Editor's note: This story originally published on Statesman.com on July 5, 2014
FORT WORTH — “I think we’re tied for the most bras tossed onstage,” Dierks Bentley told the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic crowd. “Austin is right up there with you.”
So, Austin, we have that going for us.
No, actually, we lost that record in short order. Of course such a record seems dubious, if I were Dierks Bentley, I’d say that at every show.
And he probably does. A human super ball of energy, Bentley had the crowd in the palm of his hand early. He never missed a chance to say “Fort Worth” and by the time he sang the extra verse to “Am I The Only One” — about good times at the Picnic — he had an army.
Who could top that?
Easy, the guy whose name is on the show.
Coming out at 9:50 p.m. to a crowd that Billy Bob’s Texas says topped 10,000 (though I would guess significantly more), Willie Nelson hit the opening chords of “Whiskey River,” the Texas flag dropped down behind him and he let loose about 75 minutes of old hits and new songs. The elder statesman of the Picnic, Willie is as cool as John Lee Hooker. He ran through his standard opening numbers — including a run of “Ain’t it Funny,” “Crazy” and “Night Life” that was accompanied by fireworks in the distance — and found his way to newer songs “Breathe,” “Bring it On” and “Band of Brothers.”
By the time Willie returned to old standards such as “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys” and “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” — the sea of fans at the south stage had begun to recede a bit — glassy-eyed and limping faithful who were clearly thinking “OK, we’ve seen Willie, now we can go” were doing just that.
There’s no doubt, the Picnic is an endurance test for folks who want to take it all in. And with only 13 artists (outnumbered 2-1 by official sponsors), it didn’t seem right to miss anyone. So by mid-afternoon you’d have sad sights: An older woman hobbling in cowboy boots alongside a shell-shocked man. Angrily red sunburned faces of the stubborn and ghost-pale faces of those who were a swoon away from being carted away by the EMS. On the other hand, there was that fellow in black leather, looking like David Allan Coe did in the 1970s, eating a fudgsicle and walking through the crowd like somebody’s bad dream. Some folks are impervious.
That doesn’t include David Allan Coe in the 2010s. He limped out with a walker, sat down in a chair and was handed an ’80s-style hair-metal guitar full of sharp points, and he launched into Merle Haggard’s “Rambling Fever.” After that, we entered the Coe Medley Zone and we never left. I think one song was “My Long Hair Never Covered up The Ride.” Nine years ago in this very spot, Coe was a force of nature — love him or hate him, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. A decade and a serious car wreck later, he’s fighting onward, but it seems uphill now.
The Picnic has been losing regular performers faster than it has been gaining them. It picked up Jamey Johnson a few years back, but more are needed. I don’t know how long the Picnic will go on, but for however long that is, Ryan Bingham should be at every one. Bingham’s unpretentious style (write excellent songs, step up to mike, sing the hell out of them) fits in perfectly alongside the legends he followed. And his fans loved him for it, every song (“Dollar a Day,” “Dylan’s Hard Rain,” “Sunrise,” “Country Roads”) was greeted with a huge “whoooo” of appreciation.
At the soft opening of “Day is Done,” Bingham’s rasp rattled the North Forty like a small earthquake. By the time he hit the middle of “Bread and Water,” an American flag was waving above outstretched hands at the right of the stage and suspicious puffs of smoke were floating above the left side. One of the benefits of a 75-minute set is the opportunity for the rarest of Picnic things: An encore. And Bingham, in an inspired move, closed his with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”
After dozens of Picnics — he made his debut 40 years ago at the same College Station Picnic where Robert Earl Keen’s car caught on fire — Ray Wylie Hubbard totally gets it: Hit the crowd hard with what they want and don’t stop hitting until the set is over. If they never catch their breath, they’ll never notice they are baking in a dusty field. “Rabbit” quickly lead to “Snake Farm” anad “Drunken Poets Dream.” By the team we got to the sing-along of “Redneck Mother” beers were held high, waving in not-quite-unison.
Earlier in the day, Charley Pride came out in a purple shirt and got a royal reception to match. The country legend got the biggest roar of the early afternoon, opening with “Six Days on the Road” before getting to what everyone was waiting for: “Is Anybody Going to San Antone.” Pride worked the stage, microphone in one hand and a white towel in the other to mop the sweat from his head, never missing a note while he did so. It took him awhile to get warmed up — 20 minutes in I was wishing terribly he’d get a bonus 20 minutes — but once he did, he was mesmerizing.
The Willie Picnic crowd seems to love a legend we haven’t seen very often, and Willie has a long history of making them part of his show. The crowd ate up “All I have to Offer You (Is Me)” and “Mountain of Love” and he gave the fans in the front little waves before we got our first hair-stand-on-end moment of the day: a patriotic song — which I’ll guess is called “America the Great.” It was one of the great Picnic moments that I’ve seen in the past decade.
Pride gave us all we came to see, ending with “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” and working that warmed-up voice with “Kaw-Liga.”
It’s as if Johnny Bush saw Leon Russell’s fiery set at last year’s show and took it as a personal challenge. Bush, who is the traditional country music heart of the Picnic, came out with “There Stands the Glass” and didn’t slow down from there. He joked with the crowd a moment: “I talked to Willie yesterday and he said next year we’re going to do the Fourth of July Picnic in February.” But then it was one great hit after another: “Undo the Right,” “Pipeliner Blues” and “All the Rage in Paris” — an excellent new song he wrote with Randy Rogers.
After an instrumental break — if twin fiddles don’t stir your soul, you ain’t in the right place — he closed with hits “Green Snakes” and “Whiskey River.”
There was drama early in the day when a fellow passed out at the front of the south stage about halfway through Folk Uke’s set. Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson stopped the show and called for EMS services, who quickly revived the older gentlemen and hustled him off to the medical tent (later, I would find myself standing next to him at the Ray Wylie Hubbard set — rock on, dude). When it was obvious that the man was not in real trouble, the Nelson family quickly turned comedy team.
“That’s OK, the song wasn’t very good anyway,” Amy said. Brother Micah joked, “My solo was so bad he passed out.”
Micah was sitting in on Folk Uke’s set of charmingly profane and profanely charming songs before bringing out his band Insects vs. Robots. The comedy would continue during the set change: “I have a really offensive joke,” Micah told the crowd. “Can you handle it? Is this America?”
We won’t tell you the joke, for much the same reason we won’t tell you what songs Folk Uke played, but it led right in to Insects vs. Robots, which brought the “I like this, but what the heck is it?” to the Picnic for the second year. Their set consisted of 2 extended jams, the last ending with the whole band wailin’ out of tune, which was as close and as far as this Picnic would get to Waylon Jennings.
Amber Digby’s traditional country set the tone for the hundreds filing in during the opening hour. Not sure why her and her 7-piece band got a full hour (during the Luckenbach hour this would’ve been split up into four local acts, each overjoyed to be there), but Digby made the most of it, including an inspired closing song: Johnny Paycheck’s “If I’m Going to Sink (Might as Well Go to the Bottom).”
For those of you keeping track of such things, beer was running $6 a 16-ounce bottle, and if you spent too much money, you might have ended up like the girl who ran up and puked into the trashcan I was standing next to. The beer wasn’t the only overpriced thing: Official Willie T-shirts started at $40 and climbed from there.
Back to Dierks Bentley: He came out to “5-1-5-0” and soon beach balls were bouncing everywhere. Bentley snagged one from mid-air and held it before him like a he had lopped it off of someone’s neck. The crowd went nuts. Actually, the crowd was nuts the whole show, soaking in “Free and Easy” and “Tip it on Back” and, particularly, “Drunk on a Plane.”
Bentley is unstoppable, bringing a fan on stage for a beer-shotgunning contest, climbing down to the fence to high-five fans, grabbing a camera for a selfie. He tells us that he told Willie’s manager years back that his bucket list included playing Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic and Farm Aid. Halfway there. Another faux-encore leads to, of course, “What was I Thinking.”
Later, as Willie is winding down his set, starting with “Will the Circle be Unbroken” and leading into “I’ll Fly Away” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” he has been joined by the remaining stars of the day — Bentley and Johnson and Bingham are among them — for the traditional closing stretch. Willie sounds great, his voice about 20 years younger at this moment, when he starts up what will be the last song, Hank Williams’ “I Saw The Light.”
Done, Willie takes off Trigger and starts to head backstage as the band keeps the song going. Then Willie changes his mind, comes back to the mike and gives us one more refrain. It’s hard to tell from here, but he seems reluctant to leave the stage. Then he gives us all a little bow and a little wave and that’s it.
A sign? Will there be a 42nd annual Picnic? With Willie you never know.