Billy Bob’s Fourth of July Picnic. What Are You Doing with Your Life, Commie?
This summer has been a tumultuous one for the nation. As our birthday approached it seemed like tragedies were only piling higher, due to the racial tension across the south and police brutality seemingly everywhere it didn’t feel like there would be very much to celebrate this year. But we got some rain out here in Oklahoma, down in Texas, a lovely respite from years of drought and more good news arrived in the creeping approximation to marriage equality handed down by the Supreme Court. What’s more it was declared that people like me and many of the musicians you’ll read about in this article won’t have to die so young for the sin of being born poor.
So there were reasons to rejoice and attractions were abundant. The corrupt labyrinth that is DC held a mish mash of artists under some umbrella of patriotism at the RFK stadium. The filthy masses beheld a delusional, broken Dave Grohl celebrate independence by making himself up in the image of a king upon a throne. Up in Chicago, Fitzgerald’s hosted 40 Americana bands for a festival that more closely mirrored the intent of the Fourth of July holiday, while in other places across the nation lesser publications recounted the glory of various regional celebrations. But to be completely honest, if you weren’t at Billy Bob’s inaugural Fourth of July Picnic celebrating ‘Murica down at the Stockyards in Fort Worth you might want to examine exactly what you’re doing with your life, commie.
Most Americans have been to a bar. Many have been to a festival. But how many can claim to have been to a festival inside a bar? Enter Billy Bob’s, billed as the world’s largest honkey-tonk, at 130,000 thousand square feet and holding an interior capacity of 6,000 there are few proper bars anywhere in the world that can boast anything near those numbers. With twenty serving stations, a live bull fighting ring, and two main stages there’s little for the modern shit kicker to want. The 100 year old complex draws an international audience every year for what had previously been Willy Nelson’s Fourth of July. Due to logistics and other commitments 2015 would instead host the first ever eponymous Billy Bob’s Picnic, and while Willie might have been closer to home in Austin, there was more than enough excitement on the playbill to go around.
Before the onslaught of Americana over the course of the holiday weekend is digested it’s important for the casual reader to understand something about the music of Texas. The state is somewhat unique in that a group can be top billed artists in Texas and still relatively unknown in the greater American market. Inversely, equally, much of that Bro-Pop faux Americana parading itself as Country music doesn’t make one bit of difference in Texas. Go to a country show in Philly, check out a similarly billed event in Pensacola and you’ll be assaulted by throngs of Georgia-Florida clad middle-of-the-musical-road tourists staring dully up at stages or downward into cell phones as vital but ignored young men and women carry the true torch of a fine tradition. Down in Texas, and no less in the blue collar epicenter of Forth Worth this isn’t necessarily the case. And along with all those artists responsible for maintaining the credibility of Country-Western defiance, Ray Wylie Hubbard, David Allen Coe, Willie Nelson, etc.., Billy Bob’s has played an integral role in providing a platform for national exposure. The king of country music himself, George Straight, was at one time nothing more than the leader of Billy Bob’s house band.
With all that established, it would come as little surprise the organizers of the picnic went to lengths to include under the radar regional acts like Grady Spencer and the Work, or TCU graduates Green River Ordinance along with more established names like Merle Haggard or Ryan Bingham. Perhaps most incendiary, most entertaining amongst those the audience knew little about was Austin six piece the Crooks. There’s always something about first acts. Most people miss them, and often unknown there’s little impetus for a crowd to show up early. This is a mistake because often, and especially in the case of the Crooks, the openers are likely to steal that show before it even begins. If you like a bit of hunger in your music, look at the expression in the eyes of stand-up bassist Joey McGill as he slaps out rhythm perched on the precipice of the stage like a sentry. There’s fire there in his eyes, his lean, hawkish frame supports the much larger instrument as if it weren’t bigger than a fiddle and he might throw it into the audience at any given moment. You begin to wonder just how to defend yourself in a dark alley before accordionist Anthony Ortiz Jr. streaks across your vision, a mischievous smile planted across his face as he jumps from the stage and enters the audience without missing a note. Ortiz plays for himself, takes great pleasure from it, and swings that squeeze box with all the joy of a child on parade. He is equal parts showman and musician. In a decade there will be a new crop of young accordionists, and when asked about inspiration the name on all their lips will be that of Anthony Ortiz Jr. The Crooks ecstatic brand of music is blindly reckless at its highs, bone crushing at reflective lows and purely missed by late comers only interested in the Haggards and Binghams.
While the holiday might have been about America, one of the best acts the entire weekend was delivered by Canadian Corb Lund shortly afterward. If the Crooks left it on stage Lund picked it back up with ease. Those familiar with his albums understand how special a song writer Lund is. He crosses genres with ease, from Outlaw to Western Swing, from Bluesy to Boozy there’s little he can’t do, and of course it’s meant there’s little he can’t do exceedingly well. Matching clever modern wordplay against, intricate, interesting, trad-bent musical pairings Lund is simultaneously metropolitan and rural. He’ll sing about the joys of living with cows around in one song then transition into Mein Deutsches Mottorad, an ode to the fine German engineering behind an international outsider lifestyle without pause. Though not very well known yet in the states, this Corb Lund is shaping up to be a sensation.
For a binge drinker giddy from the joy of live music, 20 bar stations present something of a challenge. Like how to best hit every single one on some sort of masochistic one-man, one-bar pub crawl. It can be accomplished though, I assure you. As long as one doesn’t become too distracted by the beautiful young ladies of Texas. It’s almost criminal really, accents dripping of honeyed vowels, faces serene as saints, and a preference for shooting whiskey. All blonde hair and blues eyes, birds cartwheeling through the skies as if there’s not a worry in the world. That is- until you pull some young thing into a quiet room only to be reminded of the darker connotations of what this holiday means.
“Never forget,” they say and you chalk it up to lip service. One thinks but does not say, ‘Some of us would really like to forget.’ And maybe the explosions in the sky should really be avoided. “Never forget…” you hear them say, and it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference until you meet Ron White. From his pocket he’s taken the Afghanistan Memory Wall on tour across America. From his mind he pulls the names and ranks of the 2,300 lost in Afghan since ’01. Over the span of some ten hours he writes out his tribute across the walls. He’s a quiet man, articulate, and he’s created something positive out of a war from which so many others only brought home misery. But like most of America, don’t think about it too much. Shake his hand and get out of there as fast as possible before you begin to openly weep.
With night comes Ryan Bingham. He’s probably the most anticipated act. His smoky-voiced craftsmanship of personable, weary yet triumphant balladry is a hot ticket these days. A No Depression favorite there is little to be said in this space that hasn’t been trumpeted by other, finer writers on the site. Worth the weekend ticket price alone Bingham was not a disappointment. Not as much could be said for the headliner, Merle Haggard.
Opening for the country legend was his son, Noel and his father’s backing band the Strangers. Their short, passable set created a bit of a lull in the audience, but following Ryan Bingham is no easy feat. To be sandwiched between two strong draws one shouldn’t necessarily fault the Strangers. Any energy lost was immediately replaced when Haggard finally graced the stage. Despite his age, the cost of living the way he has did little to dampen the excitement. Playing crowd favorites, his own classic and various covers provided a clamorous end to the night. However, much unlike Willy Nelson who routinely plays long-haul shows, three and four hour sets that truly honor the audience, Haggard’s performance was undeniably short. Short, but sweet I suppose. It’s a difficult thing to say anything negative about a living legend.
To speak of Willie Nelson, who departed for the first year in conjunction with long time organizer, Robert Gallagher, there was much anticipatory anxiety about the stockyard’s favorite honky tonk’s annual celebration. It was a topic repeatedly referenced by Marketing Manager Amy McGehee, but the good people at Billy Bob’s matched setback with success by expanding the shows over a second day. While Bingham and Haggard were heading to Nelson’s new picnic location in Austin, the second day, and proper Fourth of July celebration would include appearances by no less vital musicians like Jerry Jeff Walker, the inimitable Hayes Carll, and finally the Turnpike Troubadours.
Let out by 11, there was little pause in the celebrations. A short walk from Billy Bob’s one could find all the elements of hedonism contained in every desperate desire of a hardened heart. A stop by the Love Shack provided cheap, hot food, the perfect fuel for a tour of the neons. Popular amongst the young was the Basement Bar. The perfect answer to any East-Nashville locals only club it wasn’t a hard sell to wear your boots out over a makeshift dancefloor to two dollar domestics. If well whiskey and fist fighting is more desirable, across the street Filthy McNasty’s provides both. The former for cash, the latter by uttering discouraging words concerning the Keystone XL Pipeline. People take energy futures seriously in Texas, even if some of them boys do cold-cock like cowards. But keep to your feet and block the next few blows and the pretty girl from Houston may admire the chivalry, maybe even see you home to make sure you’re not too beat up.
Luckily, home is the Hotel Texas a stone’s throw away. There are finer establishments in the Stockyards, (see: generic and more expensive) but none contain the authenticity of mismatched bed-clothes, well-worn amenities, the smell of sweat and failure-meets-ambition that perfectly embodies the spirit of Americana, Country/Western. Tell the pretty girl from Houston sweet things then prepare yourself for day two.
Maybe there was some energy in the air due to the holiday, or perhaps the good folks at Billy Bob’s were holding back the best for day two. Almost immediately the audience was treated to a one-two combo punch of Rodney Parker + 50 Peso Reward and then a return of first day act Buffalo Ruckus. Rodney Parker and the boys might be selling themselves short at 50 peso’s; they’re more of a hundred dollar act, teetering between rowdy, rootsy Country and pure Rock N’ Roll. Buffalo Ruckus is a bit closer to the solid gold Country standard, albeit with a kicked up tempo and seventies southern soul injection upon delivery.
Next up, outsider oddities the O’s proved one doesn’t necessarily have to follow the stale old four piece formula to get a crowd all worked up. The duo, comprised of Taylor Young and John Pedigo, flanked the audience with little more than a lowebro, banjo, and a couple of harp racks. But much like power couples Shovels and Rope or the White Stripes the O’s proved less is more. While hybrid acts provide a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale atmosphere, Whitey Morgan and the 78’s were a testament to tried and true methods. Featuring beards to make your grandpap proud, and hell, tunes he’d swear he’d heard in juke-joints back in the bad old days, these Honkey-Tonkers proved country music knows no bounds. There’s not only a market for it, but a wellspring of talent even in cities as diverse as Detroit, or better yet its scrappier little cousin, Flint.
As the evening progressed with each act topping the previous it felt like there was little room left for the established close outs. Now Hayes Carll is in the best possible position to become more than just a country singer, more than just a successful national act. The man is hot on the trail of legend, but a long lag time between albums has done him few favors. Exhaustive tours between releases have kept him alive in the hearts and minds of a fickle demographic, but it appeared the years on the road have aged the young man from Woodlands. He looked pure wore out taking the stage, and launching into Scott Nolan’s ‘Bad Liver and Broken Heart,’ the BPM’s were noticeably sparse. That didn’t prevent the rabid audience from urging him on, and their lust must have inspired adoration in return, for as the set drew on some life come over Carll. His top notch band were chomping at the bit, and when Carll finally opened the flood gates on KMAG YOYO and other numbers there returned a bit of that spirit that is driving one of the finest living young song writers towards the status of living legend.
To speak of living legends, Jerry Jeff Walker looked fresh as a daisy despite his three quarters of a century. Playing the outside stage as the sun set one got the sense maybe he would last forever. Perhaps the Gypsy Songman, like Enoch, will just walk into heaven on the day he feels satisfied, and during songs like the timeless ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ or “LA Freeway,’ one would suspect if anyone had a chance it would be him. It’s always a strange thing to see, too, the young people who sing and dance, pair off into each other’s arms to songs written before their parents were born. One considers how many lives have been wasted just trying to scratch a name upon the wall of this cave we’re all born into, how desperately some seek power, influence, just so generations they’ll never see will know that they were once alive too. And then there’s those like Walker and many others who slept on floors, lived out of trucks and are loved everywhere they go. Charlie Parker said if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of the horn, so perhaps there is justice in this world.
But if one were to get sentimental about a group, some band of desperados that seduce us away with notebook poetry and six silly strings plucked across a hollowed box it would be the headliner, the Turnpike Troubadours. There is something intimate, immediate and unabashedly honest about these boys from Oklahoma. They make the music of poet-farmers lost in a digital age where it’s not okay to drink too much or say what you think, or kick out at the world. Only three albums make up their discography, but they are already set to exceed more seasoned peers like the Drive By Truckers, the Bottle Rockets, or the Old 97’s.
The Troubadours take the stage without preamble to the largest crowd of the weekend. To raised beers and ecstatic cheers they play only crowd favorites. Of course, when nearly every track from each album is a radio ready single it’d be difficult not to please. If one thing should be noted about the Troubadours’ frontman Evan Felker, it’s that isn’t much of a showman. He doesn’t work the stage, shaking his hips like an Elvis, Tyler or Jagger. But that isn’t a fault, it’s a testament to the quality of the music that it can move the audience to hysteria without any stage antics to antagonize. And while Felker’s body may be mostly arrested, his voice possesses all the emphatic intensity of the greats. ‘Take Good Lord Lorrie’ from Goodbye Normal Street. As opposed to the tired country cliché of ‘She done me wrong,’ it’s an honest relation of ‘I’ve done her wrong.’ It’s a song about fighting so hard for something that crumbles, and when Felker’s voice bursts on the chorus, “Good Lord Lorrie, I loved you, could it go more wrong,” or even worse, over the bridge “I guess her folks were right,” your heart sinks because it ceases to be a song and instead becomes the truth. Not his, but yours as you hearken back to a sordid past wishing you had the same scope of articulation.
And on and on through the night we were presented songs about the struggles of living at the bottom of society, songs of hungry longing, songs of grace and beauty, songs of defiance. And often all these topics are tied up into the same song, say ‘Diamonds and Gasoline,’ or ‘Wrecked.’ But more poetic than posed, one gets that old hope that maybe the Turnpike Troubadours will be that band to rise up and change the industry. For so long now in Nashville, in Austin, you see groups and solo artists clinging to this idealized vision of the past. The airwaves are saturated with music written in imitation, tired tropes, corny clichés, and copies of copies of forced southern accents and generic narratives of pseudo-tragedies. No music is hated as much as country music, and for good reason. Half a century ago Willie, Waylon, Cash, these musicians were outsiders because they fought against the industry, today’s country music fans and artists are outsiders for the most part because they are the industry.
So we wait patiently for someone to come up and blow away the dust from a predictable scene. To make the music once again vibrant and vital, we wait for someone to make it again valid. If there is any hope, I place it on the Troubadours, but over the weekend at Billy Bob’s the audience was spoiled for choice. From the careening exuberance of openers The Crooks, through the sophistication of Corb Lund, the O’s, Whitey Morgan and the 78’s, the safe bets Hayes Carll, or Ryan Bingham one begins to believe country, whatever you wanna call it: Red Dirt, Outlaw, Southern Rock, Rebel or whatever other clever descriptor… it has new life in it yet. Yeah, Willie Nelson was absent, but damn, it was our gain.