Billy Bob’s Fourth of July Picnic Was Stacked, Even Without Willie Nelson

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Billy Bob's Fourth of July Picnic
With Merle Haggard, Ryan Bingham, Chris Stapleton and more
Billy Bob's Texas, Fort Worth
Friday and Saturday, July 3 and 4, 2015

At first, the news that Willie Nelson would be moving his annual Fourth of July picnic to Austin seemed tragic. Every year, thousands of people poured into Billy Bob’s to see Nelson and a host of other great country acts, but the venue promised to keep the tradition alive. Nelson went on to host his own festival in Austin, with an incredible lineup that included Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves, but Billy Bob’s did a hell of a job booking their own in his absence.

With the loss of Nelson came a bigger festival in Fort Worth. The now two-day event, held this past Friday and Saturday, was stacked with Texas country favorites, outlaws and legends. During the day, up-and-comers like Grady Smith and the Work, Whitey Morgan and American Aquarium played to a packed house that moved smoothly to and from the outdoor and indoor stages. It was Friday night’s line-up, though, that was truly impressive.

At 6:45, Chris Stapleton, a pedigreed songwriter who just released an impeccable debut, took to the indoor stage for soundcheck. A small crowd had already gathered, ditching the end of Green River Ordinance’s set to listen to Stapleton’s band fiddle with the sound and tune their instruments. About halfway through, Stapleton himself came out to check his mic, giving the ever-growing crowd a quick taste of his booming, bluesy voice. As the notes rang out across the bar, the crowd poured in more furiously.

Stapleton’s set began promptly at 7:00 and from the first notes it was clear that this was going to be one hell of a show. Kicking off with “Nobody to Blame,” a classic breakup track, Stapleton showed off his characteristic growl and country bonafides. The prime criticism of much of bro country is that it lacks authenticity, but for whatever reason, it’s much easier to believe that the guy with the scruffy beard ended up with his “fishin’ rods broke in half” and his “guns in hock” than Luke Bryan. (Who, unfortunately, looks more likely to have undergone microdermabrasion than a tough breakup with a legit country girl.)
Another highlight of Stapleton’s set was a reimagined, deeply bluesy version of George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey.” The original is a sort of bland love ballad, but Stapleton’s version was unforgettable. Equally impressive here was his guitar playing, especially when dueling with his wildly talented steel guitarist. In fact, the entire band was flawless, down to Stapleton’s sexy and electric interplay with wife and backup singer Morgane. If anything, this set could have used a little more depth in content, but was performed flawlessly.

Next up was alt-country dreamboat Ryan Bingham. Before Stapleton’s set was even over, a large crowd was jockeying for position in front of the outdoor stage. Really, though, there wasn’t a bad view in the house. Plenty of fans piled into the now-empty fountain and parked their lawn chairs right up front. The rest downed corn dogs and tallboys of Lone Star as they waited for Bingham to take the stage at 8:15.

When he did, the energy of the crowd was much higher than anticipated. Just about everyone there had been standing in the heat and drinking since at least 1:00 p.m., so it was surprising that most hadn’t petered out or gotten too drunk to stand. As Bingham launched into “A Dollar a Day,” the crowd clapped and danced and whooped and hollered, all at the artist’s direction. If you were at Bingham’s show last year at South Side Ballroom, you probably noticed that this set was much more energetic.

Working through tracks from his most recent album and its predecessors, Bingham’s show could only be described as “rollicking.” As he dueled with his fiddle player and lead guitarist, the crowd’s energy only intensified. It didn’t hurt that Merle Haggard was on the way, but fans were equally as interested in hearing “Top Shelf Drug” and "Hallelujah," and happy to wait patiently for The Hag’s inevitable arrival.
Though if you were there all day, Haggard taking the stage at at 10:00 p.m. on the dot was an incredible relief. Haggard was just at Billy Bob’s a few months ago, but he certainly seems to relish the stage at the world’s largest honky tonk. As with his last show at Billy Bob’s, Haggard’s son Noel opened the show with the Strangers, Merle’s long-time back-up band that also includes his youngest son Ben, who plays guitar. Many people weren’t excited to see Noel play through his quick little opening set, but they were ignoring the very real fact that the son certainly inherited some of his father’s talent.

When Merle Haggard finally did take the stage, people were ready to party again. As he played through his standards, including “Pancho & Lefty” and a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” that enthusiasm remained. This set did include a few songs that Haggard didn’t play on his last trip through Fort Worth, most notably 1969’s “Silver Wings,” arguably one of Haggard’s best heartbreaking love songs. As he wound down his set, making sure to play “Mama Tried,” it was easy to realize that seeing Haggard is always a pleasure, and we are lucky that he’s still out on the road, still making music and still being the same crotchety outlaw he always was.

When you consider the sheer amount of talent that graced the two stages at Billy Bob’s over the Fourth of July weekend, it’s hard to argue that they didn’t make the best of a set of circumstances that could have been really, really bad. If anything, it was practically a preview of Willie’s own picnic in Austin, where Stapleton and Haggard would go on to play. All that was missing was the Red Headed Stranger, and that loss didn’t hurt nearly as bad as we’d originally thought it would. 

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