Willie Nelson’s Picnic analysis: More women, less contemporary country and higher prices

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Willie Nelson’s Picnic analysis: More women, less contemporary country and higher prices

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Erika Rich/For American-Statesman
Margo Price performs at the 43rd Annual Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater. Erika Rich for American-Statesman

The announcement this morning that Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic will return this year to the safe, pricey and, let’s face it, somewhat sterile confines of the Circuit of the Americas likely was greeted with reserved enthusiasm by fans of traditional country and Americana music.

Even though the Picnic is sandwiched between dates on the Outlaw Music Festival tour, it seems predictable at this point. Willie hasn’t taken a July 4 off since 2002 (though 2007 and 2009 could hardly be considered “Picnics” in the traditional sense). And after a 4-year run at the Fort Worth Stockyards, this will be the third year in a row at COTA. 

Also, the lineup sports longtime regulars Asleep at the Wheel, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Johnny Bush, Billy Joe Shaver and David Allan Coe, as well as Jamey Johnson, who began his residency in 2010. There’s also four Willie Nelson family bands, a tradition that dates as far back as Paula and Amy Nelson performing alongside dad in Luckenbach in 1997.

But if you look at this year’s announcement, three new things stand out: 1. The Picnic rookies; 2. Who isn’t playing; and 3. Ticket prices.

1. The Picnic rookies: Sheryl Crow, Steve Earle, Hayes Carll and the Turnpike Troubadours all are performing at the Picnic for the first time. Earle and Carll are natural additions to the Picnic’s longtime history of outlaw and semi-outlaw male singer-songwriters. It’s surprising this will be Earle’s first Picnic, though it’s possible that he played an undocumented set during Farm Aid II (which doubled as the 1986 Picnic). The Turnpike Troubadours spent the last two years performing at Billy Bob’s Texas competing Fourth of July Picnic. And Crow will definitely stretch the Picnic’s musical boundaries in a welcome way.

(Picnic sophomores Kacey Musgraves and Margo Price were nice additions the last two years and it’s definitely great to see the Picnic be less of a boy’s club. This is the Picnic’s most gender-balanced lineup since 2003. I’m still waiting for Loretta Lynn, though.)

2. Who isn’t playing: Beginning in 2013 with the fish-out-of-water addition of Justin Moore, the Picnic really reached out to the contemporary country audience, certainly with the intent of selling more tickets. (The 2011 and 2012 Picnics were easily the least successful in the event’s long history, at least in terms of attendance.) The 2014 Picnic welcomed Dierks Bentley. Eric Church performed in 2015. And who can forget last year’s performance of Brantley Gilbert and his opening number “ghwehththerfrghhwerh”? (He was a little hard to understand if you didn’t already know his songs.)

But this year there’s no such radio-friendly artist on the lineup (though Musgraves and Price have gotten more airplay than, say, Shaver or Hubbard). Perhaps Picnic organizers didn’t reckon one was needed for a primarily Austin crowd. Perhaps those contemporary artists weren’t boosting sales enough to be worth the effort.

3. Ticket prices: There’s no way to not say it — if you want to stand in front of the main stage and sing “Whiskey River” along with Willie, your ticket is going to cost you about $100. And that’s pretty dramatic. According to the website, a general admission pit ticket is $89.50 this year, up from $55 in 2015 and $65 last year. Then there’s the fees on top of that. Of course, you can get a general admission lawn ticket for half as much — which will likely allow you to stand in front of Ray Wylie Hubbard and sing along to “Redneck Mother” — but that’s only half the fun.

Promoters will, no doubt, emphasize the quality lineup. But it’s worth noting that advance ticket prices for the 1990 Picnic in Zilker Park were $7. And that gave you a close-up view of the Highwaymen. Prices for the recent four-year run at the Fort Worth Stockyards average about $35.

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