Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic Forth Worth Stockyards Friday, July 4, 2014
"Hey man, this is the wrong place to be wearing that," slurred an older concert attendee, pointing at my black Pantera T-shirt as I made my way through the crowd. "This is a Willie Nelson concert."
It didn't seem like a big deal at the time. Nelson was the outlaw of my parents' generation and Pantera were the outlaws of mine. "Cowboys from Hell" was clearly advertised underneath the picture of Phil Anselmo, Rex Brown, Vinnie Paul and Dimebag Darrell. And God knows Nelson knows a thing or two about being a cowboy from hell. He's spent time in a Texas jail. Besides, I was heading to Fort Worth, the home of Joe's Garage, the birthplace of Texas Metal, to attend Nelson's 41st Fourth of July Picnic.
But the 81-year-old Nelson's music is known for bringing together the hippies and the rednecks, the outlaws and the lawmen. It transcends stereotypes. Friday's lineup at the Fort Worth Stockyards was proof of this, from Willie's son Lukas Nelson offering guitar licks and African drumbeats to Ray Wylie Hubbard, a true poet of the road, spewing his beloved Texas poetry: "Screw you, we're from Texas."
Even the bands exhibited outlaw behavior. The Josh Abbot Band focused on discussing sex in between song breaks and Dierks Bently showed the crowd the proper way to shotgun a beer. Bently was so excited about playing at Willie's picnic that, in true frat boy style, he bragged about "lighting up" with Willie after the show. (Too bad a dozen Fort Worth police officers were listening to his confession.) The poor bastard just didn't realize that we were all lighting up with Willie when the country legend picked up "Trigger" and stepped behind the microphone.
David Allen Coe was also part of the lineup, apparently not as offended to be playing outside on Friday as he had been a couple nights prior. That long-haired redneck once recorded an album with Dime, Vinnie and Rex. He met Dime in Fort Worth and their friendship led to a collaboration and, eventually, an album. Rebel Meets Rebel hit shelves after Dime's death. It was a groundbreaking album that blended outlaw country with thrash metal.
Nelson and his four horsemen brothers - Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings - were the original "cowboys from hell." Fueled by pills, weed and whiskey, these men in black bled their guitars onstage and wrote songs about life on the road, proving that heavy metal indeed has country roots.
So Nelson's picnic seemed to be the perfect place to be wearing a Pantera t-shirt.
For the rest of the day, Nelson's fans were showing me their Dimebag Darrell tattoos on their shins, their forearms, their stomachs. "Great shirt," "Hell yeah" and "They fucking rock" greeted me as I made my way through the crowd of people proudly wearing the American flag on t-shirts, shorts, headbands and capes.
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To say it was hot would be an understatement. People filled the tents, huddling over air units that struggled to fight the rising temperatures. Beer was expensive, and weed was scarce. But a weed mobile did make its rounds outside the festival. It looked like an old Frito's Lay truck. Besides flavored incense, the driver also sold weed-flavored suckers that had a few picnic attendees gagging after their third lick.
Taking pictures during Willie's first two songs was nearly impossible. I stood between 1,200 people and a country legend. I was so close to him that I found myself lingering in one spot as he played his old guitar. The worn wood just below the high E string looked like the entrance to Plato's cave and the music echoing from it mesmerized nearly all the photographers.
He may not have sounded his best singing "Whiskey River" and "Still is Still Moving," as one local publication pointed out, but his guitar licks still hit note for note despite his advancing age. "On the Road Again" still stirred memories and singing Pearl Jam's "Just Breathe," which he performed with his son Lukas, inspired a singalong while fireworks exploded over Fort Worth. It was a picture-perfect moment.
But it was the moment at the end of the second song when Willie's handlers were ushering the photographers away from the stage that shines clearest in my mind. Nelson looked at me, then my Pantera T-shirt and winked as if to say, "This is the perfect place to be wearing that t-shirt."