Willie Nelson thrilled the picnic crowd when he joined Merle Haggard at the end of his set and sang, “Poncho and Lefty” and “It’s All Going to Pot”, and one other song I can’t remember right now.
Archive for the ‘Picnic’ Category
photo: Erika Rich
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by: Peter Blackstock
For a solid 10 hours, everything went off without a hitch Saturday at the first Picnic at the Racetrack. Returning to Austin for the first time in five years, Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic booked a remarkably strong lineup at Circuit of the Americas, and around 20,000 fans turned out to join in the celebration.
After the sun went down, though, everything went a little haywire. The Picnic crew had made it through 20 acts without ever falling more than 10 minutes behind, admirably shuffling short sets by the first 10 performers from 11:15 a.m. to just past 3 p.m. on a makeshift stage in the venue’s Grand Plaza. A wide grass lawn offered plenty of room for standing or sitting, plus quite a few picnic tables in back.
After 3 p.m., sets began rotating between the plaza and the main Austin360 Amphitheater stage. Things stayed on track for another six hours, as legends such as Kris Kristofferson, Leon Russell and Billy Joe Shaver split time with a superb cast of rising stars including Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves.
It was after Musgraves’ terrific 8 p.m. set that the back-and-forth shuffle between the two stages ceased, and the crew couldn’t keep up with the pace the rest of the way. A scheduled 15-minute reset on the main stage between Musgraves and Merle Haggard stretched to almost 40 minutes. By the time a scheduled short fireworks display followed Haggard’s set, the show was a full hour behind.
Adding to the down side was the necessity of sitting through an hour of Eric Church before Willie and his family band brought the show to its natural apex. Context is everything: When Church played the iHeartRadio Country Festival at the Erwin Center last year, he stood out as one of the night’s better acts, sounding about as good as mainstream country radio has to offer. But set against the likes of the Picnic’s otherwise brilliantly assembled lineup of songwriters, his songs about drinkin’ a cold one, drinkin’ a product-placement brand of whiskey and just drinkin’ the drink in his hand revealed him to be an empty suit.
For brief moments, he tried to break out, such as when he prefaced his quasi-anthem “Springsteen” with a heartfelt run through the first verse and chorus of Robert Earl Keen’s “Corpus Christi Bay” that begged for a full rendition. And he chose wisely in his set closer with The Band’s “The Weight,” inviting late-afternoon main stage highlight Chris Stapleton back out to sing one of the verses.
It was with Stapleton’s 4:40 p.m. set that the Picnic fully hit its stride. Kris Kristofferson had played the first set on the Amphitheater stage immediately before, performing solo with no fanfare but setting a proper tone that if you’re going to play Willie’s Picnic, you better bring along some top-shelf original songs. Stapleton, who’s written a lot of hits for other artists but is just now getting his shot in the spotlight with his acclaimed album “Traveller,” proved up to the task, shining with a soulful backing band that brought out the drama of songs such as “Nobody to Blame” and the record’s title track.
Next on the big stage was Sturgill Simpson, whose recent sold-out Stubb’s shows and “Austin City Limits” taping showcased a 2014 breakthrough album “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” that brilliantly synthesizes country and psychedelia. Simpson mostly avoided the latter on this day, choosing instead to delve more into his bluegrass roots — “I know we’re in Texas, but I’m from Kentucky!” he explained — in a 40-minute set that spotlighted his full-throated vocals and his band’s hot picking.
From a pure songwriting perspective, no one beat the main stage’s next performer, reigning Americana Music Association Artist of the Year Jason Isbell. As much as his 2013 album “Southeastern” sparked a career peak, it’s his upcoming “Something More Than Free,” due July 17, that stands to launch him into another league, judging from Saturday’s renditions of the album’s passionate title track and the spectacular first single, “24 Frames.” Isbell also reached back to his Drive-By Truckers days for “Outfit” and “Decoration Day,” both of which offered fitting alternate-view perspectives on the Independence Day atmosphere.
Amid this auspicious stretch of main stage up-and-comers was a strong anchor of sets from Picnic mainstays on the smaller stage. In succession, the swelling plaza crowd was treated to the classic honky-tonk of Johnny Bush, the outlaw mysticism of Billy Joe Shaver, the piano Hank-and-Stones shuffle of Leon Russell and the western swing revival of Asleep at the Wheel. Closing out the Plaza Stage run just before sundown was Jamey Johnson, who smartly kept the backing low-key so his vocals could shine on stirring covers of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
That was a perfect segue into the big-stage performance of Musgraves, who’s all the rage even in mainstream country circles these days but is smart enough not to lower herself to that common denominator. Dressed for the part in a spangly starred white outfit that played off her new album’s “Pageant Material” title, Musgraves proved fully worthy of a Picnic headlining slot with smart songs such as “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Step Off” that pointedly refrained from Nashville bombast-and-cliche. And when she got to her smash hit “Follow Your Arrow,” it was a perfect fit for Willie’s Picnic, with its sly little exhortation in the chorus to “roll up a joint.”
It was all downhill from there, with the way-too-long pause before Haggard’s decent but unremarkable set sparked primarily by Willie’s cameo at the end for Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty” and the novel single “It’s All Going to Pot” from their chart-topping new duo album. The fireworks, and Church’s lack thereof, chased some of the crowd home before Willie finally took the stage at 12:23 a.m. on July 5 – though the vast majority of the crowd did stick around in a heartfelt show of solidarity for their beloved host.
He and his Family Band — pianist Bobbie Nelson, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, bassist Kevin Smith and drummer/percussionists Paul and Billy English — rewarded them with about an hour of trademark Willie, from the obligatory “Whiskey River” and “On the Road Again” to medleys of his own timeless classics (“Funny How Time Slips Away”/“Crazy”/“Night Life”) and those of Hank Williams. Around 1:15 a.m., an official came onstage and apparently obliged them to wrap things up, so Willie invited out performers still on hand backstage including Kristofferson, Johnson and Church for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away” before a finale that he described as “my new gospel song” — “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
A quick look at early-afternoon highlights, which featured 15-to-20-minute sets from a cross-section of performers:
Three-named Texans Ray Wylie Hubbard and David Allan Coe got the Picnic faithful smiling and dancing with hallmark numbers such as “Screw You, We’re From Texas” and “Take This Job and Shove It,” respectively. A trio of Nelson family acts helped the crowd ease into the heat of the afternoon, with Paula Nelson paying tribute to Waylon Jennings and Mickey Newbury after Raelyn Nelson rocked out on Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” and the duo “Folk Uke” (Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie, Arlo’s daughter) sang comic songs that were mostly unprintable but quite entertaining. Sirius/XM DJ Dallas Wayne, a fine songwriter in his own right, played two excellent tunes and deserved more time. Armadillo World Headquarters veterans Greezy Wheels played a short but energetic set that helped put the Picnic in historical perspective. And Hudson Moore, Amber Digby and Pauline Reese provided a spark for those just arriving to the Circuit of the Americas grounds before noon.
Despite the late-night scheduling snafu, COTA proved a good spot for the Picnic, though its outrageous concessions prices are a failing grade on an otherwise strong report card. If a family of four spent the full day at the picnic and needed two meals, a couple of snacks, a few beers and sodas, and consistent hydration from bottled water — there are a few water fountains on site, but they’re tucked away — just the cost of those essentials could easily run $200-$300 for the day. With no food or drink allowed in, that amounts to racetrack robbery.
American-Statesman/Austin360.com staffer Dave Thomas contributed to this report.
Johnny Bush was at Willie Nelson’s first 4th of July Celebration — and he will be there Saturday, July 4th, 2015 in Austin.
You may not have heard, but a certain Greatest Damn Country on Earth is celebrating her 239th birthday this weekend. A 35mm screening of Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Celebration kicks off the festivities at the Aero. Released in 1979, when America was barely two centuries old, the concert movie features performances by the likes of Waylon Jennings and Jimmy Buffett in addition to the man himself. Nelson has been holding the event nearly every year since the early ’70s, and one assumes it’s mellowed out since a rough first few years: Cars were destroyed, stabbings and rapes were reported, and one person drowned at the bicentennial edition.
On Saturday, Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic returns to Austin for the first time in five years with the strongest lineup in double that time. Like its 82-year-old host, the enduring Independence Day concert may have its wildest years behind it, but it’s managed to remain relevant beyond any reasonable expectations.
Willie’s 2015 picnic basket packs a lineup sensibly combining the elders, the upstarts, the commercially viable, and a plethora of Nelson spawn. Veteran twangers at Circuit of the Americas include Nelson, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Leon Russell, and David Allen Coe, who’ll likely repaint his Confederate Flag guitar in light of recent political developments (just kiddin’). Budding outlaws on the bill include Kacey Musgraves, Jamey Johnson, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and the concert’s big ticket mover, Eric Church.
“It’s like an ol’ family reunion,” says Billy Joe Shaver, who’s missing more fingers than he’s missed picnics. “They’re all pretty much like kinfolks. If they ain’t there, we say, ‘Ah well, he must be dead.'”
Shaver remembers the event that inspired the picnic, 1972’s Dripping Springs Reunion.
“I played that. It was pretty strange, too. I got bit by a brown recluse spider and I thought I was Jesus Christ, so I started baptizing people in a mud pit. Finally somebody convinced me I wasn’t, so I quit healing people. I had a great time though,” laughs Shaver. “It seemed like there were more entertainers there than there was people.”
Willie, who retreated to Austin from Nashville in 1972, launched the Picnic the following summer in Dripping Springs, unwittingly creating outlaw country’s Woodstock equivalent and spurring a Texas tradition. Early Picnics drew a notoriously eclectic (naked and on drugs) audience and often made headlines with bizarre incidents. The 1974 outing in College Station had the famous parking lot fire that torched 12 cars – one of them belonging to a young Robert Earl Keen. Two years later, the Picnic drew 80,000 unruly fans to Gonzales. Local news reported 147 arrests and one drowning death.
“It was a raucous affair. They tore down the fence and nobody paid to get in,” remembers Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, a Picnic fixture since year two. “But they got to see George Jones because of Willie.”
The Picnic’s been a casual obligation to Nelson for over 42 years. A dozen Julys have come and gone with no festival. When it does happen, the event’s malleable: sometimes big, sometimes small, sometimes a weekend long, sometimes a single day. He’s utilized property far and wide, holding picnics at Southpark Meadows, Carl’s Corner, Luckenbach, and the Backyard at Bee Cave, where it made its last Central Texas appearance in 2010.
“Willie called it a picnic because it was a gathering of musicians,” says Tim O’Connor, who booked many of Nelson’s midsummer outings. “It was a way to celebrate the Fourth of July and the freedom to do what we wanted to do. You have to respect what Willie’s done. He’s a generous and genuine man. He never one time thought about the money.”
“I really didn’t like the Ft. Worth thing. It was a big ol’ piece of pavement, just a big parking lot,” says Benson. “I liked being there because I got see everybody, but the physical location wasn’t half as nice as it’ll be out at the racetrack.”
Music’s the real draw at the 2015 picnic. While Willie still personally invites his friends to play, he’s not the one emailing Kacey Musgrave’s manager to negotiate performance contracts. The heavy lifting’s been taken on by C3/Live Nation, who exclusively book the COTA amphitheatre. Nonetheless, Benson sees the lineup’s younger bloodline as a modern representation of what was happening at the onset of the progressive country and outlaw movement.
“It’s really the antithesis of the of the Top 40 bro-country bullshit,” he says. “I think it was the same going on back then. We were all going, ‘Yeah, we’d love to be on the radio, but we’re not going to do it your way. If you want to play us, do it.’ That’s happening now with a different radio landscape. I think Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Kacey Musgraves are the new example of that.
“I call them sons of Willie Nelson.”
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.”
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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