Thanks, Budrock, Lighting Director for Willie Nelson & Family, for your pass from the ’83 Picnic at Giants Stadium at the Meadowlands.
THESE days, Willie Nelson is as much a symbol of steadfast American individualism as a Buffalo nickel. His albums of standards – ”Stardust,” ”Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and ”Always on My Mind” – have sold in the millions, and he’s become a compelling movie presence that Hollywood still doesn’t quite know how to use.
As this granite-faced, long-haired man of the soil has grown from a cult figure into an American institution, his Fourth of July picnics in Texas and Oklahoma have become meccas for music lovers who cut across the traditional categories of pop, country and rock.
Mr. Nelson’s last Fourth of July picnic was held two years ago on his own 27-acre Pedernales golf course and country club near Austin. Now, Mr. Nelson is taking his festival on the road. Tomorrow, he and a spectacular roster of pop talent will perform in Syracuse. And Sunday, Mr. Nelson and friends will be at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, in East Rutherford, N.J. The 10-hour marathon, which begins at noon, will feature seven acts. Appearing with Mr. Nelson will be his fellow ”country outlaws” Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings and Mr. Jennings’s wife, Jessi Coulter. Mr. Nelson and Mr. Haggard, who recently recorded their first album together, the excellent ”Poncho and Lefty,” will perform at least one number together Sunday.
Linda Ronstadt Is Back
Linda Ronstadt, making her first appearance in years in a countrymusic context, will also perform, and so will the country-pop singer Emmylou Harris and the Stray Cats, a hot rockabilly trio. Tickets are $17.50 and $20, and are available at the Capitol Theater box office in Passaic, N.J., at the Byrne Meadowlands Arena box office and through Ticketron and Teletron.
”The first time I saw a group of people out in the pasture listening to music together was at the first annual Dripping Springs Reunion, in Dripping Springs, Tex.,” Mr. Nelson recalled the other day. ”It was a three-day affair in March 1971 that some of us Texas musicians and others outside of Nashville put together to call attention to ourselves. People had a good time, and every imaginable type of person showed up. The following July, I tried it again in the same place and called it a Fourth of July picnic.”
One of the aims of Mr. Nelson’s picnics has been to show off a diversity of pop-music styles. The original Dripping Springs Reunion brought together such non-Nashville country and western performers as Mr. Haggard, Tex Ritter and Roy Acuff. The following year’s picnic brought out Jerry Jeff Walker, Leon Russell and other friends. One year even the Pointer Sisters performed. Mr. Nelson’s goal of focusing press attention on himself and his friends was quickly realized. The first Willie Nelson picnic drew 50,000 people and generated Mr. Nelson’s first significant coverage. Out of it, the myth of the ”country outlaw” – a renegade from the Nashville music establishment – was born. A Tantalizing Coalition
Sunday’s bill brings together one of the most tantalizing coalitions of pop-music talent to appear locally in some time. Mr. Nelson and Mr. Haggard, who have never appeared together before in this area, are more than just country-music stars; they are folk heroes who, along with the late Hank Williams, have done for the folk music of the white rural South what Bob Dylan and his followers did for urban folk music. Like Dylan, they have taken root styles – in their case rural folk music, Western swing, the country yodeling style of Jimmie Rodgers and the barroom honky-tonk music of the 1940’s and 50’s – and made them the basis of a primitive vernacular art song.
Miss Ronstadt and Miss Harris have both made crucial connections between country music and the Los Angeles pop mainstream by including some of the best work by country-oriented songwriters on their albums. Miss Ronstadt has included Hank Williams tunes and Motown songs on the same album, while Miss Harris has recorded most of the major songs by the late Gram Parsons, the country-oriented songwriter and singer who influenced West Coast rock groups like the Byrds and the Eagles. The Stray Cats, who draw an enthusiastic, young rock audience, perform contemporary rockabilly songs with a zest and humor that recall the young Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent.
Merle Haggard, who has never enjoyed the commercial success of high-power rock stars and who has yet to reach the mass audience that has embraced Willie Nelson, is skeptical of putting labels on musical styles.
”It seems that if they like you, they call you rock,” he said the other day. ”If they don’t like you, they call you country.” ”If CBS, who markets my product, wants to sell it in the pop field or the corn field, it’s fine with me,” he went on. ”While there’s some good music that comes out of Nashville, most of it sounds like it’s produced by a machine.” The Haggard-Nelson Ties
Mr. Haggard believes that he and Willie Nelson have basically the same viewpoint. ”We’ve been acquaintances for 20 years and friends for six or seven,” he said. ”We both had Middle-Western families, and we both admired the music of Bob Wills, Django Reinhardt, Lefty Frizzell and Tommy Duncan, who was to the Wills Band what Frank Sinatra was to Tommy Dorsey. Bing Crosby, Duncan and Frizzell were the three biggest influences on my singing.”
Mr. Haggard doesn’t mind the ”outlaw” label that was affixed to the non-Nashville-oriented singer-writers who have frequently appeared at Mr. Nelson’s picnics. ”It means a person who does his own thing, who plays his own music and is able to reproduce himself, as opposed to being the product of a producer,” he said. ”I’m still striving for something they can call Merle Haggard music – not jazz or country or hillbilly or rock. Elvis Presley did Elvis Presley music, and he did it everywhere. That’s what I’d like to see.”
Willie Nelson, who used to be a disk jockey, made the same point in even simpler terms. ”I just like good popular music of whatever kind,” he said.