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.
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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.
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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.
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.