An hour into Willie Nelson's set at yesterday's 40th anniversary 4th of July Picnic, his halo was starting to seem a little dim. He's old, after all -- 80 years old, to be specific -- and though his voice has proven more resilient than some of his peers, he still sing-talks his way though a lot of the subtleties. And the long, hot day had taken its toll on the crowd, all dusty and drunk. People were getting distracted and outright leaving in surprising numbers.
But then the annual sing-along started. David Allan Coe, Jamey Johnson, Gary Allan and more of the day's undercard joined Willie and his family band on stage and they started with "Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)." There was no fanfare, no introductions made. These sizable country stars stood next to Willie sheepishly, smiling. And Willie led the thousands through old gospel standards and "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," which he quipped was a "newer gospel tune." The extra bodies bolstered the old legend. He gave his bandana to Jamey Johnson's daughter and the joy on his face matched hers. No one has ever been better at making music a communal experience than Willie Nelson.
See also: -How to Properly Celebrate America: Lessons From Willie Nelson's 4th of July Picnic -The 20 Best Willie Nelson Songs -Willie Nelson's Eleven Best Duets -The IRS Tapes: How Willie Nelson Taught us To Care About Stuff That Matters, Not Money -How Willie Nelson Won the Lone Star State: Illustrated Map
One reason for that is Willie's endless respect for his fans. His songs are never opaque or backhanded. Whether he's writing about his own hardship and heartbreak or telling stories about outlaws, he does so clearly, frankly and beautifully. His earnest generosity is also what allows him to find the unpretentious core of songs like Coldplay's "The Scientist" or Dave Matthews' "Gravedigger."
Live, he does not dally. He moves from one song to the next so quickly that his band is often still finding their instruments. Willie sings, and Trigger whines and everyone else works their way in. He plays the hits because he has so many to choose from, and people sing along. He keeps his moralizing and editorializing to the songs, but there's plenty there. There is no light show, no backing tracks -- shit, no electric guitar. Just a grand piano, an upright bass, some harmonica and an assortment of percussion and peaceful man with long braids playing a battered old Martin N-20.
Willie's own performance was, by an unimaginable distance, the most placid thing going on at his 40th Anniversary 4th of July Picnic. Billy Bob's and its big dirt backyard were wild all day long. Around 5 p.m. the collective BAC started tipping into dangerous territory and emergency golf carts made sporadic trips into the crowd until the very end, collecting those who'd partied too hard.
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By the time David Allan Coe took the stage inside Billy Bob's, the world's largest honky tonk was so full of people and noise that you could hear little more than a faint tinny melody coming from the stage. Someone near the entrance asked if he was drunk or just terrible. Neither, as the two rows of people in front of the stage could tell you, but it was an understandable mistake.
The lineup was a dream for fans of misfit country music. A slew of Texans, including Randy Rogers Band and Ray Wylie Hubbard, had the early crowd stomping its approval. Jamey Johnson's equipment trailer has a Merle Haggard street sign nailed right above an Iron Maiden flag -- I can offer you no better description of him than that. Ryan Bingham played the most upbeat set on day filled mostly with downers. We spent Kris Kristofferson's very early half-hour standing in the will-call line, but a friend inside told us we're lucky to have missed it.
The fireworks started around 9:30, first small displays east of the Stockyards, then large ones downtown. Standing in front of the stage that would soon raise Willie above the crowd, you could see both. The finale sent color falling down below the tree line and reflecting off the skyscrapers. The assembled oddballs and hippies and cowboys and frat boys and hipsters and artists and kids squeezed a little closer to the stage, all united by a simple goal: To be a little more like Willie Nelson.