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Archive: Old hands, new faces get mellow at Willie's 1999 Picnic

John T. Davis

"Fortunately, '' as Willie Nelson is fond of saying, "we are not in control."

And a good thing too, since no one could have ordered up the unseasonably cool and wet weather that infused Willie's (God knows how many this is) Fourth of July Picnic. Compared with some of the meteorological Inquisitions of Picnics past, this year's event was a study in creature comfort.

Someone must tell Willie to use this power only for good. "You're really gonna like the little shower we've got scheduled for 4 p.m., '' he said earlier in the day. It did not occur to anyone that he was kidding.

In the Picnic's twenty-somethingth year, the annual Independence Day event seems to have found a permanent home (after years spent skipping from one cotton field to another, a two-step ahead of the lawsuits) in Luckenbach, the little Hill Country town "where everybody's somebody."

"There were a few memorable ones, '' said Nelson dryly, speaking of the late '70s Picnics, years when bikers, speed and pistols seemed more prevalent than fiddles and steel guitars. "It used to be a lot harder, '' Nelson said. "Out here in Luckenbach, you get the best of San Antonio, the best of Austin, the best of Houston. . . . I've literally gone all over the world, and as far as music fans, I find them everywhere. But the fans in Luckenbach are the best."

Taking a break in an air-conditioned RV backstage to meet some reporters, Nelson explained what keeps the venerable Independence Day fresh for him.

"Music has always been the communicator, '' he said. "I think I've instinctively always known that. The fact that we like a lot of the same things is great. (That) I can go out and sing what I like and have others like it, too, is great. I mean, I don't really know anybody that doesn't like 'Blue Eyes Cryin' In the Rain' or 'Stardust' or 'Just Because.' Everybody likes these songs.''

Fans packed around the outdoor stage had their own reasons for attending. Some looked like Picnic lifers, with beer cans surgically attached to their hands and wizened faces that had not benefited at all from a quarter-century or so of hot July Fourth sun.

Others were rookies. Michael Badnarik and his friend Lynne Brown were making their first pilgrimage to Luckenbach. "I'm from Chicago, and then I moved to California, '' said Badnarik, attired in a red, white and blue shirt and a towering Uncle Sam hat he had bought at Disney World.

"But I moved from California because it was a socialist republic and came to Texas where I'm allowed to carry a gun."

A cell phone was all Badnarik, a computer trainer from Austin, was packing today, however. That, and an outsized admiration for the day's host. "I like Willie Nelson's music, '' he said. "I feel he's very much an American. We're cut from different cloth, but we're very much alike."

Backstage, Kitty and Robert Hunter of Houston were making their fifth annual visit to the Picnic. They had won a bid in a charity auction for the chance to attend the Picnic and come backstage and meet Willie.

"We're looking forward to it, '' said Robert Hunter, who has worked for Texas Commerce Bank. "Just put down that even bankers can like country music."

The crowd continued to climb throughout the afternoon. "Mizz VelAnne'' Howle, the official "Mare'' of Luckenbach, said 10,000 tickets had been sold by 4 p.m., with more walk-up sales anticipated as the bigger acts began to take the stage later in the day.

Despite the growing attendance, the sheriff's command post and the EMS tent were doing little or no business. According to Agent Tommy Hall of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, around 50 tickets had been issued for public drinking before noon on Sunday and for underage drinkers as of 3 p.m.

The crowd seemed composed mainly of Picnic veterans who staked out their spots with lawn chairs or blankets, spread on the sunscreen and cracked a beer, and prepared for a prolonged immersion in country, rock and blues, courtesy of such afternoon acts as Sisters Morales, Monte Montgomery, Pumpskully and Steven Fromholz. Headliners scheduled to appear later in the evening included Little Joe y La Familia, Janis Ian, Leon Russell, Larry Gatlin, Ray Price and, of course, Nelson himself.

Fromholz, who has been playing these deals since before rocks and water, summed up what seemed to be the prevailing mood.

"It's a whole lot calmer now, '' the veteran singer-songwriter conceded. "We're into our third generation (of Picnic-goers) now. And the music is still incredible."

Then he flashed a mischievous smile. "I do miss the brown acid, though."