New Willie Nelson mural previews Rockfest during SXSW

Kartik Sridhar

Between the iconic “Hi, How Are You?” and displays of Texas pride, Austin’s prominent murals are as ingrained in the city’s culture as breakfast tacos and live music. 

So when local muralist Wiley Ross and UT alumnus Adam Brewer found themselves with a blank, gray wall, they knew just what to fill it with — a 60-by-20-foot likeness of beloved musician
Willie Nelson. 

The inspiration behind the mural, which is located on the corner of Seventh and Neches Streets, had been around for a while, artist Wiley Ross said. 

“Adam Brewer and I had been wanting to paint that big wall for four years,” Ross said. “When we finally got the go-ahead from the landlord, we chose Willie Nelson — he’s just one of those people that everybody loves.” 

That sentiment particularly resonates in his home state Texas, where his fandom transcends music and propels him into multi-faceted stardom. So much so that, according to Texas Tribune, Nelson received 22 write-in votes in Travis and Tarrant counties during the 2012 presidential election. 

Getting approval for the mural was a difficult and time-consuming process. Brewer, the commissioner of the mural, said funding was originally hard to come by, because they needed permission from both the building owner and Nelson himself. Brewer said he capitalized on the release of Nelson’s new album, Summertime, to get authorization from Nelson’s manager Mark Rothbaum. 

Nelson shared an article about the mural on his Facebook page, which received over 7,000 likes, helping with the publicity of Heart of Texas Rockfest. Started by Brewer in 1999 while he was a film student at UT, the Rockfest music festival was originally created to showcase overlooked local talent. 

“I felt like a bunch of my friends – musicians and filmmakers alike – weren’t being represented at SXSW,” Brewer said. “Though [Rockfest] started small, we expanded to nightclubs around the city before finding our permanent location in 2007. This year’s four-day, four-night festival is the biggest production we’ve ever had.” 

Now in its 17th year, Brewer said Rockfest will likely get an influx of concert-goers from the popularity of the mural. Ross said the process was both unusual and grueling, as he was working up to 13-hour days in the sun to complete the painting in six days.

 “In order to make the likeness as accurate as possible, I would generally use a projector, but the lighting wouldn’t allow me to,” Ross said. “Instead I had to go old-school and graph it out. Behind the paint in that mural is a scaled up grid of Willie’s face.”

Building on the momentum that the mural generated, Brewer said Austin may soon see more artwork that celebrates the rich musical history of Texas. Though Brewer and Ross have not yet decided on whom to add, they have some preliminary ideas that would keep Nelson in good company. 

“The mural is not necessarily done,” Brewer said. “[Ross] is going to see if he can do some more work to it. Maybe we’ll add some other Texas legends like Stevie Ray Vaughn or Janice Joplin, we haven’t decided yet.”