Willie Nelson will give his first SXSW keynote speech at this year's festival

Eric Webb and Peter Blackstock, Austin 360
·3 min read
03/14/05. Willie Nelson at Master Teacher Sam Um's Gym Kick & Box in Austin. Nelson, who earned his black belt in Tai Kwon Do at the age of 70, is preparing for fight scenes in Newline Cinema's western "Life Is A Hoss" which have been choreographed by Um for the movie. Um has been Nelson's instructor for about 10 years.
03/14/05. Willie Nelson at Master Teacher Sam Um's Gym Kick & Box in Austin. Nelson, who earned his black belt in Tai Kwon Do at the age of 70, is preparing for fight scenes in Newline Cinema's western "Life Is A Hoss" which have been choreographed by Um for the movie. Um has been Nelson's instructor for about 10 years.

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

The legendary Texas musician and cultural icon will deliver the keynote for this year’s edition of the Austin's marquee festival 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 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. SXSW in 2020 was among the first major festival to cancel and marked the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic's devastating effect the live 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 event went virtual because of 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."

A few highlights from the panels and conversations announced so far:

• McConaughey will appear in conversation with Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber; the "Dazed and Confused" actor is a co-owner of the Austin FC team.

• Queen Latifah and LL Cool J will appear in conversation together about their respective careers, which have spanned music, TV and movies.

• Oscar-winning "Moonlight" director Barry Jenkins will appear in conversation with Emmy-winning "Succession" composer Nicholas Britell, discussing their creative collaborations, which include the upcoming Amazon limited series "The Underground Railroad."

• Former National Security Council official Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, who rose to notoriety during the 2019 impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, will appear on a panel about the future of artificial intelligence and national security.

• Reddit chief operating officer Jen Wong will appear in conversation with CNN's Kerry Flynn to talk about online communities and their role in social connection and advocacy.

Here are a few of the other movers and shakers set to appear as speakers or session participants during SXSW Online, some of which were previously announced:

Comedian Samantha Bee attends the exclusive gala event 'For the Love of Cinema' during the Tribeca Film Festival hosted by luxury watch manufacturer IWC Schaffhausen on April 20, 2017 in New York City.
Comedian Samantha Bee attends the exclusive gala event 'For the Love of Cinema' during the Tribeca Film Festival hosted by luxury watch manufacturer IWC Schaffhausen on April 20, 2017 in New York City.

• "Full Frontal" host Samantha Bee

• "Dave" star and rapper Dave Burd, aka Lil Dicky

• Electronic music duo the Chainsmokers

• Latin Grammy winner Chiquis

• Actress and singer Cynthia Erivo

• "Hidden Figures" star Taraji P. Henson

• Musician Wyclef Jean

• TV impresario David E. Kelley, of "The Undoing," "Ally McBeal" and more

• Author Michael Lewis, of "The Big Short" and "Moneyball"

• Hip-hop artist MC Lyte

• Square co-founder Jim McKelvey

• Austin-based yoga entrepreneur Adriene Mishler

• Devo co-founder and composer Mark Mothersbaugh

• Actor, filmmaker and Olympic athlete Alexi Pappas

• Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks

• Tennis champion Maria Sharapova

• Comedian and podcast host Baratunde Thurston

• TV chef Andrew Zimmern

For more information, go to sxsw.com.

This article originally appeared on Austin 360: Willie Nelson SXSW keynote: Austin festival announces 2021 speakers