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Archive: Survival of the hippest at Willie's 1998 Picnic

John T. Davis

The rains, which put a damper on many a holiday cookout, did not spare Texas' biggest Fourth of July picnic -- Willie Nelson's annual blowout at Luckenbach. But organizers, musicians and fans agreed that the periodic showers at the concert site Saturday were a blessing.

"Sometimes we burn up. Sometimes we flood out, and some times are perfect. This one is perfect, '' Nelson said in midafternoon at the picnic, as a crowd estimated at more than 12,000 cheered him and musicians including Alvin Crow, Kimmie Rhodes, Toni Price and Jack Ingram.

Alluding to the showers that swept through the Hill Country, Nelson added: "We've been throwing some bars of soap out there."

Paramedic Vicky Smith of San Antonio Emergency Medical Services agreed that the cloudy and relatively cool weather made things easier for her staff, who, along with medical volunteers from San Antonio, ran a medical tent and circulated through the crowd with portable water spritzers. Most of the demand for treatment involved pain relievers, Band-Aids and sunscreen, she said.

"People are drinking, but they're drinking the wrong stuff, '' Smith said as beer vendors did a brisk business.

Gillespie County Chief Deputy Sheriff M.E. "Mel'' Gideon also reported a quiet day for the law enforcement entities patrolling the concertgoers and the roads. As of 4 p.m., five people had been arrested (four for marijuana possession and one for public intoxication), according to Gideon. Several citations were issued by the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission for underage drinking.

"It's about the same, '' said Gideon, comparing the level of arrests to the three previous picnics held in Luckenbach. "Nothing out of the ordinary."

That suited Karen Knight of Lavernia just fine. A first-time picnicgoer, Knight and a party of nine from Lavernia and San Antonio were clustered around a plastic wagon loaded with hand fans, a cooler and a blanket.

"We've heard about this for years, but we've never come, '' Knight said as she balanced her baby niece, Megan Alvarado, on her lap and nodded along in time with the music. "We're having a wonderful time so far, and the weather really helped."

Nelson, as is his wont, bounded from his backstage tour bus to the stage to sit in periodically with many of the picnic's more than 30 acts. Chrysta Bell, the vocalist for 8 1/2 Souvenirs, was still walking on air after Nelson joined the band onstage for a Django Reinhart-style rendition of "After You're Gone.'' "It was completely spontaneous, '' Bell said.

Nelson applauded the presence of younger bands such as 8 1/2 Souvenirs at the venerable event. "They're a young band, but they're playing old stuff that still sounds real good, '' he said of the jazz-pop ensemble.

In addition to younger picnicgoers supplementing the "old hippies, '' as Nelson called those who were at the event's inception in 1972, the second generation of Nelson musicians performed at the picnic. Paula Nelson, his daughter, performed her own set during the day. "It's still a milestone to me when I see Paula singing and working out there and the people enjoying it, '' Nelson said.

Some of the picnic's bigger names, including Ray Price, Emmylou Harris (making her inaugural picnic appearance), Leon Russell and Robert Earl Keen, were scheduled to perform later in the evening.

Asked if there was a motto to his al fresco Independence Day party, which has endured for more than a quarter-century, Nelson smiled and said simply, "Survive."