Willie Nelson to speak at SWSX

by: Eric Webb and Peter Blackstock

Willie Nelson: South by Southwest keynote speaker. Rolls right off the tongue. And somehow, it’s never happened before now.

The legendary Austin musician and cultural icon will deliver the keynote for this year’s edition of the city’s marquee festivals and conference, event organizers revealed Wednesday, as SXSW navigates a pandemic-era shift to an online format. In the same announcement, SXSW also revealed dozens of big-name featured speakers, ranging from Austin-based Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey to entrepreneur Richard Branson to music-and-film stars LL Cool J and Queen Latifah.

Rebranded this year as SXSW Online, the March 16-20 event will offer streamed versions of its hallmark events, including conference sessions, music showcases and film screenings. More details are expected in the coming weeks. The cancellation of SXSW 2020 marked the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic’s devastating effect on Austin’s entertainment scene.

Nelson’s keynote will mark the first time he has appeared as a speaker at SXSW. He was scheduled to deliver the keynote in 1992, but his bus did not arrive back in Austin from a distant concert in time for the 10:30 a.m. speech. To make up for missing the engagement, Nelson performed a surprise set at Auditorium Shores (now Vic Mathias Shores) as part of a free SXSW showcase that night.

”“No individual has had the cultural impact on, or been more synonymous with, the creative vibrancy of Austin than Willie Nelson, and we are incredibly honored to have him as a SXSW Online 2021 Keynote,” SXSW chief programming officer Hugh Forrest said in a statement.

The “On the Road Again” troubadour’s annual Luck Reunion is a popular event each year around the time of SXSW, though last year’s went virtual due to the pandemic. His appearance for SXSW Online will follow the Feb. 26 release of “That’s Life,” his second tribute to the songs of Frank Sinatra in three years. The first, 2018’s “My Way,” won a Grammy for best traditional pop vocal album.

In addition to the keynote, more than 200 sessions were included in Wednesday’s announcement, under themes such as “Challenging Tech’s Path Forward,” “Cultural Resilience in the Arts” and “Transforming the Entertainment Landscape.”

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