and went over to try to finagle a cup. I managed to sweet talk some coffee from gruff fireman named John. I compared my job as a journalist to his as a fireman since we’re both constantly fighting off fire. He didn't appreciate the metaphor. I had had to promise to put him in my article in order to get the coffee so here he is: Thanks John!

We ducked into the “chapel stage” just in time to catch a trio singing a song called “Knock Me Up.” Someone later told me that it was Willie’s daughter and son playing along with a friend—but I have no way to verify that. Suddenly, an old familiar voice came rolling in the church door like a cold Texas wind—Willie was indeed the surprise headliner playing the big stage! A church full of old people began to run back toward the main stage—it was like a cattle run but imagine the cows are drunk on moonshine.

We all show up and there was Willie, just grinning away and playing “Whiskey River” like it’s 1972. And holy shit did the set list just get better from there. He did his Toby Keith banger “Beer For My Horses” and made everyone realize just how superfluous ole Toby is on that number. He did “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and I think I actually started crying out of sheer bliss. He did a trio of Hank Williams classics including “Jambalaya” and “Hey Good Lookin’” which I have literally only heard in commercials lately and even the rambunctious “Move It On Over” which had the whole crowd roaring the lyrics. A cool thing was that every person there loved Willie and also had to be connected enough to somehow score their way into the event—so the crowd was superlatively appreciative of everything that was happening.

Willie did a full set for us, the most moving of which might’ve been “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” a song he wrote in 2012 with his son Lukas. Watching him sing this track with defiance onstage was testament that we don’t have much longer with this legend, and he has no fucks left to give about dying. I also realized that his bandleader looked exactly like Avery from “Nashville” even down to the angular haircut and kind of hang-dog way he eyed Willie in reverence.

As the set drew to a close I had one thought: now was my chance! The big after party! I texted my contact with the event and she responded with a negative: the surprise guest Billy Joe Shaver no longer wanted to play. It was time to head back to Austin. I was stunned, but not as stunned as I was about to be. Looking for the shuttle line, we found a group of 50+ drunk people who had just seen one of the greatest shows of their lives. Obviously they would not shut up trying to impress and potentially fuck one another when they got home.

It was the closest thing I’ve seen to humans actually being in heat.

We waited in the dark with these creatures for 45 minutes and then got on a literal school bus back to Austin—sitting on the floor because all the seats were taken. It was so terrible it almost balanced out how wonderful Willie was. But not quite. I said goodbye to my friends and began the trek back to my hotel, overall pleased even if I’d missed out on the golden opportunity to toke with Willie.

Then I got a text from my friend who’d come to the even with me. She sent me a screenshot of her conversation with the other publicist, which subtely said that a that “a small, exclusive group” got smoked up by Willie Nelson and heard his deepest, best secrets. I wasn't there. I don’t blame Willie, but I do blame the moonshine company.

Caitlin White is a good hearted woman. Follow her on Twitter @harmonicait

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