photo: Janis Tillerson
photo: Janis Tillerson
Phil Lesh, of the Grateful Dead, talks about the Dead’s connection with Willie Nelson:
Austin Chronicle: For casual observers, the pairing of the Dead and Willie Nelson probably seems odd, but you go back some ways; you did the first Farm Aid via satellite in ’86. When did you first cross paths?
Phil Lesh: I met Willie a couple years ago when we did some gigs together. We visited him on his bus, and he, um [laughs], gave me a copy of his new record and played a couple cuts with me. It was a wonderful get-together. We’ve been doing gigs pretty much every year since, either with my band or with the Dead. So he’s kind of a natural for anything we do. He’s so American, you know, in the finest sense.
AC: Willie’s 70 and still “On the Road Again.” You’re 63; can you see yourself still “Truckin'” in seven years?
PL: Oh yeah, probably. It’s not the kind of thing you want to stop doing, because it really is life enhancing the playing, that is, not necessarily the touring and traveling. I would hope that Iâ€™d be able to cut back a bit in the next seven years, but I’d never want to quit entirely, because taking the music to different people and different places is part of the experience. That’s the payoff.
AC: Any chance of a Willie/Dead duet in Austin?
PL: We’re hoping that can happen. Willie’s going to be opening for the Dead for about a week before that, and I’ve hoped for a long time to hear Willie sing with us, and do some of Jerry’s classic songs like “Stella Blue” or “Comes a Time.”
AC: You mentioned you’ve been on Willie’s bus, which is legendary for the amount of potent smoke on it. Can you confirm that?
PL: They had to turn me around a couple of times before I knew which way to get off. So yeah, it was like going to another world [laughs]. A very, very harmonious and congenial world, of course.
Here was a Fourth of July to Remember (2003):
FRIDAY, JULY 4
South Austin Jug Band
Bells of Joy
SATURDAY JULY 5
Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Ray Wylie Hubbard
Cross Canadian Ragweed
Billy Joe Shaver
Los Lonely Boys
Billy Bob Thornton
The Jeff Haney Band
Waylon PayneÂ Â
Willie Nelson invited fans to celebrate the fourth of July at the Gorge, in George, Washington in 2007. Janis and I went. It was a beautiful venue, but so hot — even with the river winding below.
I’m happy to have a copy of Dave Thomas’ history of Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnics and learning more about Willie’s annual summer music celebrations. He really brings the picnic to life with stories and pictures of posters from the past 40 plus years. It brings back great memories for fans lucky enough to be there,and enjoyable for new fans just learning about the Picnics. It’s an amazing list of artists that have played the event over the years. Some of the picnic posters are very rare.
“About halfway between attending my first Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic in 1995 and my 17th in 2015, I became obsessed with chronicling the history of Willie’s Picnic and collecting Picnic posters.”
— Dave Thomas
I’ve been following Dave Thomas’ year-by-year reports on Willie Nelson’s picnic concerts for years in the Austin American-Statesman newspaper. Each year the paper’s music blog Austin360.com publish a slideshow with Dave’s collections and stories about the Picnic’s history. In his new book, he includes pictures of posters, along with a brief story about each year’s picnic. It’s very informative and fun to read. You will learn a lot, even if you’ve been to lots of picnics or if you have never been and are a fan of Texas music.
There is an extra section on Steve Brooks, a Dallas artist known for his work with Willie Nelson & Family in the 1980’s. Steve designed many concert posters, as well as holiday posters. Dave’s book includes some of Steve’s artwork and puzzles portraying Willie’s 4th of July picnic, too.
This book’s a great gift – for another fan, or for yourself.
Or if you don’t like e-bay, you can e-mail Dave Thomas and make another arrangement, at email@example.com.
Billy Joe Shaver and me, at Billy Bob’s Fort Worth
photos: thanks to Janis Tillerson
Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic 1998 (Highlights Vol.1) recorded in Luckenbach, Texas. Artists include Willie Nelson, Bells of Joy, Doc Mason, Larry Butler, Jimmy Lee Jones, the Fryed Brothers, Ronnie Dawson, Steve Fromholz, Billy Joe Shaver, Paula Nelson, Jack Ingram, 8 1/2 Souvenirs, Alvin Crow, Craig Gillingham, and Bad Rodeo.
Produced by the Austin History Center in cooperation with AMN.
After 18 picnics, journalist Dave Thomas is still learning things at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnics. He recently published a book of posters and history of the picnic, if you want to know other things he has learned!
1. Better than 2015: On their second Picnic, I have to give thumbs up to the Circuit of The Americas and the Austin 360 Amphitheater on their growth as a host. I’m impressed by their decision to install “water monsters” around the facility to provide free and cool drinking water to patrons. (I always thought it was downright criminal for venues to host an event on the Fourth of July in Texas, then only offer water at $3-$4 a bottle.) Allowing us to bring in a small amount of food was a good move (I only had to buy one terrible $12 burger in my 11 hours). And while there was still an annoying amount of dead time between sets on the main stage for those of us who were spoiled by the Fort Worth Picnics, running the Plaza stage longer and the timing of the fireworks display helped keep it from being exasperating. One smart move didn’t quite work out: The “misting tent” was less of a cooling off spot for the masses than it was a de-facto VIP lounge for early arrivals. Not sure that was what they meant to happen.
2. No big discoveries: This was my 18th Picnic, and Lord knows I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t love to see Willie Nelson and Picnic regulars Ray Wylie Hubbard, Johnny Bush and Billy Joe Shaver. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t mind hearing “Whiskey River” four times in one day or “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” 18 Picnics in a row. But the thrill of every Picnic is discovering something new or seeing a legend for the first time. There was no transcendent moment this year like watching Kris Kristofferson intently watching Sturgill Simpson or seeing Charley Pride work the crowd.
So I’ll have to say this year’s highlight was newest Picnic regular Jamey Johnson appearing with Alison Krauss. Krauss softened Johnson’s often-prickly demeanor and they put on a great show together. I’ll even say Johnson sang his hit “In Color” with such conviction and depth that it made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
3. Love for a legend: Was astounded again by Austin’s love for Kris Kristofferson, whose show was all heart but … well, he struggled a lot. He eased through some hits, but on others — particularly “The Law is For The Protection of The People” — his voice nearly gave out completely. This year’s Picnic included a trio of octogenarians (Willie, Bush, Kristofferson), and after the passing of Ray Price and Merle Haggard, Picnic fans have learned to appreciate every moment with the legends. Willie wouldn’t approve of me saying it, but you never know when it’s going to be the last performance … or last Picnic.
4. Fans of all sorts: A small scene from the Picnic
5. Definitely over it: There are a couple things, however, that we need to have seen the last of. First is Kinky Friedman as terrible emcee. Fellow I know said he was ready to strangle Friedman as he dawdled over his introduction of Jamey Johnson with another lame politics joke (yes, the “Kinky-Johnson” ticket, I get it, ha ha) then had to hurry back out to the mike to add “and Alison Krauss.” Friedman has the talent to do a good job as emcee, but instead we got more of his look-at-me-make-something-up shtick.
6. Even worse: Second, is Shaver’s “That’s What She Said Last Night,” a song he’s introduced before as “the worst song” he’s ever written — and he’s right by a country mile. He’s trotted that song at Picnics dating back a decade and man, it’s time to give it up. More unfunny than offensive (though both at times), the cell phone-as-metaphor-for-manhood joke song has long since run its course.
7. Don’t mess with Willie: Was surprised to see Jamey Johnson and Krauss close with “I Saw The Light.” Traditionally that song has been what Willie closes the show with, bringing out all the remaining performers to sing along with him. Johnson should know, he’s been there with him. But Willie didn’t bring out the usual suspects for the finale this year. We got a reprise of “Whiskey River” to end the Picnic.
8. Brantley Gilbert. The kind of fellow who has an urban-camo-gray guitar with the U.S. flag on the front and the Confederate Stars and Bars on the back. Cute. The kind of fellow who has an intro video with chopper sound effects and a smoke machine on the stage. Hey, I hear Willie has a smoke machine, too. But he doesn’t bring it on stage. I’m pretty sure Gilbert opened with “Ghwgggrhrghgggggfjffggggggggr.” Or at least that was the best I could make out amid the noise.
Am I being too hard on Gilbert? He obviously was on the bill to sell tickets to people who weren’t already there for Johnny Bush and Ray Wylie Hubbard. And he is excellent at the southern rock / bro-country / preen-and-tough-guy-pose thing that he does. It’s just hard to take the tough-guy thing seriously when you know the history of the Picnic. Who you got, Gilbert or Waylon? Gilbert or David Allan Coe? What would Gilbert say to 1975-era Paul English? Gilbert and his muscle shirt and brass knuckles took the stage about 6 hours after a guy who shot a man in the face just a few years ago. And I still wouldn’t bet against Billy Joe Shaver.
But Gilbert dialed it back after the first few numbers to give us some songs we could hear the words to and offered enough spectacle that his hourlong set went by pretty quickly. In all it wasn’t as bad as I thought.
9. How times have changed: The 1995-1999 Picnics in Luckenbach were less of a redneck-meet-hippie thing and more of a college kids-meet-old hippie thing. And for a lonely 20-something reporter, the fans at those Picnics were a sight to behold. It’s not something I should probably mention now, but after spending dawn to midnight at those shows, you could close your eyes and still see Texas flag bikinis everywheres. These days the Picnic is much more of a middle-age thing, and so am I. After reporting all day, most of it via Twitter on my phone, when I closed my eyes about 2 a.m. on July 5th, I dreamed of Tweets. No, I dreamed in Tweets. It was very weird.
10. Next year? Will there be a 44th Annual Fourth of July Picnic? When I interviewed Willie at the 2006 Picnic, I asked him how long it might continue — thinking that we were already at the end. Willie’s answer has always been “as long as they’re still fun.” Short answer is, as long as Willie is still around, there’s a good chance there will be a Picnic. Or not. Who knows?
If there is one, I’m still saying we need to have a Waylon Jennings hologram (or at least find a way to show Waylon footage from the 1979 Picnic movie) and we need to have Loretta Lynn. The Picnic has been a boys’ club for far too long. Let’s include some legendary women.
But let’s keep a few traditions …
Read entire article, see more photos and videos here:
10 Things I Learned at Willie Nelson’s 2016 Fourth of July Picnic
Willie Nelson plays Georgia On My Mind at his 43rd annual picnic at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin. Filmed by Cody Shelton
by: Dave Thomas, Peter Blackstock
Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic is an endurance race — long hours, heat and sun, $12 burgers — for even the most devoted Picnic regulars. But when roadie Tune’n Tom Hawkins brings out Trigger and places it on the stage, you know you’re at the finish line.
A little after the appointed time of 11:15 p.m., Willie Nelson strode on stage, waved to the crowd, strapped on his battered old Martin guitar and hit those chords everyone was expecting: Whiskey River Take My Mind!
After that, the names of the songs hardly matter. You know them: “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” “Whiskey for My Men (And Beer for My Horses),” “Good Hearted Woman” — they’re the same ones he’s been opening the Picnic with for a decade or more. What matters is how Willie Nelson and Family played them.
They were fantastic. Though Willie and band seemed a little downcast, the music did not suffer for a minute. Willie sounded as young as he has in years, and he played with a purpose. Seeing him backlit in red and pulling every ounce of the blues from “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” is as close to time travel as is possible.
Let’s travel back in time, then, to 11 a.m., when the gates opened at Circuit of the Americas for the venue’s second straight year as the host of Willie’s Picnic.
It wasn’t quite 90 degrees yet when Amber Digby kicked things off with “The Star Spangled Banner” on the Grand Plaza Stage. But the heat was coming soon and sure enough. While Digby’s set largely served as entrance music for those who were standing in line, she and her seven-piece band took the honors of playing the first Willie song of the day with “Darkness on the Face of the Earth.”
There was no darkness on this bright and blazing Independence Day afternoon, though a steady breeze at least helped keep the hot air moving. Sirius/XM DJ Dallas Wayne, who remains first and foremost a fine country singer and songwriter, followed Digby with a few solo acoustic songs before backing up Willie’s daughter Amy Nelson and her pal Cathy Guthrie (daughter of Arlo) for Folk Uke’s four-song set.
If the two women seem charming at first with their smiles and their high harmonies, the kicker is that their lyrics eschew country themes of home life and heartbreak in favor of humorous profanity and innuendo. Willie’s granddaughter Raelyn Nelson and a backing electric trio followed with a spitfire set of rock ’n’ roll that kicked off with a spirited cover of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” and included the Willie & Waylon classic “I Can Get Off on You.”
Many fans watched from the Plaza’s covered VIP bleachers, which rose behind a set of unshaded picnic tables and the grassy lawn up front. A relatively small misting tent in the back corner of the lawn quickly became staked-out territory for early arrivals loath to give up their spot; two or three such tents might be in order for next year.
Sets shifted from 20 to 30 minutes starting with Ray Benson’s western swing showband Asleep at the Wheel, whose time still went by quickly. Crowd-pleasers such as “Miles and Miles of Texas” and “Route 66” led into the obligatory string of Bob Wills tunes, including a delightful “San Antonio Rose” that allowed the fiddles and steel guitar to shine.
Ray Wylie Hubbard, originally scheduled for an unjust 20 minutes, got bumped up to 30 when Paula Nelson and David Allan Coe dropped off the bill last week. Hubbard, with his his son Lucas on a gold-top Les Paul, charged through six fan favorites, none newer than “Drunken Poet’s Dream” and none more Picnic-tested than “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” He would later tweet “All killer and no filler,” though there’s no shortage of killer in his repertoire.
Johnny Bush, the traditional country music heart of Willie’s Picnic, announced he was 81 years old and “felt every minute” of it, though he seemed as strong as ever behind the microphone, belting out classics like “There Stands the Glass” and “Undo the Right.” He gave the authority of age to the George Strait hit “Troubadour” and still tore through “Orange Blossom Special” with twin fiddles and steel guitar.
After finishing his original version of “Whiskey River,” Bush mentioned a surprise guest and glanced to the side of the stage. “He’s not here, is he?” Bush asked before the band played “Whiskey River” again, Willie-style. Was Willie supposed to join him? It would have been remarkable, but Willie would not join anyone on stage today.
After Bush, the action began rotating between the Plaza Stage and the main Pavilion Stage of the Austin 360 Amphitheater. Up first was Margo Price, the buzz-band newcomer of this year’s picnic, fresh off a debut album that landed her on “Saturday Night Live” this spring.
She proved every bit worthy of the big-stage slot, with a big voice that filled up the venue on her own memorable tunes “Four Years of Chances” and “Hurtin’ (on the Bottle).” Best of all was a beautiful rendition of Doug Sahm’s “Give Back the Key to My Heart,” a nod to one of the Texas greats who played the very first Picnic in 1973.
Another veteran of that 1973 Picnic, Billy Joe Shaver, came out next on the Plaza Stage in a Guy Clark mustache to match his well-tested stage attire: That belt buckle should end up in the Bullock Texas State History Museum. Unlike Bush, if Shaver was feeling his 76 years, he didn’t let on a bit, doing his pantomime ritual to songs such as “Heart of Texas” and “Honky Tonk Heroes.” He’s obviously having fun — the most animated living legend in Texas music and a not-entirely-tamed link to the outlaw days of the original ’70s Picnics. “Georgia on a Fast Train” and “Hottest Thing in Town” have lost neither speed nor heat.
Back in the Amphitheater, native Texan Lee Ann Womack served up the second straight set on the big stage by a first-class female country vocalist. Womack exchanged friendly, easygoing banter with the crowd between well-received favorites such as “Little Past Little Rock,” the George Jones hit “You’re Still on My Mind” and her uplifting signature song, “I Hope You Dance.”
Next on the Plaza Stage was Cody Johnson, who’s not above lyrics like “new spit shine on my boots/starched these jeans just for you.” But he’s also honest honky-tonk enough to tell the crowd “Willie Nelson is my Elvis” and deliver a compelling cover of Merle Haggard’s hidden gem “Huntsville.” That combination drew the first packed crowd to the area in front of the stage, with denim-shorts-and-cowboy-boots women on the front row.
An equally devoted but larger contingent of longtime followers warmly greeted Kris Kristofferson in the Amphitheater as the peak of the heat finally started to subside. Looking frail and aged, Kristofferson played solo acoustic and struggled through long-ago hits — and Austin absolutely loved him for it. As he exited the stage, he was given a standing ovation from fans who were smart enough to see the heart behind the show.
“Me and Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33” were all there, honest and vulnerable. Early on, Kristofferson fought with his harmonica, ironically while wearing a T-shirt boasting the name of Willie’s harmonica ace, Mickey Raphael. His voice almost completely gave out on “The Law is For The Protection of The People,” but he soldiered on.
By the end of the 30-minute set, the music took a poignant turn. “For the Good Times” has been sadly appropriate for the Picnic over the past few years, as legendary performers make their last appearances. Kristofferson was one of a trio of octogenarians at this year’s Picnic, along with Bush and Willie — likely a record for the 43-year-old show.
The counterpoint, of course, is that youth will be served. With the cancellation of Leon Russell’s big-stage set — organizers said his bus broke down en route to the show — the dinner hour became a showcase for two up-and-coming Austin acts on the Plaza Stage.
Jamestown Revival, a five-piece led by guitarist Jonathan Clay and keyboardist Zack Chance, played mostly feel-good, soul-tinged Americana. As they played songs such as “Done Me Wrong” and “Cast Iron Soul,” suddenly the air was awash in red and white beach balls, underscoring the levity of the occasion even as Chance noted the gravity of playing Willie’s Picnic as a “bucket list achievement” for the young band.
photo: Peter Blackstock
That was even more the case for Shakey Graves, who’d acknowledged last week that sharing the bill with many of his idols was “enough to make my head explode.” Still, Graves is very much his own artist. His presentation is much less about songwriting — his chops pale when offered up alongside Kristofferson and Shaver — but more about sheer combustible energy, of which he had more than any other artist on the bill. His airborne flight at the end of the set-closing “Dearly Departed” proved that, in spades.
The rest of the night was all in the Amphitheater. Jamey Johnson — in a Kristofferson T-shirt — came out with Alison Krauss, who softened the rugged and prickly edges of the newest and youngest Picnic regular. Their sad, slow start with “I Ain’t the One” and “Make the World Go Away” worked on the beauty of Krauss’ voice and the relief of sundown.
Giving up the bluesy jams at the end of his songs, Johnson moved efficiently with Krauss through a remarkable run of songs, including “Ghost in This House” and “Footlights,” a moving tribute to Merle Haggard, who played in this slot in last year’s Picnic). Best of all was Johnson’s well-known hit “In Color,” delivered with such conviction and soul that it was downright moving.
Johnson and Krauss responded to chants of “USA! USA!” with a powerful rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” the last verse about the “No Trespassing” sign delivered as a come-and-take-it challenge. The longest set of the Picnic was a mix of the well-loved and the unexpected: Screams of recognition greeted the first chords of “When You Say Nothing at All” and, hey, who knew that “Tulsa Time” was missing a bongo solo?
After a 15-minute fireworks display, Brantley Gilbert exploded on the stage. Gilbert is excellent at what he does — though what he does is a terrible fit for the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic. But tickets have to be sold, and Gilbert is a popular Southern country-rocker and bro-country-rapper with four No. 1 hits.
Gilbert has been knocked by critics for his singing and for good reason. The opening number was so loud, his voice could not be found amid the buzz. A few minutes in and it was hard to remember Kristofferson was on this stage a few hours ago. He settled in after a couple of noisy party anthems with “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do,” and the heart’s-in-the-right place “One Hell of an Amen” before closing with his hits “Kicking it in the Sticks” and “Bottoms Up.””
And then it was a “Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming” moment when Willie arrived with the Family Band. After his first run of standard set-opening tunes ended, Willie looked up and gave a wave, but he didn’t talk much to the crowd. Instead, he reached back for a Tom T. Hall song (“Shoeshine Man”), one for the late Merle Haggard (“It’s All Going to Pot”), and a recent cover of the Gershwin standard “Summertime.” He came out in black hat and pigtails but quickly traded the hat for a series of red bandanas.
At the end of one guitar solo, he stopped to wipe a bit of sweat from his nose on this humid night. It seemed we were only gearing up for the finale when he brought Kristofferson onstage for “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” — but then it was over, somewhat unexpectedly.
Or was it? Willie looked at the crowd: “You got time for one more?” A roar went up from those who stayed to the end of a 13-hour show. Willie played “Living in the Promiseland” and one last “Whiskey River” before finally wrapping it up at 12:40 a.m.
“Thank you very much, We love you,” he told the crowd as the Family jammed to an instrumental “I Saw the Light.”
With that, fans, finishers and survivors shuffled out of the 43rd Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic.
Read article and see more photos:
Willie Nelson’s Picnic survives the heat for a festive Fourth
Dallas Wayne, Lee Ann Womack and Johnny Bush backstage at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic in Austin, TX.
by: Bridget Spencer
It’s an Austin tradition that’s been going on for more than four decades. Since 1973, thousands of people have gathered to hear Willie Nelson perform at his annual Fourth of July picnic joined each year by other artists.
This year it was at COTA. People from near and far agree, Willie Nelson is not only a Texas icon, but an American one.
“Willie is a part of American culture,” We’re big Willie fans. Grew up listening to him, it’s kind of in our blood,” Audy Cowsky, concert attendee, said. Cowsky and her husband came all the way from Florida to catch the action.
“This is our first time. We were with family for the Fourth of July so we decided to come here,” she said.
This is the 43rd edition of the musical picnic, but just the second time at Circuit of the Americas and fans are loving the choice of venue.
“I’m a racer myself, drag racing. It’s at a racetrack that’s why I’m here. I’ve got the RV parked over there. Been here since 9:00 yesterday morning,” Kenny Bass, concert attendee said.
Our cameras were not allowed to shoot performances per festival policy, however, Bass gave us a private concert singing one of his favorites by Willie.
“Whiskey river take my mind, don’t let her memory torture me,” Bass sang.
The picnic is held in various Texas cities each year, but because this is close to Willie’s birthplace, Austin could always have an unofficial leg up in the future.
The all day event featured not only Willie Nelson, but more than 19 other artists, including several from Texas like “Jamestown Revival,” “Asleep at the Wheel,” and “Shaky Graves.”