Willie Nelson’s 2006 Fourth of July Picnic

Tuesday, July 11, 2006FORT WORTH, TX — It’s probably rude to sit in Willie Nelson’s bus, look him in the eye and ask him: “How long are you going to do this?”

But Willie isn’t letting on if he has any worries about mortality or infirmity. His answer is just as straightforward, and delivered with a gracious grin: “I don’t know. It’s still fun.”


Fun? By 10:30 a.m., anyone already on the Picnic grounds — or lined up at the gate, waiting to get in — was dripping with sweat. By 3 p.m., the rain was falling hard enough to stop the show, leaving thousands to sit in the mud in silence.

The Picnic had the worst of both worlds: hot and humid, cool and soggy — though by sundown, the weather was cool and pleasant.

Fun? The Back 40 at the Stockyards is mostly dirt and gravel, with patches of torn-up grass near the main stage. And it is ringed with high-priced merchandise; $35 for an official concert T-shirt, $6 for a beer, $3 for a bottle of water.

Fun? Well, absolutely. Ray Wylie Hubbard tore it up, launching into “Snake Farm,” following it with “Screw You, We’re From Texas” and continuing into “Redneck Mother,” without letting the singalong crowd even pause for breath.

And when Shooter Jennings hit the chorus on “Fourth of July,” at least one person’s hair stood on end. There were women on shoulders, guys waving beers, thousands pressed against the south stage or streaming that way.

“Happy to be with me, on the Fourth of July,” Jennings sang. And about 10,000 people were.

Pam Minick, director of media relations for Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, said they were expecting about 12,000 people by night’s end, down from last year’s 18,000. But with no Bob Dylan this year and with the Picnic on a Tuesday, the smaller crowd was expected.

Still, the Picnic is a test of endurance. Why would anyone go through this, particularly more than once?

Ask any fan of Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic — heck, ask any performer — why the Picnic still survives after 33 years, and he’ll tell you: “Willie.”

And that would be true for any other show you’ll see the Red-Headed Stranger perform. But the Picnic — what makes it special is the sum of its aging parts.

“It’s a family reunion,” Billy Joe Shaver said. “People think us artists get to see each other all the time, but we don’t. I don’t care if I even play. I just want to see everyone.”

And it is a reunion. Year after year, check out the Picnic lineup and you’ll see the same names: Shaver, Leon Russell, Ray Price, Johnny Bush, David Allan Coe, Ray Wylie Hubbard, the Geezinslaws.

“The rest of them are just fillers,” Bush jokes of the other artists, but it’s at least partly true. The Picnic has survived because its most regular performers have, too.

Some miss a Picnic every now and then, but one band claims to have a perfect record.

“All of them” is what Sammy Allred will tell you when asked how many picnics the Geezinslaws have played. Has anyone else performed at every one? Besides Willie, of course, Leon Russell is a good bet, but it’s hard to tell: Records of the picnic are hard to come by, and Russell isn’t talking.

Asked whether there’s someone who’s played every picnic, Willie says Leon Russell but then says Kris Kristofferson, who wasn’t even here last year. No matter, really.

This is one of those events where the legend overtakes reality almost as soon as it happens. Even the number of Picnics: “Welcome to the 33rd annual Picnic!” the emcee said at the beginning of the day. But the actual number of Picnics probably falls below two dozen, and it hasn’t even been an annual event in the past decade, missing 2001 and 2002.

Of the usual picnic suspects, Allred says, “Some of ’em are good friends. Some of ’em I hardly know. We traveled with Willie and Leon Russell back in the ’70s. But I still don’t know Leon. I don’t think anybody knows Leon.”

For the most part, the artists’ relationships are as comfortable as an old pair of jeans.

Ray Wylie Hubbard, who says he’s played almost all of the picnics (“because Willie asks me to”), says “everybody’s cutting up and bus-hopping.” He’ll hang out before the show and catch up with Kristofferson or Shaver.

“There’s not a lot of ego at Willie’s Picnic, no real divas,” he says. And it’s because the old friends won’t put up with it from each other, and the youngsters and lesser-known artists are just happy to be there.

Shaver agrees, “You don’t care if you play ahead of or behind somebody,” he says.

So the artists all get along? “Well, I don’t know anybody that don’t like me,” Shaver jokes.

This year’s Stockyards sweat-fest kicked off right on time with a touching version of the national anthem by 9-year-old Mario Macias. Then came Heather Myles with a great cover of “Help Me Make It Through the Night”; Mike Graham, whose songwriting has moved beyond the simple anthem “I Feel Like Drinking Today,” but it’s still a fun song; and Jimmy Lee Jones, who spent most of his set showing off his band’s musicianship but came back to form with “(My Baby’s) All Liquored Up.”

The concert-goers come in all shapes and ages. There’s hippies, rednecks, families, college kids and bikers, some curiously overdressed for the Texas heat, others underdressed, if that’s possible.

One couple has ingeniously created an awning for their lawn chairs with PVC pipe and blue tarp. Another group has backed itself against the fence and used tent poles and plastic sheeting to create some shade.

These days, the picnic is not just a Willie and Family event; it’s a Willie and family event, too.

“We got a Haggard, a Nelson and a Jennings,” Allred points out. “But it’s Noel Haggard and Paula Nelson and Shooter Jennings.”

Jennings, the son of the late Waylon, was making his picnic debut 10 years after his father last performed on the picnic, an anniversary he hadn’t realized.

“For me, it’s kind of a full-circle thing. I came to Willie’s Picnic four years ago.” He ended up writing a song about his trip to the 2003 Picnic in Spicewood (“Fourth of July”) but hasn’t been able to return until this year, this time as a performer. “I’m proud to be here. I’m proud to be moving along fast enough that I could get on and play.”

And Jennings was easily the afternoon favorite, hitting the ground running with “Electric Rodeo” and bringing the crowd to their feet.

Haggard, sounding quite reminiscent of his father, made the most of his 15 minutes, bringing out an obscure Waylon song, “Ain’t No Good Chain Gang,” and an old Waylon song, “Stop the World (And Let Me Off).”

The Fourth of July Picnic got off to a dubious start way back in 1973. Bush will tell you the story about how Willie first told him of his idea to have a picnic. Outside. On the Fourth of July.

“Willie, there ain’t no way in hell a bunch of cowboys are going to come out in the 100-degree heat to watch us pick our guitars,” Bush told him.

Willie said, why not? It worked in Woodstock.

Besides, Willie had a plan: “I wanted to have it on the Fourth of July, because it was too hot to fight,” he said. “The hippies and the cowboys can get together, and everybody can get along, and that’s exactly what happened.”

What happened was magic.

“The first one was incredible,” Willie says. “Some of the folks on this one were on that one. Leon Russell. Kris Kristofferson.” He goes on to describe the sunrise set he and Russell played (after staying up all night) for the folks walking in, saying that remains his favorite moment.

But it’s been a long road between Dripping Springs in 1973 and Fort Worth in 2006. At times, the Outlaw Country was a lot more outlaw than country.

Ask Allred about picnic history, and he’ll tell you of wilder and less organized days, such as the parking lot blaze at the 1974 picnic at College Station or the time he was asked to emcee the 1987 event at Carl’s Corner and then “Willie disappeared for 11 hours.”

Now he brings out the official performers’ schedule and points out how this artist will play at “the south stage from 11:30 to 11:50 ?”

Hubbard likes the changes he’s seen over the past decade, and particularly in Fort Worth. “It seems like the fans from the old days have mellowed, and now they’re bringing their children.” He feels good that he can bring his son, Lucas, 13, let him run loose and know he’s gonna be OK.

(And Lucas joined his father on stage again this year, standing alongside harmonica legend Mickey Raphael and playing the heck out of his guitar on “Cooler’n Hell” and “Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll.”)

Bush says things are almost too good. “With the two stages, everything works so smooth, I didn’t think it’d come back. I told Willie, there was no arrests, no lawsuits ? that’s gonna make us look bad.”

As the Picnic ages, are we approaching the last one?

“I hope not,” Hubbard says. “It just seems that with Willie, there’s no such thing as time. But as long as there’s a picnic I’m gonna play it. It feels good to have Willie Nelson validate your existence; that’s really cool.”

So let us rephrase that opening question: Why has the picnic survived more than three decades?

“There’s other festivals where the music is just as good, but there’s something about it being Willie’s Picnic, that makes you think, ‘man, I gotta go see that,'” Hubbard says. “Because Willie is beyond an icon.”

Bush agrees: “If nobody showed up besides Willie and his guitar, I don’t think nobody would leave. They come to see Willie.”

Willie, ever the guru, has his own answer.

“After it’s all said and done, it’s about the music,” he says. “If the party’s happening during the music, that’s good, too. But it’s all about the music.”

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