Reckless Kelly is led by brothers and founders Willy and Cody Braun — part of a wickedly talented musical family that stretches back generations in their home state of Idaho. Their father, Muzzie, and uncles Gary and Billy traveled the Northwest for decades, forging a fan base and befriending the likes of Pinto Bennett and Kip Attaway. They instilled a perfectionist approach to songwriting and playing in Willy and Cody, along with their younger brothers Micky and Gary, of Micky and the Motorcars. Their presence at The MusicFest has been so complete — stretching from main stages to side rooms and after-hours song swaps — that Dickson says they are inseparable from the festival. The behind-the-scenes video Reckless produced in 2014, “No Sleep ’Til Texas” is still seen as the definitive overview of The MusicFest to this day.
“The platform that the Dicksons have given us, and the entire Texas Music scene, via MusicFest, and the importance of this festival, is immeasurable to the point that, without it, there is a damn good chance we wouldn’t be in a position to be paid tribute on any stage,” Willy Braun says. “This scene would almost certainly not have the tight-knit camaraderie that it does. Without Steamboat, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to forge a countless amount of lifetime bonds and friendship with pretty much every other band and artist.
“Knowing that these same friends and artists are going to be singing songs, telling stories about us and our music, just like our favorite acts that we’ve paid tribute over the years — it’s surreal, to say the least.”
The tribute performances began in 2003 when Billy Joe Shaver was featured. Since then, a cross-section of bona fide legends and under-the-radar songwriters and musicians has been in the spotlight. Guy Clark, Lee Ann Womack, and Merle Haggard have all been showcased, as has iconic fiddler Johnny Gimble and songwriting stalwart Dean Dillon. The annual event has thus far produced a pair of albums 2008’s Undone: A MusicFest Tribute to Robert Earl Keen, and 2020’s The Years: A MusicFest Tribute to Cody Canada and the Music of Cross Canadian Ragweed. Reckless Kelly featured on both records. Adding to the catalogue, the tribute show to Reckless Kelly will also be recorded and released.
“When I got the news last year that they were retiring, I was kind of hit with emotions,” Dickson says. “You know, I’m happy for them, but it’s sad for all of us. So, jokingly, I contacted the guys and said, ‘Hey. Our tribute artist for next year is going to be Reckless Kelly, whether you’re gonna be there or not!’ I know I can’t beat their humor, but they’re fun to be around and I like to try.”
The tribute will be the latest in a line of major projects involving Reckless since their retirement announcement. This summer, they released Mega Kelly Live, an album featuring cuts from their 2021 return to the road post-pandemic, played expanded lineup. They also announced plans to record a live album at Stubbs’ Waller Creek Amphitheater in August — an ode to their 2000 breakout record, Reckless Kelly Acoustic: Live at Stubb’s. They will also play their first headlining show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in September, which sold out in a matter of days. And on Sept. 8, they’ll release a vinyl of their third album, Under the Table & Above the Sun, in honor of its 20th anniversary.
“One thing that was obvious from the very start is the respect they had from other artists — whether it be Robert Earl, Cody Canada, Stoney LaRue, Wade Bowen, or Steve Earle,” Dickson says. “They got the attention of the players. They’re musicians, and they deserve every bit of recognition they get. This tribute is gonna be fun, but it’s gonna be kind of bittersweet too.”
Willy Braun understands what is in store, but he also realizes that this is the moment for Reckless to embrace a victory lap of sorts after more than 25 years on the road.
“Other than it makes me feel kind of old, the feeling of being named the tribute artists in Steamboat is really hard for me to put into words,” he says. “We’ve been coming to MusicFest for 20 years or so and have participated in the vast majority of the tribute shows over those years. Being on the other side of the stage for this one is going to be a trip.”
Josh Crutchmer is a journalist and author who has covered Texas and Red Dirt music since 2000. His latest book, The Motel Cowboy Show, tells the stories of Reckless Kelly, The MusicFest at Steamboat, and all of the independent, original music that has taken root in the Mountain West. The book is available now at motelcowboyshow.com and will be a part of the 2024 festival and Reckless Kelly tribute.