Just after noon on July 4, 2005, I was sitting under a blazing sun in a dusty, wide-open field behind Billy Bob's Texas in the Fort Worth Stockyards. I had just unpacked my folding chair and settled in for the first of what would be over a dozen performances during my first-ever Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic. Though I was 29 at the time, and had lived my entire life in Texas, I couldn't help but feel I was finally earning my Texas-residency card for real at that point.
I had seen Nelson perform a few times before, including once inside of Billy Bob's, but finally making it to one of his legendary Independence Day shindigs was akin to reaching a higher level of Willie-ness. As the day (and my sunburn) progressed, I would catch sets from James Hand, Jessi Colter, Randy Rogers Band, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Ray Price, the Texas Playboys, the Doobie Brothers, Leon Russell, Billy Joe Shaver and Los Lonely Boys, among several others. Oh, and Bob Dylan played just after the sun went down.
While there weren't any naked folks running around, or much crowd craziness at all to be seen (as was the case with the first of Willie's Picnics in the early 1970s), it was one hell of a time. But that won't happen this summer. Since 2004, Billy Bob's has helped to host Nelson's iconic Fourth of July Picnic seven times, including the past four consecutive years. In 2015, Nelson will shoot off his fireworks somewhere else, and Billy Bob's will instead bust out a two-day festival worthy of its predecessor.
The naming of the event, which was annonunced yesterday, is as curious as the absence of the Red Headed Stranger himself. Nelson's camp isn't giving any specifics as to what the plans are for his own Picnic will be, or even if there will be one, but the good people of the World's Largest Honky Tonk rolled out quite the set of details to get our own individual Whiskey Rivers ready to flow.
Over the course of the two days, Turnpike Troubadours, Merle Haggard, Jerry Jeff Walker, Ryan Bingham and Hayes Carll, among many other fine acts, will offer a more than suitable replacement for people looking to go big on an Independence Day weekend (a mid-week July 4th holiday is always a bit of a bummer). Of course, Haggard, Bingham and Walker are vets of Willie's Picnic, so that will help any who suffer from withdrawals, to be sure.
And really, we're not the least bit disappointed with this turn of events. It's totally cool that Willie isn't Picnicking in North Texas this time around. And such would be true even if a great festival hadn't been announced in its place already. While I maintain that his Picnic is a basic must-see event for any Texas-based country fan, it is time for a new event to roll in and take its place.
The event has always been a bit of a roaming show. Over the course of its storied history, Nelson has taken the Picnic to locations ranging from the Dripping Springs, the original site, to Austin, Tulsa, Atlanta, Luckenbach, Kansas City and even Gorge, Washington. Though similar to this recent run in Cowtown, the Picnic has stayed in one spot for stretches of time in Luckenbach and Austin, but history tells us it was bound to roam on away at some point, just like the man who can't wait to get on the road again himself. And for those who may forget, the Picnic hasn't even been a true annual event.
Since 1973, there have been 11 years where a Picnic didn't even take place in any form, and some will argue that some of the festivals that did occur, such as the Washington show in 2007, where Willie was supported by a small but quality bill featuring the Old 97's and Drive by Truckers, weren't true Picnics anyhow.
It's also worth looking at the line-ups of the past few festivals. Certainly, it's hard to deem any Picnic without Asleep at the Wheel, the dearly-departed Ray Price, Billy Joe Shaver, or Johnny Bush as a Willie's Picnic in its purest form, but the variety in the line-ups of late have been lacking, and there hasn't been the big-time surprise bookings or unusual guests in recent years. Tradition is a wonderfully warm part of the Picnic festivities, but it had indeed been a while since the Picnic had included the likes of Dylan, Neil Young, Grateful Dead (or the Jerry Garcia-less the Dead), Emmylou Harris or Dwight Yoakam to add to the excitement.
With the intoxicating combo of a classic American holiday, young, insurgent talent and certified legends that have long been part of Nelson's crew, the new Billy Bob's Fourth of July Picnic looks to be a perfect way for local Picnickers to hold onto the spirit of their sweltering pilgrimage without having to go too far or having to follow the (not so) mysterious scent coming from Nelson's tour bus.
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