Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic – South Park Meadows (Austin, TX)
You’ve been commissioned to organize Willie Nelson’s annual Texas picnic. What’s the first thing you do?
You get the beer.
But somewhere in the chain of command, that license was forgotten, and Willie’s 27th picnic — which was to return to Dripping Springs, the site of the first gathering in 1973 — had to move. Enter South Park Meadows, I-35 and Slaughter Lane: rolling acres of grass and concrete, half-a-mile of Johnny-on-the-Spots, a stage like a modest airport terminal, and, for all practical purposes, zero shade. Moreover: tents with barbecue chunks on sticks, stagnant beer, Green Party literature, the latest in Indonesian hippiewear, and black halter tops proclaiming “YEAH, THEY’RE REAL”, or more directly, “FUCK”; gate keepers who will check your cooler for the allotted bottle of water, then take a hit off your smoke and wave you through anyway; cherubs in straw hats randomly spritzing your wrists — “Here, this will feel good”; joints the size of sugar cane passed like Wrigleys; women in red-white-and-blue thong bikinis, waving turkey legs like torches in the air; a backstage lot for a flotilla of buses running their ACs for twelve hours…a commune of hedonistic laziness formed by 11,000 hipnecks and their children, as attendance, apparently, was down.
There was music, or, better put, musicians attempting to make it. A march of fifteen-minute, three-song sets, no matter if you’re Johnny Gimble, who played with stately composure, or Shelby Lynne, whose full-force gale stunned the masses, or Joe Ely, who sang “Me And Billy The Kid”, not once, but twice, as if it still meant something.
David Allen Coe, looking like a Vulcan biker, his leather vest open to inscrutable tattoos, his pink beard braided and spilt over a midriff orb the consistency of tapioca, when asked by a former Outlaw groupie if “he really had a spider tattoo on his dick”, replied simply, “Yup.” Cadillac Voodoo Choir were cloned Black Crowes without soul or songs. Cory Morrow trafficked in material such as “Big City Stripper” while a tired harem of dancers took the stage and neither danced well nor stripped. Titty Bingo: what and how much was being smoked when that lineup was assembled?
Toni Price, seated, and backed by acoustic guitarists, sang with bluesy, jazzy fire, though likely for her last picnic, as she committed the cardinal sin of ignoring the flashing red your-time-is-up light. Kimmie Rhodes bravely turned a lovely hymn into a sing-along that worked, even if her monitors didn’t. Ray Wylie Hubbard fronted a beat-up Tele and a full band and recounted the condolences offered to his British fiddle player’s mother: “Don’t feel bad about losing the colonies; they’ll never be civilized.”
With Leon Russell, Johnny Bush, Billy Joe Shaver, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Willie himself — whose strong midday set featured his blues band previewing Milk Cow Blues — coming and going to fanatical worship all day long, one would think a damp-behind-the-ears singer-songwriter such as Pat Green would have a tough sell. Not remotely. His appearance at the end of the night (an extended slot just before Ray Price) had been announced repeatedly, each time to louder applause, until 9:30ish, when he and his young rock band took the stage, and the roar from the crowd — collegiate, cosmic, and near-geriatric — rose as from a squadron.
Green’s fans wear white tees that say simply “Texas Songwriter”, and, to be fair, Green is that. His songs explore the intricacies and depths of two inexhuastible themes: Texas and beer. And to be further fair, his band, featuring a wild, electric blue fiddle and metallic lead guitar, has been sharpened, even tightened, by nonstop Texas bar gigs. They play loud, crunching, Americana rock, and play it well.
Austin music critics have likened Green to Mr. Potatohead, and called his fans “dumbasses.” But Green’s uproarious appearance at Willie’s picnic offered a clarification. If he is doing little of timeless value, he is also doing, by and large, what the Lost Gonzos, Coe, Hubbard, and scores of ’70s Texas outlaws were doing on stage twenty-odd years ago: Whipping a party into a frenzy with songs about drinking, highways, and the Lone Star state of mind.
But the last word should not go to Green. That belongs in part to Willie, who now and again emerged from his bus to sing or jam with whomever struck his fancy — or whenever he was awake — and closed the evening at 10:30 sharp (as demanded by local law) with a quick “On The Road Again” and a sing-along gospel medley.
The last word also belongs to Ray Price, whose uncanny powers of invitation and seduction, brought the mind-gone, ten-hours-stoned-in-the-sun crowd into a world of lush pedal steel, grand piano and six violins. He sang the hits with class and ease and warmth, dueted with Willie on “Night Life”, and stole and restored hearts with “For The Good Times”. God’s own fireworks, at that point, would have made for a drab, unspectacular end.