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Archive: Willie sings one for Austin at 2000 Picnic

Chris Riemenschneider and Kim Sue Lia Perkes

Seated aboard a Winnebago backstage, wearing his "Willie Nelson: Born for Trouble'' Harley-Davidson cap, the patron saint and sinner of Lone Star Fourth of Julys let out a reassured laugh.

"It looks like they still enjoy a good party, '' Nelson said, referring to the sweaty fleet of Austinites and others who came to his as-annual-as-it-needs-to-be Fourth of July Picnic at Southpark Meadows.

Held in Austin for the first time in a decade, the event boasted a turnout of about 11,000 fans, without many of the problems such wild events can attract. Police and medical crews reported only minor problems, and neighbors for the most part had few complaints.

That was good for Willie and his crew, considering the city's wild shift in demographics in 10 years and the lingering question of how the new Austin might greet the gigantic party that dates to 1972 and has seen some wilder, hairier days.

"This is the sort of thing that makes Austin great, '' said real estate agent Craig Spent, who moved from Illinois three years ago. As he listened to Jimmie Dale Gilmore sing Townes Van Zandt's "No Lonesome Tune'' in the late afternoon, Spent said,  "I don't know why anyone would turn this sort of thing down."

Hays County officials did just that. In May, they brought up a little-known mass-gathering law that more than likely would have caused a cancellation at the original site chosen for this year's picnic, in Dripping Springs. Concert organizers quickly changed the venue to the amphitheater in South Austin.

"I think everything happens for a reason, '' Nelson said. "In this case, the positive side is we got to bring it to Austin and see everything turn out great."

Many picnic regulars were disappointed that the show wasn't in the fabled town of Luckenbach this year, where it had been held for most of the '90s. They also talked about how tame the event has become compared with its early years.

"There would be women going topless, and everyone smoking joints, '' said Rick Taber of Arlington, attending his and his brother Mack's 18th picnic. "It has definitely mellowed, but that's OK. So have we."

The attendees and their habits may have changed, even if marijuana remained evident. But the music has largely stayed the same -- which seemed just fine from the crowd's standpoint on Tuesday. Such rabble-rousing songs as Ray Wylie Hubbard's "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother'' and Joe Ely's rendering of Robert Earl Keen's "The Road Goes on Forever'' brought the crowd to its feet in the sweltering afternoon sun. Mystery band T----y Bingo played its lone gig of the year, which as usual confirmed that the bumper-sticker industry is the only market the band has cornered. Other regulars such as Billy Joe Shaver, Johnny Bush, Rusty Wier, Leon Russell and David Allan Coe also returned.

More so than ever, this year's picnic boasted a feminine side, and not just when the Geezinslaws brought out their backup singers (guys dressed in sequin dresses). Toni Price played her hippified blues music to great applause in the early afternoon, and Alabama soul-belter Shelby Lynne wowed the crowd later with a heartfelt ``Your Lies.'' Later, Susan Tedeschi and Francine Reed joined Willie and his blues band on versions of "The Thrill is Gone'' and "Milk Cow Blues.'' The sweetest moment of the day was a Kimmie Rhodes-WillieNelson duet on Rhodes' new "Love Me Like a Song."

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson enjoyed some of the music before going to his usual gig speaking at Auditorium Shores.

"What better way to celebrate a holiday in Austin than by enjoying so many great live music acts, '' Watson said. Reflecting on the decade since Austin's last picnic, then held in Zilker Park, Watson said,  "There's more diversity in Austin than ever before. That can only complement this event, which is all about diversity and freedom."

Freedom was only occasionally abused Tuesday. Despite reminders bellowed from stage about drinking lots of water -- especially if you're drinking lots of beer -- several concertgoers experienced heat-related illness. Medical personnel said there were several dozen incidents of heat exhaustion. About 50 people were treated for various problems, and three were taken to hospitals -- for fainting, cardiac problems and unconsciousness -- but none was considered serious.

Security was tight as Travis County sheriff officers, Department of Public Safety officials and Austin police officers patrolled the grounds.

Over in Park Ridge, where neighbors have complained about the noise from Southpark Meadows, the music was barely audible during the day.

Most of the noise came from traffic along Slaughter Lane, which separates the concert venue from the subdivision. A sheriff's deputy was stationed at the entrance of the subdivision to ensure that concertgoers didn't try to park in the neighborhood streets.

Olfelia Villareal, who can see Southpark Meadows from her front yard, said the music from the concert facility never disturbs her husband and three children. "I enjoy the music, '' she said early Tuesday afternoon. "I'll enjoy it tonight with WillieNelson. I like WillieNelson."

Traffic problems -- which had worried both police and neighbors -- didn't materialize during the day. No lines backed up on Interstate 35 or Slaughter Lane, which provide routes to Southpark Meadows.

Traffic was expected to be worse when the concert let out aboutround 11 p.m. after Willie's set, but that didn't seem to bother many in the crowd, including Luther Edmonson of Florence.

"I always stay until the end no matter what, just because of Willie, '' said the picnic veteran, who wore a shiny red, white and blue shirt for the day. "There's no better way to celebrate Independence Day than with WillieNelson. There just ain't."