Willie Nelson’s Party Left Me Stoned and Lucky

How I came to sample Willie’s potent weed in the godfather of ganja’s own backyard.

03.19.16 9:12 PM ET

It’s just weed. Dried flowers from the cannabis plant, trimmed and stuffed into a box and given to a friend’s band, which in turn gave some to me. The same dried material I’ve rolled and packed and smoked and inhaled countless times over the years, the same stuff that’s slowly becoming legal again because, well, it’s just weed, you know?

Only it isn’t. Not this. “Just weed” doesn’t make you push the psychoactive envelope, toeing the fine but well-defined line between “Wow, I’m fucking high” and “Dude, I’m tripping balls.”

Even boutique strains from legalized states, hybridized in labs and inbred to become sticky pods of resinous goo, strains that live up to labels like Sour Diesel and Green Crack and Chem Dog and AK-47 and whatever else. Names indicative of intoxication that bury chemotherapy’s dire effects, numb chronic pain, make tolerable working triple shifts at a dead-end job with nothing to come home to but a desiccated spider plant, don’t come close to what this stuff did to me.

But then, this wasn’t “just weed.”

This was, allegedly, weed curated by the godfather of ganja himself, Willie Nelson. His own stash, famously branded now under the name Willie’s Reserve, ready to be shared with the pot-smoking public in such places as the law allows. But even more than that, I had partaken of this celebrity strain at Nelson’s own home, or at least right nearby, on his horse ranch outside Austin, Texas, surrounded by a few thousand people lucky enough to get through the gates to his annual festival, the Luck Reunion, and be serenaded by artists of his own choosing.

So not only was this Willie Nelson’s weed, this was his world. The aptly named Luck, Texas, rugged and made up of ramshackle buildings that temporarily doubled as storefronts and information booths and music venues. There was a one-room chapel like you’d expect to find in a Western, the backdrop to quick-drawing cowboys, and some tents and a large stage to house all the performers. Everyone in attendance looked like a devotee of the sort of wide-brimmed hat and bandana fashion Willie is famous for, a gathering of like-minded souls who’ve turned the festival, which takes place during but separate from SXSW, into as much a pilgrimage as a party. So celebratory was the vibe, there were even people getting married on the steps of buildings, pledging “I do” before the throngs—Willie no doubt there in spirit as he relaxed on his bus down the hill. And so, here in the cradle of the Red Headed Stranger, I smoked his herb. And I did so, admittedly, with possibly too much abandon.

It wasn’t until I was huddled in our rental car watching explosions of lightning drive heavy winds across the rolling hills of central Texas that it really took ahold of me. But when it did, man, did it ever.

Starting in my jaw, an ache in my molars that made me want to clench them tight, then spreading in vibrating waves down the tendons in my neck, tightening my chest, squeezing my heart into a higher tempo. My stomach clenched, too, ever so slightly, like gas but maybe instead with the memory of inhaled smoke. The rain came, pattering against the windshield, and I focused all of my attention on the massive wooden cutout on top of the hill in front of me.


Bold and white against the rattlesnake haven of rock and scrub, strobing in the lightning storm like a neon sign on its last legs, as glamorous and majestic as the Hollywood sign ever was. I rolled down the window, let in some cool air, and took deep breaths as the tightness melted, jaw and shoulders sagging into the bucket seat. My toes uncurled. My vision either blurred or just defocused, no longer possessing the willpower or motivation to catch hold of anything. My thoughts evened out, releasing the “you will be OK, it’s just weed” mantra that had been holding them in place against a paranoia’s rising tide.

The colors outside the car became more saturated, deepened by both the THC and passing storm. People were milling about, unsure as to what to do, and I couldn’t help but laugh at their sodden disorganization. Everything became metaphors: thoughts, words, sights, sounds, even the growing insistence from inside me that I find something to snack on, something salty. Or sweet. Or both. A cough drop in the center console, wrapper soaked through with condensation from the corpse of the morning’s iced coffee, suddenly seems like an enticingly medicated treat. Who doesn’t want to breathe easy? Shouldn’t we all breathe easy?

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Take it easy.

Traditionally at this event, bands played through the day and it culminated with, what else, Willie himself, jamming with friends and family. But today they’d had to call a temporary intermission due to impending storms—one uniformed member of the local sheriff’s department said something about “baseball-size hail.” And so we were bid to seek shelter, preferably in our vehicles if we hadn’t take the shuttle from Austin, until things blew over. If they blew over. The name Luck Reunion suddenly seemed a little ironic.

It was with these dire tidings that I had decided to join a friend in his taste test of Willie’s Reserve. What better way to remain amused if confined to a rental Corrolla?

As usual, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

There’s numbness to it, more a culling of the dead weight that weighs us all down. The meat of my body tingled, pulsed with an energy that emanated from my heart, or, in retrospect, maybe my lungs, where the evaporated THC crystals had retaken physical form, working themselves into my bloodstream and working their magic in the process. After the brief period of sanity-doubting come up, I came alive. Or, at least, I got high. Really, really, really fucking high.

I don’t know how long I sat in the car. I do know that when I later looked through the photos I took, there were literally hundreds of gray sky. Which, to be fair, was tumultuous and stormy at the time, but it certainly didn’t translate, or warrant such paparazzi attention.

The rain was still coming down, tentacles of electricity snaking from one horizon to the next. It was getting dark, and the confusion outside seemed to be polarizing into either permanent evacuation or dogged determination to see this thing through, depending on age and mobility and number of small children attached. I followed some folks who seemed to know what they were doing into the area behind the stage, smiling and waving my wristband and camera confidently, acting as though I knew what I was up to.

Ultimately, I wound up part of a sodden but happy group of weather exiles on a tour bus that I believe belonged to Jenny Lewis, crammed into a humid room while they passed around a guitar and bottle of whiskey. At some point Jenny suggested that they try and make it across the little town to the chapel to play some tunes and get things going again. Someone got the green light from the proper authorities, and next thing you know Lewis, her band, and the folks from Brooklyn-based band Lucius were on the low stage, serenading and smiling as faces pushed against the tall foggy windows and bodies piled in through the double doors.

I don’t know what songs they played, or what other artists stopped by. I sat, floating in my own internal layer of fuzzy happiness, and absorbed, feeling more than hearing. After a bit everyone dispersed, things returned to normal, and Willie played his finale set to a small crew of dedicated fans under a tent, an intimate experience those who hadn’t been dabbling in his reserve will surely remember for the rest of their lives.

How good is Willie’s Reserve? I don’t have a quantifiable comparison to make. I will say that, halfway through Lewis and Lucius singing like angels in the chapel, I swear I looked up and saw Bill Murray holding a window open so a group of people could listen in, nonchalantly keeping it steady with one straight arm, smiling slightly and staring straight ahead under a white bucket hat.

From what I gather, you can get your hands on Willie’s Reserve in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado very soon. I don’t know if you’ll have the same experience as I did with Willie’s stash, but I do know that a man like him wouldn’t be pushing his own pot products if they didn’t live up to his no-doubt considerable standards. He’s not the type to risk his rep, a lifetime of advocating for legalization both in words and actions. But if you really want to get in it, my advice would be to schedule some vacation time next March, keep your eyes peeled for tickets to his festival, and come out next year to try your own luck at pushing boundaries.

I know I’ll be back. And who knows? Maybe this time I’ll even remember it.