What It’s Like to Watch ‘Red Headed Stranger’ Under the Texas Stars With Willie Nelson in Attendance

Brooke Hamilton

Driving up a winding dirt road, horses grazing as the summer sun sets, an abundance of friendly smiles are there to greet you upon entering Luck, Texas. Nestled in the hill country just outside of Austin, Texas on Willie Nelsons property, Luck is home to seventy-five rescue horses and the set from Red Headed Stranger, a film near and dear to all who worked on it. However, Willie is no stranger to Texans. His friendly demeanor, long braided pigtails, classic country music, and advocacy for marijuana are all staples that make Willie a beloved figure in the Lone Star State.

True to his southern hospitality, he invited a large group individuals to his property for a Luck Cinema and Rolling Roadshow event complete with a delicious dinner courtesy of Austin-based restaurant Dai Due and a screening of Red Headed Stranger, followed up by a Q&A with the man, the myth, and the legend himself.

Upon entering the property, guests were allowed to freely roam around the fictional town of Driscoll, Montana, a film set specifically built for the 1986 movie starring Willie Nelson as a preacher who takes revenge upon his wife (Morgan Fairchild) and the lover she runs off with. Like any small Western towns, you have your staples: a quant church, jail, saloon, bank, and general store. The jail housed Willies signature brand Willie’s Reserve which consists of a line of tea, coffee, and CBD products available for purchase. In another building was a collection of movie memorabilia courtesy of The Wittliff Collections, which showcased movie props and behind-the-scenes photos from the film.

(All photos are courtesy of Brooke Hamilton.)

Booze flowed through the dusty Main Street as Don Julio Tequila kept everyones glasses full and those who preferred a different poison were in and out of the creaky wooden doors of the saloon throughout the evening. If anyone missed out on Dai Dues lavish dinner, they could wrangle their appetites with a visit to any of the three food trucks on the property such as Garbos Lobster, Buro Cheese Kitchen, or The Peached Tortilla.  

Once the sun set and the stars deep in the heart of Texas started to shine, the screen lit up with an Alamo Drafthouse signature pre-show consisting of behind-the-scenes footage of the film, music, and interviews. Gathered around in lawn chairs and lounging on blankets, the audience joined Willie Nelson on a journey filled with love, sin, and redemption.

Newly restored by the American Genre Film Archive, Red Headed Stranger was adapted into a film from Willie Nelson’s 1975 album of the same name. It was the album that earned Nelson his first multi-platinum certification and first number one hit with Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain. In the late 70s, Nelson met writer Bill Wittliff who wrote the screenplay for Honeysuckle Rose, (1980), Barbarosa (1982), and Lonesome Dove (1989). Wittliff agreed to write the screenplay for Red Headed Stranger as well as direct the film. And while Robert Redford was considered for the role of the Stranger by the studio, Nelson ultimately secured the title (and rightfully so).

Willie Nelson and Bill Wittliff raised the $1.8 million dollar budget for funding on their own and decided to construct their own set on Willies property to bypass high production costs. The original script called for the church and town to be burned down, but Nelson requested a modification so he can keep the set hed grown so fond of during shooting. Over thirty years later, the wood is more splintered and the floorboards may creak louder than they used to, but the memories that were made there are beautifully palpable as evidenced by the Q&A that followed the film.

In attendance was Willie Nelson himself, art director and set architect Cary White, actor Sonny Carl Davis (who played Odie Claver in the film), actor Bryan Fowler (Willies grandson who played Nathan), and wardrobe designers Lana Nelson (Willies daughter) and Sharon Ely. The moderation was bittersweet since Bill Wittliff was supposed to be in attendance to interview the cast and crew. However, he unfortunately passed away earlier this year which made for a somber experience.

However, the event was still filled with loving recollections of his strong directing style and passion for the film. Sonny Carl Davis discussed his first day on set meeting Willie Nelson. He asked Davis if he wanted to burn onein his trailer and initially refusing, Davis realized he couldnt pass up that opportunity. Wittliff realized he looked a little too happy for his jail scene and jokingly asked if he had been spending too much time on the bus with Willie. Laughing at his tale, Davis pointed to the sky, smiled, and said, God bless you, Bill Wittliff.

Moments of love and loss similar to this one were sprinkled throughout the evening in Wittliffs memory while fans shouted out their adoration and applause for Willie as well.  When asked about his passion for westerns, Nelson stated he felt like a singing cowboy before I could even ride a horse. He went on to discuss the nostalgia of being a young kid growing up in Texas where he would frequently watch westerns at the local theater. 

Bill Wittliff once described Red Headed Stranger as “our homegrown deal”. Several of Wittliff and Nelson’s family members served as cast and crew members in the movie. Even family pets were used in the shooting of the film. And today, the property is still home to the annual Luck Reunion, while the church is also functioning for services and weddings. Willies love for Texas, family, music, movies, and his fans shines through every paint chipped crack in Luck. Its a rustic and dreamy place filled with an abundance of sentimental memories.

Willies family motto is fittingly dont be an asshole. Thanks to this mentality and lifestyle, we were able to come out to his property to experience a truly magical evening. Who knows, maybe one day youll get lucky and find yourself under the stars in Luck, Texas too.

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