10 Things I Learned at Willie Nelson’s 2016 Fourth of July Picnic

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Kris Kristofferson performs at the 43rd Annual Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman
Water

Free water was available at ‘Water Monsters’ around the COTA site.

1. Better than 2015: On their second Picnic, I have to give thumbs up to the Circuit of The Americas and the Austin 360 Amphitheater on their growth as a host. I’m impressed by their decision to install “water monsters” around the facility to provide free and cool drinking water to patrons. (I always thought it was downright criminal for venues to host an event on the Fourth of July in Texas, then only offer water at $3-$4 a bottle.) Allowing us to bring in a small amount of food was a good move (I only had to buy one terrible $12 burger in my 11 hours). And while there was still an annoying amount of dead time between sets on the main stage for those of us who were spoiled by the Fort Worth Picnics, running the Plaza stage longer and the timing of the fireworks display helped keep it from being exasperating. One smart move didn’t quite work out: The “misting tent” was less of a cooling off spot for the masses than it was a de-facto VIP lounge for early arrivals. Not sure that was what they meant to happen.

2. No big discoveries: This was my 18th Picnic, and Lord knows I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t love to see Willie Nelson and Picnic regulars Ray Wylie Hubbard, Johnny Bush and Billy Joe Shaver. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t mind hearing “Whiskey River” four times in one day or “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” 18 Picnics in a row. But the thrill of every Picnic is discovering something new or seeing a legend for the first time. There was no transcendent moment this year like watching Kris Kristofferson intently watching Sturgill Simpson or seeing Charley Pride work the crowd.

So I’ll have to say this year’s highlight was newest Picnic regular Jamey Johnson appearing with Alison Krauss. Krauss softened Johnson’s often-prickly demeanor and they put on a great show together. I’ll even say Johnson sang his hit “In Color” with such conviction and depth that it made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

Kris Kristofferson performs at the 43rd Annual Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman

Kris Kristofferson performs at the 43rd Annual Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman

3. Love for a legend: Was astounded again by Austin’s love for Kris Kristofferson, whose show was all heart but … well, he struggled a lot. He eased through some hits, but on others — particularly “The Law is For The Protection of The People” — his voice nearly gave out completely. This year’s Picnic included a trio of octogenarians (Willie, Bush, Kristofferson), and after the passing of Ray Price and Merle Haggard, Picnic fans have learned to appreciate every moment with the legends. Willie wouldn’t approve of me saying it, but you never know when it’s going to be the last performance … or last Picnic.

4. Fans of all sorts: A small scene from the Picnic …

Kinky Friedman at the 2016 Fourth of July Picnic

Kinky Friedman at the 2016 Fourth of July Picnic

5. Definitely over it: There are a couple things, however, that we need to have seen the last of. First is Kinky Friedman as terrible emcee. Fellow I know said he was ready to strangle Friedman as he dawdled over his introduction of Jamey Johnson with another lame politics joke (yes, the “Kinky-Johnson” ticket, I get it, ha ha) then had to hurry back out to the mike to add “and Alison Krauss.” Friedman has the talent to do a good job as emcee, but instead we got more of his look-at-me-make-something-up shtick.

REVIEW: Willie Nelson’s Picnic survives the heat for a festive Fourth

6. Even worse: Second, is Shaver’s “That’s What She Said Last Night,” a song he’s introduced before as “the worst song” he’s ever written — and he’s right by a country mile. He’s trotted that song at Picnics dating back a decade and man, it’s time to give it up. More unfunny than offensive (though both at times), the cell phone-as-metaphor-for-manhood joke song has long since run its course. 

7. Don’t mess with Willie: Was surprised to see Jamey Johnson and Krauss close with “I Saw The Light.” Traditionally that song has been what Willie closes the show with, bringing out all the remaining performers to sing along with him. Johnson should know, he’s been there with him. But Willie didn’t bring out the usual suspects for the finale this year. We got a reprise of “Whiskey River” to end the Picnic.

Brantley Gilbert performs at the 43rd Annual Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater on July 4, 2016 in Austin, Texas. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman

Brantley Gilbert performs at the 43rd Annual Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater on July 4, 2016 in Austin, Texas. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman

8. Brantley Gilbert. The kind of fellow who has an urban-camo-gray guitar with the U.S. flag on the front and the Confederate Stars and Bars on the back. Cute. The kind of fellow who has an intro video with chopper sound effects and a smoke machine on the stage. Hey, I hear Willie has a smoke machine, too. But he doesn’t bring it on stage. I’m pretty sure Gilbert opened with “Ghwgggrhrghgggggfjffggggggggr.” Or at least that was the best I could make out amid the noise. 

Am I being too hard on Gilbert? He obviously was on the bill to sell tickets to people who weren’t already there for Johnny Bush and Ray Wylie Hubbard. And he is excellent at the southern rock / bro-country / preen-and-tough-guy-pose thing that he does. It’s just hard to take the tough-guy thing seriously when you know the history of the Picnic. Who you got, Gilbert or Waylon? Gilbert or David Allan Coe? What would Gilbert say to 1975-era Paul English? Gilbert and his muscle shirt and brass knuckles took the stage about 6 hours after a guy who shot a man in the face just a few years ago. And I still wouldn’t bet against Billy Joe Shaver.

But Gilbert dialed it back after the first few numbers to give us some songs we could hear the words to and offered enough spectacle that his hourlong set went by pretty quickly. In all it wasn’t as bad as I thought.

9. How times have changed: The 1995-1999 Picnics in Luckenbach were less of a redneck-meet-hippie thing and more of a college kids-meet-old hippie thing. And for a lonely 20-something reporter, the fans at those Picnics were a sight to behold. It’s not something I should probably mention now, but after spending dawn to midnight at those shows, you could close your eyes and still see Texas flag bikinis everywheres. These days the Picnic is much more of a middle-age thing, and so am I. After reporting all day, most of it via Twitter on my phone, when I closed my eyes about 2 a.m. on July 5th, I dreamed of Tweets. No, I dreamed in Tweets. It was very weird.

10. Next year? Will there be a 44th Annual Fourth of July Picnic? When I interviewed Willie at the 2006 Picnic, I asked him how long it might continue — thinking that we were already at the end. Willie’s answer has always been “as long as they’re still fun.” Short answer is, as long as Willie is still around, there’s a good chance there will be a Picnic. Or not. Who knows?

If there is one, I’m still saying we need to have a Waylon Jennings hologram (or at least find a way to show Waylon footage from the 1979 Picnic movie) and we need to have Loretta Lynn. The Picnic has been a boys’ club for far too long. Let’s include some legendary women.

But let’s keep a few traditions …


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