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Archive: Willie's 1996 Picnic in Luckenbach a Texas original

Michael Corcoran

There are generally two types of picnics on the Fourth of July in Texas.

One is marked by red-and-white tablecloths on redwood tables under trees, with the family eating fried chicken and potato salad and then trying to find a good place to watch the fireworks. Then there's the other kind of Fourth of July picnic, one that's often equated with heat, dust, beerbuddies and music.

A crowd of nearly 12,000 chose the latter on Thursday, descending on the storied town of Luckenbach for the annual WillieNelson Fourth of July celebration.

This was the second year in a row that Luckenbach, 80 miles west of Austin, has hosted Willie's world. The first thing the legendary performer said when hitting the stage at around 10:30 a.m. was "Well, we've found a home for the Fourth of July picnic.''

Part of the charm of Luckenbach is that it was immortalized in a 1977 hit by Nelson and Waylon Jennings. The ode of returning "back to the basics'' has became something of an anthem for the good-timey cosmic cowboy lifestyle that still exists in Central Texas, if only on Independence Day. Thursday's picnic was especially noteworthy because it was the first time Waylon Jennings had stepped inside the town he helped make famous.

As always, the heat was a big concern, and matters weren't helped when concessionaires ran out of all nonalcoholic liquids at 5 p.m. and had to reorder. What's more, the volunteer medical team said they had treated dozens of concertgoers for heat exhaustion and dehydration.

"They've been dropping like flies, '' said nurse Julie Snyder, who was working in the medical tent. She estimated approximately 20 concertgoers were receiving IV treatment by 6 p.m.

"We just weren't ready for the heat. It's much worse this year than last year, '' she said. "Next year they should let people bring their own water in.''

Picnic attracts all types

Bikers and hippies have typically been the bulk of the picnic crowd, but the past two years have seen the audiences getting increasingly younger. This is thanks to the appeal of Robert Earl Keen, whose wildly received late afternoon segment led into closing sets by such longtime Nelson cronies as Little Joe y La Familia, Leon Russell, Ray Price and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was slated to close the 12-hour- plus affair.

Despite the influx of college students, the event attracted its customary wide age group, ranging from kids to senior citizens.

"WillieNelson is the last American folk hero, '' Kinky Friedman said backstage. "These people of all types have come to see a legend. If they went to see some current country hitmaker, like Garth Brooks, they could just as well be seeing Sting or going to Disneyland. But Willie's one of a kind.''

Friedman said he's currently working on a novel called "Roadkill'' about someone who's trying to kill WillieNelson, but that seemed a preposterous plot amidst the Willie worship of Luckenbach.

Willie holds center stage

The omnipresent Nelson and his beat-up guitar were heartily cheered whenever they came onstage -- which was often, as is the custom at these events. Willie has said that one reason he jams so often is because the stage is the only place he can get some peace. When he's off, he's surrounded by autograph-seekers and well-wishers.

But Nelson clearly relished his musical indulgences. Besides opening the event by dueting with Aaron Allen, Willie provided one of the day's early highlights by singing "Night Life'' with the Antones' house band, then dueted soulfully with Kimmie Rhodes on "Hard Promises To Keep.''

The picnic was also saturated with its other namesake -- the Fourth of July -- as many in the crowd wore bikinis, bandannas, shirts and hats emblazoned with the stars and stripes.

Also in the air was the laidback atmosphere that seemed to guide the whole affair.

"It's just assumed that I'm going to play, '' Rhodes said, with a laugh, in describing the manner in which the picnics are booked. "I just show up every year and they tell me when to play.''

Musical styles vary

The strangest bookings of the show were in the late afternoon, when bluesy hardrockers Tenderloin and Seattle's Supersuckers played sets back to back to somewhat stunned audience response. The bands were part of the lineup because of their participation in the "Twisted Willie'' tribute album. Nelson, who embraces all sorts of music, was repaying a little of the homage.

"Willie asked us to play way back in March, '' Dan Bolton of the Supersuckers said before the band went on, "and we booked our whole tour around this date. We're all real flattered to be here, but I wonder how we'll go over.''

Nelson seemed to take great pride in reading a message from President Clinton which declared a state of emergency for the Southwest region because of drought conditions. Proceeds from the Fourth of July picnic have been earmarked for the Farm Aid organization.

That the WillieNelson Fourth of July picnic cut across all lines was borne out by the list of celebrities who were on hand: former pro footballer Steve McMichael, actress Shelley Duvall and pro wrestlers Brian and Brian, the Nasty Boys. Director Steven Spielberg and actress wife Kate Capshaw, currently in Houston filming "The Locusts, '' picked up their tickets but managed to keep a low profile.