As most of you know I lucked into being in Texas around the fourth for business travel, so I extended my stay and drove down to Austin for the infamous Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic. I wasn’t sure what to expect, since this was business travel I would be flying solo but it was just too good an opportunity to see some of my musical heroes to pass up.
I have learned since that this was the return of the picnic to Austin, the venue, The Backyard, was created specifically for this event, and the picnic was it’s inaugural event (though not the first…go figure). I had a time finding the place because it was so new it wasn’t listed on my rental car’s GPS and there really were no markers. Luckily I found it after a pleasant ride about 2 miles too far down TX-71. Really beautiful country outside of Austin…the hill country they call it. Very pleasing to a mountain boys eyes.
So I rolled into The Backyard…just a big dirt covered field, not too much traffic…it was about 11 or so….I could hear the national anthem being sung…this thing was just getting started. By the time I walked through the gate the opening gospel band The Blackwood Quartet were just wrapping up the opening ceremonies. There weren’t too many people there yet…..and those rolling in were just starting to claim their spots. I began walking around examining the grounds and waiting for the next artist. The place was so new the sod was still freshly rolled out. Luckily it wasn’t very muddy…it had been raining most of the week in Austin, but it appeared they had just laid the sod out that morning. The place was not exceptionally large, about medium sized, lots of seating area, plenty of food vendors, even more beer vendors. They had giant vats of free cold water placed throughout the place, and that was nice. They had real bathrooms along with port-a-jons…all this around the outer perimiter of the “inner sanctum”. I am calling it the inner sanctum because well…once you go in….you stay in, cause if you leave you can’t come back in. Which brings me to another point, probably my only gripe: I was unsure what all I could actually bring in. The website and ticket said I could bring no food or drink in and no “professional” looking cameras (my POS camera looks like an SLR though it is not), so I brought nothing with me. But when I get in there I see people carrying big jugs of water, blankets, big bags of crap, all kinds of stuff. Damn.
So the next act up was Ben Burgess….kind of an easygoing Jack Johnson type of thing. Not really my thing but decent enough. People were still strolling in. They made an announcement that they had now sold out. Roughly 8,500 people would be showing up for this thing. Next up was Amber Digby followed by Pauline Reese. By this time I had worked my way down to the stage area because I didn’t really have any intent on camping out somewhere and wanted to be up close. I had heard of Amber Digby before had never checked her out….she did about 3 songs and all 3 impressed me enough to find out more about her. Pauline Reese wasn’t too bad either, though a little more “sheryl crow-ish”.
The next performer, Jody Nix and The Texas Cowboys, were probably my favorite of the day, and that’s saying a whole hell of a lot considering who all played. These guys came out of the gate with just searing, full-throttle western swing. Now I’ve never really been exposed to western swing live, but I’ve been to many a bluegrass jam and let me tell you…Jody and the Cowboys reminded me of those magical moments when you get a group of old bluegrass musicians together and they just play flawlessly and full of energy and it’s just perfect. Makes you want to just get off your ass and shuffle your feet. Come to find out Jody is a legend in western swing, having played with Bob Wills himself, and even taking over his fiddle duties on the Bob Wills “For The Last Time” album. Let me tell you, it was clear that Jody had been in the business that long. What a showman, knew just how to work the crowd and just brought so much energy with him. Definitely a highlight of the show for me.
After that killer set came The Geezinslaws. The announcer said they had played every picnic since the beginning. Now I will admit, I thought the Geezinslaws were only a novelty act, only knowing them from their semi-hit song in the 80’s “Help I’m White and I Can’t Get Down“. Boy was I wrong. These guys brought it, with a mix of outlaw country, folk, and southern rock. Highlights from their set include “You Call It Country (I Call It Bad Rock And Roll)” and “You Shoulda Seen Me When I Was A Kid”. It was also around this time the Ray Wylie Hubbard walked directly behind me and I turned around shook his hand and gave him a holler. No one else around me seemed to know who he was. They would soon enough. The Geezinslaws ended their set by leading the crowd in the Pledge Of Allegiance….reminding everyone that is WAS Independence Day afterall.
It was around this time that I met up with a couple who came up from San Antonio and it is her you can thank for all of these pictures (except where otherwise noted). Pretty much everyone I met there were great folks and all there for the love of good music. By this time the crowd had really started to pick up, and folks were scattered all about the field on their blankets and mats and such. Scurrying around buying their souvenirs and Best Wurst brats (really good BTW).
Freddy Powers was the next performer, and he was very old and feeble. They had to help him on and off the stage but man….what a legend. Every song he sang was a song he wrote, and a song you know. All classic country standards like “I Always Get Lucky With You”, and “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room Tonight”. Both big hits for Merle Haggard. It was around this time that I started drinking, you can blame Eddie and Rachel from San Antonio for getting me that first tasty Lonestar tallboy. Perfect companion to the Texas heat and classic country.
Next up was Kevin Fowler, now I will admit I’m not really a fan of his, but I will say that the ladies sure are. They came down to the stage in droves to hear him sing about his “willie” and “beer, bait, and ammo”. Luckily I had a couple more Lonestars to keep me company. It was also around this time that I met a whole crew of people from a bar in Charlotte, NC called The Thirsty Beaver Saloon. A bunch of great folks who loved their country music and were some of the most knowledgeable country music fans I think I’ve ever met in person. Really look forward to heading down to Charlotte sometime in the near future and checking out their bar, which I can only imagine is about as close to an old honky tonk as you can get in this day and age. So now I had found myself a good gang of concert buddies so I was able to happily continue consuming my Lonestar tallboys and enjoy all the great music ahead. That is also why things got a little fuzzy from this point on.
Next up was one I was really looking forward to, of course it’s Ray Wylie Hubbard. He comes out guitars blaring, man I just love him. He did about 6 songs including Snake Farm, Drunken Poet’s Dream, Wanna Rock & Roll, and David Allan Coe came out to perform Redneck Mother with him…another highlight of the festival. I will say that Ray’s son Lucas has only gotten better on guitar since I last saw them perform about a year prior. He played a fuzzed out psychedelic-twang solo during Wanna Rock and Roll that would make Billy Gibbons smile.
After Ray was Asleep At The Wheel, a really tight band and great performance, but a little weak sounding after hearing Jody Nix’s masterful set. I will say though, that girl singing with them sure had a set of pipes on her. Girl could flat belt out some songs. Really dug Ray Benson’s walnut “texas” tele too. Jamey Johnson came on after Asleep At The Wheel, and again the ladies came flocking to the stage. Like I said a minute ago things started to get fuzzy around this time but I will say he put on a good show. Check out the picture below of the guy who was painting water colors of all the performers (and some of the audience) all through the show. That’s Jamey Johnson he’s painting there.
At this time I feel this post has gotten excessively long, so if you’ve made it this far I will just hit some high points of the later end of the festival. Johnny Bush, I was not very familiar with Johnny Bush, but damn he put on a hell of a show. Johnny was the writer of Willie’s hit Whiskey River and when Johnny performed his version he added in a verse begging Willie to never quit singing Whiskey River. I’m going to definitely be digging through his discography after seeing him. David Allan Coe came out with a rastafarian beanie on his head and multi-colored braids in his beard. He ran through all his major hits, but for some reason played a Kid Rock song. Hmmm….well he’s David Allan Coe and he can do what he wants. I will say one of the girls from the Thirsty Beaver wasn’t too fond of that particular song choice. Los Lonely Boys came on and did some killer Stevie Ray Vaughan inspired Texas rock and roll, followed by Del Castillo who did some crazy rock and roll inspired flamenco. Them boys got the ladies dancing let me tell you. Wasn’t nothing wrong with that. Sometime after that we had Randy Rogers come out and do a solo acoustic set that was pretty good, then a group called Folk Uke who did these irreverent folk songs like “Shit Makes The Flowers Grow”. Willie’s daughter Paula Nelson came out and did a few songs until finally….
Kris Kristofferson…the man. He came out and did a solo acoustic set….ran through all his basic hits. I remember particularly loving him doing “Loving Her Was Easier”. I need to see Kris in a more intimate setting that this, but still great to see him at all. Following Kris was Jack Ingram….what the hell…how does that happen? I will say Jack did perform Barbie Doll and name dropped Todd Snider, so that was cool. At this point in the show the sun had went down and the crowd at the front of the stage (where I was all damn day) was really starting to pack in and hunker down. The set changes were also taking a much longer time than before, and no one wanted to leave the crowd for fear of losing their spots. This led to a couple things: 1. the crowd was starting to sober up (apparently they had completely sold out of beer by this point), and 2. they were worn out and starting to get restless. But we had reached the final stretch here and it was just a matter of time before Willie came out. People in the crowd were starting to wonder if he was even there. Rumors began flying through the crowd, and speculation due to the fact he had yet to make an appearance with any of the performers, which veterans of the picnic said was “weird, man”.
So the final stretch, first up was the legendary Ray Price. The definite highlight of this set for me was Kris Kristofferson coming out with him and singing “For The Good Times”, man what a great moment. After Ray and another lengthy set change…we were treated to Leon Russell. Leon came out dressed in all white, white hair white beard, looking like god and glowing like an angel from the stage lights. His set was great…just funky country soul. Got the crowd pumped back up again and forgetting that they had been standing for nearly 12 hours.
After Leon, the announcer came out and promised us that Willie was up next….all right….everyone was getting antsy, and this set change seemed to take an extra long time. Finally a group of young men came out and began playing banjos and such. Hmmm….maybe this is Willie’s backing band. Also where the F is Billy Joe Shaver (another I was looking forward to, turns out he had heart problems and could not make the show). Well this band that came out was called The Reflectacles, and while the weren’t bad…..the big problem were….THEY WEREN’T WILLIE. I think many in the crowd we just a little upset at this, some actually left at this point as it was damn near midnight. Now I will say about The Reflectacles….how they landed this spot, I’ll never know…but they did put on a hell of a show and even got most of the crowd back into it. Their style was nothing like Willie, more akin to The Avett Brothers, though not as lush, and the drummer was one hell of a damn drummer! After they played through their set…finally….
Willie came out and joined them…played a few numbers, then Paul English, Kristofferson and Ray Benson come out. Willie didn’t come out till well after midnight, and I bet he played for about 2 hours. Was a hell of a show. When it was all over….after multiple encores, I turn around to head out of the venue and the first thing I notice is almost everyone is now gone. No one was on the grass anymore, and the only people there it seemed were those of us up front at the stage. That’s a shame, but Willie put on one hell of a show, and I was glad to be there to see it.
Well if you made it this far congratulations….this was a grueling post much like the concert. Hopefully it was worth it (the concert was).
You can also purchase Willie’s performance from this as a digital download here