by: John Goodspeed
Sail a CD onto a stage packed with Texas Music, Americana and country artists and you’d be hard-pressed to hit one who doesn’t cite Willie Nelson as an influence.
While his talent and passion as a songwriter and performer are foremost, Nelson’s famed Fourth of July Picnics have been instrumental in uniting people for the love of music since 1973, when a crowd of 40,000 gathered in a field at Dripping Springs for headliners Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Tom T. Hall.
Nelson had been talking about such a festival for years, Johnny Bush who wrote one of Nelson’s signature song “Whiskey River,” recalled in an interview a few years ago.
“He broke that barrier between the redneck cowboy and the hippies. They got to passing a joint and sharing a beer, and the cowboys started wearing their hair long, and the hippies started wearing cowboy boots.
“Willie said his job is to bring people together.”
Nelson will do that again at his 41st annual Fourth of July Picnic outside Billy Bob‘s Texas in the historic Fort Worth Stockyards.
Forty years old at the first one, he will be 81 at the next.
“I never really realized what I was getting into or what it could turn into,” Nelson told me in 2008, adding that there is something about gathering on a hot day and listening to good music, sometimes from a variety of genres.
While not all the artists have been announced — stay tuned at www.williespicnic.com — they will include Dierks Bentley, Jason eady, Adam Hood and Bush.
Some other longtime picnic performers include David Allan Coe and Nelson’s children Paula Nelson and Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real.
His old friend and picnic pal, Ray Price, who made Nelson’s song “Night Life” a classic in 1963, died in December.
Here is what some artists told me about Nelson over the years:
Randy Rogers: “There’s a picture of me with a Willie Nelson drum kit when I was about 4 years old. When I was old enough to realize what music was, I knew who he was.”
Robert Earl Keen: “Willie was huge because he was the first person I could really hear. His voice for some reason got into my head. He still does.”
Aaron Wats: “Sometimes I hear one of my songs and it kind of sounds like an old Willie song, or Ray Price or Waylon. So I’m like, that’s pretty cool, because that’s what I grew up listening to.”
Kevin Fowler: “Most of the guys I admire write their own stuff, like Willie. If he didn’t write his own stuff, how would he have his own style?”
Gary Allan: “There’s no cooler crowd to play in front of than Willie Nelson’s.”
Nelson’s concert last Sunday at the Majestic Theater was postponed until Nov. 23. Fans can catch him before the Fourth of July at concerts in Austin on March 9 at the Star of Texas Fair & Rodeo and March 15 at the iTunes Festival at SXSW with Keith Urban and Mickey Guyton.
John Goodspeed is a freelance writer. Email him at email@example.com.