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Willie and his picnic break in new Backyard

More than 7,000 brave the heat for big music buffet in Bee Cave.

Patrick Caldwell

Nearly 50 tour buses, 20 bands, more than 12 hours of music and a sellout crowd of 7,500 eager country music fans — only in the world of Willie Nelson's Fourth of July picnics could such an undertaking be dubbed "scaled back."

The outlaw and cosmic country icon — and longtime Central Texas fixture — threw the latest in his long line of Fourth of July picnics Sunday at the new Backyard venue at Bee Cave Parkway and RM 620, continuing a tradition that began in Dripping Springs in 1973 .

The first Central Texas picnic since 2003's outing in Spicewood attracted a diverse crowd of picnic veterans and newcomers willing to tough out the blazing temperatures to sample from a plethora of artists, from Del Castillo's Latin rock to longtime Nelson cohort Kris Kristofferson's thoughtful Americana.

The bill lacked the kind of major headliners — like Bob Dylan, the Doobie Brothers or Jimmy Buffett — that have shepherded previous picnics, focusing instead on picnic stalwarts like Leon Russell and Ray Price. It also lacked the arrests, nudity and mayhem that often defined the picnic in its younger years. Though on-site medics said they had treated some cases of heat exhaustion, no attendees had to be transported off-site, and Travis County sheriff's deputies said no arrests were made.

"It's gone really smooth this year," Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson said shortly after the seminal Austin country band's afternoon set. "It is the year 2010, and after 37 picnics, I think they've figured out how to do it."

The picnic also served as a litmus test for the new Backyard — as the venue's fifth show and first to sell out, it brought out ample crowds that put the outdoor theater through its paces.

"I think that this was the supreme test, and it also was in a lot of ways our grand opening," said Tim O'Connor, CEO of Direct Events, which operates the Backyard. "Because Willie has always opened every facility we've ever had, and played the original Backyard more than 30 times, it didn't really feel like we were up and running until he played."

The day kicked off at 11 a.m. with Direct Events office manager Marqita Delgado singing the national anthem and the Grammy-winning Blackwood Quartet performing a Sunday-appropriate gospel set. Attendees filtered in steadily throughout the afternoon, but despite cramped conditions, the picnic maintained its pastoral vibe throughout the day, with most seated on blankets or towels. The primary obstacle for concertgoers proved to be the significant — but bearable — heat.

"The heat has been not so good," said David Powell, 59, a first-time picnicgoer who observed the stage from beneath a small outcropping of trees. "We've found some shade, but it's a little rough. But it does amaze me to see this many people standing in the heat and have the atmosphere be so cool. Eight thousand people wouldn't be out here in the sun for 12 hours if the music wasn't really great."

Leonard Schooler, 59, came with his 21-year-old son and noted that the crowd was smaller and the prices higher than past picnics. "But there was great music when I went to them in the 1970s, and there's still great music, so what matters has stayed the same," he said.

Aside from outlaw country pioneer Billy Joe Shaver canceling because of health issues, the picnic largely ran on schedule, with short sets ranging from 15 to 25 minutes. O'Connor said Nelson continued to add and remove acts as late as Friday morning — typical for the picnic.

"People always go, 'When is the schedule? Can we get the schedule?' There is no schedule," O'Connor said. "There is an internal process that we go through, but it is kind of helter-skelter, in a good way."

Highlights included a blistering set from Western swing band Jody Nix and the Texas Cowboys, ample audience participation during a performance by singer David Allan Coe , Ray Wylie Hubbard and son Lucas trading guitar solos during the psychedelic country fixture's afternoon set, and Nelson protégés Los Lonely Boys returning to the picnic in hard-rocking style. Along with a healthy dose of patriotic fervor — climaxing when Austin's Geezinslaws led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance — the overriding tone was one of reverence, particularly for Nelson.

"I think we sometimes forget how thankful we should be to have Willie Nelson," country singer Kevin Fowler said from the stage. "He's the best friend a Texas musician could have."

No sign of reverence was more pronounced, or more visible, than a wooden statue of Poodie Locke — Nelson's longtime stage manager, who died last year — that kept a watchful eye over the Backyard's stage. That respect for the music, Hubbard said, is what makes the picnic the picnic.

"There's this integrity to the picnic because it still comes down to the music. It's not just spring break at Padre Island. It's about the music and Willie's status as an American icon," said Hubbard, who's played every picnic . "You gotta be pretty good to play his picnic. And it really is fun. You come here and sweat and get up and play, and the crowd is with you. It's a ball."; 912-2559