photo: Lana Nelson
(Dripping Springs, 1974)
Dallas Times Herald
AUSTIN – The 8th annual – and last, according to the creator – Willie Nelson, July 4th picnic drew more than 50,000 fans who survived the sweltering heat of the Texas Hill Country last week.
There were the usual number of drunks, exhibitionists and scores of Texas and Dixie flags. Tents and huge colorful umbrellas dotted the rolling fairway where the fans sprawled out to catch several of country music’s biggest stars, and of course, the main attraction — Willie Nelson.
Nelson, basking in the triumph of a seemingly successful movie debut and the announcement that his name will be carried on a new line of designer jeans, said the picnic had gotten just a bit out of hand.
“It just takes a lot of time. It takes six months to put together and it takes another six months to get over it.”
The night before the last picnic on his country club overlooking scenic Lake Travis, Warner Brothers premiered “Honeysuckle Rose,” Nelson’s first starring movie performance. Earlier he had played a small part in Robert Redford’s successful “Electric Horseman.”
Hundreds of reporters and Hollywood types converged at a local theater to watch the screening. The gala was complete with celebrities and several shiny limousines. But in his typical unassuming laid-back tradition, Nelson chose not to use a chauffeur and drove himself and his wife, Connie, in a silver Mercedes.
Nelson, in the presence of Dyan Cannon and Slim Pickens, comes off well in the movie. But then again he played the role of a country star bandleader who travels the country in a bus with a handful of renegade musicians. There is plenty of singing and plenty of carousing — activities Nelson is not unaccustomed to in real life.
“I don’t think I ever really get nervous about it (filming the movie), but then I was never asked to do anything that hard. I just kind of go where they point me, really,” said Nelson.
Ms. Cannon, who did a splendid job of singing a few country songs herself, said she was impressed with Nelson, although she admitted she did not even know who Willie Nelson was before she hired on to co-star in the movie.
“Willie has a basic honesty,” she said. “The screen just doesn’t lie. It captured that about Willie.”
Nelson said he had two more movies to do in the next year, including one with Kris Kristofferson, but indicated music would continue to be his first livelihood.
Part of Nelson’s contract with Warner Brothers called for him to write several songs for the movie. Time went by and Nelson had not written any songs. But then, during a flight with director Jerry Schatzberg shrotly before filming began in Austin last year, the director reminded Nelson of his obligations.
Nelson pulled out his plane ticket and a pencil and wrote the movie’s biggest song, “On the Road Again.”
These pictures are from the companion book to the 3-cd boxed set produced by the by Bear Family Records, “It’s Been Rough and Rocky Travelin’” by Rich Kienzle.
Saint Willie: Why the cult of the redheaded stranger still matters
by: John T. Davis
July 3, 1997
As inconceivable as it seemed in the late ’70s and ’80s, when he bestrode the musical world like a chicken-fried colossus, Willie Nelson has become something of a trivia question to many of the inhabitants of the world of ’90s country music. Not in Austin, mind you, where “In Willie We Trust” might as well be engraved on the municipal letterhead, and mystics occasionally report the mysterious appearance of his beatific visage on fresh-baked tortillas. Nor in Texas as a whole, a state with an enduring taste for eccentrics with a twinkle in their eye.
But there are younger country music fans in the hinterlands and not-so-young executives on Music Row in Nashville who are apt to shrug “Willie who?” when the outlaw patriarch’s name is brought up.
To the casual observer, the skeptics make a good case: Having lost his berth at Columbia Records in 1993, Nelsonhas seemingly drifted at whim, recording marginally selling albums for a variety of smaller labels. His latest (his third for Justice Records, the Houston-based indie label) is a re-release of his 1971 concept album, “Yesterday’s Wine.”
His songs are nowhere to be found on the mainstream “Hot Young Country” radio formats, and at 64 (he is old enough to recall the birth of Social Security; next year he will be eligible to collect it), Nelson is deemed hopelessly inaccessible to the demographic tail that wags the dog of the radio and record industries these days.
His Fourth of July Picnic, once a unique, Lone Star-waving gathering of the tribes, has shrunk to a vestigial ritual that keeps regenerating itself for no particularly compelling reason (the latest edition — the 25th anniversary Picnic, by rough count — will be held tomorrow in Luckenbach). The Picnic, featuring a graying cohort ofNelson familiars, pales in scope and charisma next to 100,000-strong bacchanaliasNelson used to assemble on Independence Day (a far cry from the bloated, corporate-sponsored mega-festivals, like last month’s CountryFest up near Dallas, which are the fashion today).
His concert set, as this listener of 20-plus years will attest, has not changed in essence in decades.
The skeptics will tell you there is less and less reason to pay attention toWillieNelson: Ain’t it funny, they’ll tell you (before moving on to anoint the next Flavor of the Month), how time slips away?
Well, the skeptics are full of sheep dip.
WillieNelsonstillmatters, in ways that Soundscan sales charts and radio Arbitron ratings can’t measure. (I would have been happy to address questions of his ongoing relevance to Willie his ownself, except that he was away in Hawaii and on the road; efforts to cross paths with him by phone proved unsuccessful).
If he doesn’t put hits in the Top 10 like he once did, he remains one of the last repositories of iconoclastic vision and unfettered imagination to which country music has access.
Texas has conjured up such prodigies in the past, in many musical disciplines — Scott Joplin, Ornette Coleman, Bob Wills, T-Bone Walker and Janis Joplin all achieved renown by breaking down barriers and forcing listeners to confront music on the artist’s terms.
This has been Willie’s particular genius as well. Listen to him for any length of time and his music — filtered as it is through the lenses of blues, country, jazz, American pop standards, folk and gospel — emerges as a clear and cogent creative vision informed by all these influences but constrained by none. Suddenly, the listener is viewing the musical landscape through Willie’s panoramic perspective.
Consider his last major-label album, 1993’s wonderful “Across the Borderline, ” an ostensibly “country” album which blends songs by Paul Simon, Willie Dixon, Ry Cooder, Lyle Lovett, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel and Nelson himself.
Coming from almost any other artist, this shotgun wedding of genres and tunesmiths would have come across as a mishmash born of unchecked egotism. But Willie weaves the disparate strands into a coherent tapestry, which engages the listener with a sort of organic inevitability that is immensely satisfying. “It’s always time to stretch, ” said Nelson modestly at the time of the album’s release, hardly needing to add that stretching has been a way of life with him.
“Spirit, ” his understated 1996 album on Island Records, achieved much the same effect in a more low-key fashion, folding flamenco and mariachi textures into a suite of songs that glow with luminous spirituality. We are told that Nelson has a blues album and even — Gawd! — a reggae album in the can awaiting the light of day. Well, why not?
It’s harder and harder to find anyone in Nashville (or even on the self-consciously left-of-center Americana chart) who will roll the creative dice with the same aplomb that Nelson has displayed for at least a couple of musical epochs.
But that effortless eclecticism is only half the story. At an age when many artists have entombed their work in CD box sets (funny how much those things look like coffins …) and content themselves with collecting royalty checks, Nelsonstilldisplays an energy, an imagination and a restless curiosity that is the envy of musicians half his age.
Hey, don’t take my word for it; let’s go to the tale of the tape, as the boxing writers used to say.
There are the classics he has authored — from “Crazy” to “Night Life, ” “Hello Walls, ” “Funny How Time Slips Away, ” “Three Days, ” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and a score of others — songs whose blues-inflected phrasing (aNelson signature) and dark and stately lyricism would enthrall singers from Patsy Cline to the Supersuckers over the course of the years.
The aforementioned “Yesterday’s Wine” was but the first of four concept albums that examined everything from a crumbling marriage to spiritual redemption and reincarnation. The most celebrated of that quartet, “Red Headed Stranger, ” boasts a permanent place in any Top 10 Country Albums of All Time list.
Almost as an afterthought, Nelson created an album of standards, 1978’s “Stardust, ” which has become a standard unto itself. He has recorded with everyone from Faron Young to U2’s Bono. His ongoing Farm Aid concert series endures as a populist-based Middle American landmark.
But the resume doesn’t tell the whole story.
Resumes are ossified, static; Willie is anything but. “I can be moving or can be still, ” he once sang, “But still is still movin’ to me.”
“The most challenging thing, ” he once said, “would be to come up with something entirely different that I haven’t thought of yet, and do it before I have a chance to think about it, and back out.”
Kris Kristofferson once said that Willie’s face belongs on stamps and money. His point, in part, is that Nelson embodies the best of everything that an artist should bring to the table: vision, chops, commitment, imagination, compassion, restless energy, fresh perspectives and a joie de vivre thatfinds its fullest expression in the creative process.
For those reasons, and for many others, Williestillmatters, and always will.
So even if you’re not at Luckenbach tomorrow, pour a tequila shot and hoist a toast to WillieNelson. They ain’t making any more of him.
by: Dave Thomas
July 3, 2014
July 3, 2014
July 3, 2014
By Dave Thomas
FORT WORTH — “I think we’re tied for the most bras tossed onstage,” Dierks Bentley told the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic crowd. “Austin is right up there with you.”
So, Austin, we have that going for us.
No, actually, we lost that record in short order. Of course such a record seems dubious, if I were Dierks Bentley, I’d say that at every show.
And he probably does. A human super ball of energy, Bentley had the crowd in the palm of his hand early. He never missed a chance to say “Fort Worth” and by the time he sang the extra verse to “Am I The Only One” — about good times at the Picnic — he had an army.
Who could top that?
Easy, the guy whose name is on the show.
Coming out at 9:50 p.m. to a crowd that Billy Bob’s Texas says topped 10,000 (though I would guess significantly more), Willie Nelson hit the opening chords of “Whiskey River,” the Texas flag dropped down behind him and he let loose about 75 minutes of old hits and new songs. The elder statesman of the Picnic, Willie is as cool as John Lee Hooker. He ran through his standard opening numbers — including a run of “Ain’t it Funny,” “Crazy” and “Night Life” that was accompanied by fireworks in the distance — and found his way to newer songs “Breathe,” “Bring it On” and “Band of Brothers.”
By the time Willie returned to old standards such as “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys” and “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” — the sea of fans at the south stage had begun to recede a bit — glassy-eyed and limping faithful who were clearly thinking “OK, we’ve seen Willie, now we can go” were doing just that.
There’s no doubt, the Picnic is an endurance test for folks who want to take it all in. And with only 13 artists (outnumbered 2-1 by official sponsors), it didn’t seem right to miss anyone. So by mid-afternoon you’d have sad sights: An older woman hobbling in cowboy boots alongside a shell-shocked man. Angrily red sunburned faces of the stubborn and ghost-pale faces of those who were a swoon away from being carted away by the EMS. On the other hand, there was that fellow in black leather, looking like David Allan Coe did in the 1970s, eating a fudgsicle and walking through the crowd like somebody’s bad dream. Some folks are impervious.
That doesn’t include David Allan Coe in the 2010s. He limped out with a walker, sat down in a chair and was handed an ’80s-style hair-metal guitar full of sharp points, and he launched into Merle Haggard’s “Rambling Fever.” After that, we entered the Coe Medley Zone and we never left. I think one song was “My Long Hair Never Covered up The Ride.” Nine years ago in this very spot, Coe was a force of nature — love him or hate him, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. A decade and a serious car wreck later, he’s fighting onward, but it seems uphill now.
The Picnic has been losing regular performers faster than it has been gaining them. It picked up Jamey Johnson a few years back, but more are needed. I don’t know how long the Picnic will go on, but for however long that is, Ryan Bingham should be at every one. Bingham’s unpretentious style (write excellent songs, step up to mike, sing the hell out of them) fits in perfectly alongside the legends he followed. And his fans loved him for it, every song (“Dollar a Day,” “Dylan’s Hard Rain,” “Sunrise,” “Country Roads”) was greeted with a huge “whoooo” of appreciation.
At the soft opening of “Day is Done,” Bingham’s rasp rattled the North Forty like a small earthquake. By the time he hit the middle of “Bread and Water,” an American flag was waving above outstretched hands at the right of the stage and suspicious puffs of smoke were floating above the left side. One of the benefits of a 75-minute set is the opportunity for the rarest of Picnic things: An encore. And Bingham, in an inspired move, closed his with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”
After dozens of Picnics — he made his debut 40 years ago at the same College Station Picnic where Robert Earl Keen’s car caught on fire — Ray Wylie Hubbard totally gets it: Hit the crowd hard with what they want and don’t stop hitting until the set is over. If they never catch their breath, they’ll never notice they are baking in a dusty field. “Rabbit” quickly lead to “Snake Farm” anad “Drunken Poets Dream.” By the team we got to the sing-along of “Redneck Mother” beers were held high, waving in not-quite-unison.
Earlier in the day, Charley Pride came out in a purple shirt and got a royal reception to match. The country legend got the biggest roar of the early afternoon, opening with “Six Days on the Road” before getting to what everyone was waiting for: “Is Anybody Going to San Antone.” Pride worked the stage, microphone in one hand and a white towel in the other to mop the sweat from his head, never missing a note while he did so. It took him awhile to get warmed up — 20 minutes in I was wishing terribly he’d get a bonus 20 minutes — but once he did, he was mesmerizing.
The Willie Picnic crowd seems to love a legend we haven’t seen very often, and Willie has a long history of making them part of his show. The crowd ate up “All I have to Offer You (Is Me)” and “Mountain of Love” and he gave the fans in the front little waves before we got our first hair-stand-on-end moment of the day: a patriotic song — which I’ll guess is called “America the Great.” It was one of the great Picnic moments that I’ve seen in the past decade.
Pride gave us all we came to see, ending with “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” and working that warmed-up voice with “Kaw-Liga.”
It’s as if Johnny Bush saw Leon Russell’s fiery set at last year’s show and took it as a personal challenge. Bush, who is the traditional country music heart of the Picnic, came out with “There Stands the Glass” and didn’t slow down from there. He joked with the crowd a moment: “I talked to Willie yesterday and he said next year we’re going to do the Fourth of July Picnic in February.” But then it was one great hit after another: “Undo the Right,” “Pipeliner Blues” and “All the Rage in Paris” — an excellent new song he wrote with Randy Rogers.
After an instrumental break — if twin fiddles don’t stir your soul, you ain’t in the right place — he closed with hits “Green Snakes” and “Whiskey River.”
There was drama early in the day when a fellow passed out at the front of the south stage about halfway through Folk Uke’s set. Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson stopped the show and called for EMS services, who quickly revived the older gentlemen and hustled him off to the medical tent (later, I would find myself standing next to him at the Ray Wylie Hubbard set — rock on, dude). When it was obvious that the man was not in real trouble, the Nelson family quickly turned comedy team.
“That’s OK, the song wasn’t very good anyway,” Amy said. Brother Micah joked, “My solo was so bad he passed out.”
Micah was sitting in on Folk Uke’s set of charmingly profane and profanely charming songs before bringing out his band Insects vs. Robots. The comedy would continue during the set change: “I have a really offensive joke,” Micah told the crowd. “Can you handle it? Is this America?”
We won’t tell you the joke, for much the same reason we won’t tell you what songs Folk Uke played, but it led right in to Insects vs. Robots, which brought the “I like this, but what the heck is it?” to the Picnic for the second year. Their set consisted of 2 extended jams, the last ending with the whole band wailin’ out of tune, which was as close and as far as this Picnic would get to Waylon Jennings.
Amber Digby’s traditional country set the tone for the hundreds filing in during the opening hour. Not sure why her and her 7-piece band got a full hour (during the Luckenbach hour this would’ve been split up into four local acts, each overjoyed to be there), but Digby made the most of it, including an inspired closing song: Johnny Paycheck’s “If I’m Going to Sink (Might as Well Go to the Bottom).”
For those of you keeping track of such things, beer was running $6 a 16-ounce bottle, and if you spent too much money, you might have ended up like the girl who ran up and puked into the trashcan I was standing next to. The beer wasn’t the only overpriced thing: Official Willie T-shirts started at $40 and climbed from there.
Back to Dierks Bentley: He came out to “5-1-5-0″ and soon beach balls were bouncing everywhere. Bentley snagged one from mid-air and held it before him like a he had lopped it off of someone’s neck. The crowd went nuts. Actually, the crowd was nuts the whole show, soaking in “Free and Easy” and “Tip it on Back” and, particularly, “Drunk on a Plane.”
Bentley is unstoppable, bringing a fan on stage for a beer-shotgunning contest, climbing down to the fence to high-five fans, grabbing a camera for a selfie. He tells us that he told Willie’s manager years back that his bucket list included playing Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic and Farm Aid. Halfway there. Another faux-encore leads to, of course, “What was I Thinking.”
Later, as Willie is winding down his set, starting with “Will the Circle be Unbroken” and leading into “I’ll Fly Away” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” he has been joined by the remaining stars of the day — Bentley and Johnson and Bingham are among them — for the traditional closing stretch. Willie sounds great, his voice about 20 years younger at this moment, when he starts up what will be the last song, Hank Williams’ “I Saw The Light.”
Done, Willie takes off Trigger and starts to head backstage as the band keeps the song going. Then Willie changes his mind, comes back to the mike and gives us one more refrain. It’s hard to tell from here, but he seems reluctant to leave the stage. Then he gives us all a little bow and a little wave and that’s it.
A sign? Will there be a 42nd annual Picnic? With Willie you never know.
About Dave Thomas
Dave Thomas has been a copy editor, designer and now web producer for the Austin American-Statesman since 2002.
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