Last Night: Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic at Billy Bob's Texas

Willie's Picnic
Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth
July 4, 2011

Better than:
A real picnic out in the blazing heat all day, with fire ants and dirt

and things.

Last Night: Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic at Billy Bob's Texas
Rachel Parker

In a concession to July, Willie Nelson's iconic Fourth of July picnic became this year an indoor/outdoor affair at Billy Bob's Texas. 

It's not the raunchy bacchanalia it was in the old

days either -- there was barely any smell of weed in the air -- but the event nonetheless drew an enthusiastic sellout crowd of 6,000, some

arriving as early as the day's 11 a.m. start and staying until Willie's last warbling notes at about 12:30 the next


Shows moved among three stages and mostly didn't overlap, so when one show

finished, there was a slow, cattle-like plod from the outdoors in, or vice versa.

In all, the crowd definitely put the "honky" in honky-tonk, but it was nice to see young and nubile people partying happily alongside old and not-so-nubile.

Willie's kids and their bands each took one stage or another, but the highlight progeny was Lukas Nelson with his band Promise of the Real. Lukas has his daddy's voice and wailing guitar skills (behind-the-back guitar playing lives on), and the band even pulled off a raucous drum/conga solo that didn't suck at all.

The young bucks on the outdoor stage tried to sound badass: "The title of this song is 'Beer'" said Lee Brice, promising something the lackluster song didn't deliver. 

But the true outlaw was old Billy Joe Shaver, who sang, "the devil made me do it the first time, the second time I did it on my own," with a grin that said he wasn't lying. He told the true story about shooting a guy "right where you say 'fuck you'" before launching into "Wacko from Waco," sans Willie, though they recorded it together. 

Indoors, an elderly Ray Price stood practically immobile, but still had his creamy croon and he ran through his heartbreak hits for an adoring crowd.

After Ray Wylie Hubbard (looking like a blonde Ozzy Osbourne) finished up on the outdoor stage, the outdoor stage shut down and everything moved indoors where the final, interminable wait for Willie began. 

Few seats were provided, so the crowd planted its asses wherever it could find room on the none-too-appetizing floor. At one point, during Jamey Johnson's tedious outlaw-ish set, it felt the wait for Willie would never end.

And then finally, finally, after an introduction by the venerable Bill Mack -- and then more waiting -- he was on the stage, dressed all in black, his trademark braids growing back since last year's haircut. The formidable Ray Benson (whose band Asleep at the Wheel had performed earlier) towered at stage left, a throng of Willie's friends and family filled every available space, and they all got together to make what was, for the most part, a racket.

It started well enough with "Whiskey River," before the band launched into a speed-twang rendition of "Good-Hearted Woman" and deconstructed into a medley that sounded like Willie's mind wandering and everyone else trying to follow it -- a cacophony, up from which familiar lyrics would drift.

"Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys" was a singalong, "Me and Paul" jumbled by. Then "On The Road Again," "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground," all his hits, and a few of Hank Williams' too, before all the day's musicians back on stage for an oddly awkward gospel closer of "I'll Fly Away" and "I Saw the Light."

Then, as July 4th became July 5th, despite all signs that the show was over, Willie and his core band played on, and the show improved mightily, with a speedy "Bloody Mary Morning," a nice "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," a couple of new numbers (including a nice little ditty, "You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore") and, finally, "Gotta Get Drunk," which closed the show out for real.

Redemption. And then, independence. 

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
If it had been anyone else, I probably wouldn't have stayed through such a musical mess.

By The Way: The style du jour for girls was Daisy Dukes or short summer dresses and cowboy boots. Bandanas worn Willie-style crossed genders, and the guys ran more of a gamut stylewise. Special shout-out to the guy in the Scooby-Doo T-shirt and mullet, and the old guy wearing a shirt patterned with flags and star-spangled bass. That's right. Fish. God bless America. 

Random Note: The DJ from KPLX-99.5 FM The Wolf exhorted the crowed to "Give it up for all the people who fought and died for this country for 235 years!" And the crowd went "WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

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