God, Guns & Guitars: Willie’s Picnic

Midwest farmer’s daughters, dirt road anthems, and a whiskey river

No small feat bringing three knives to a concert. Well, maybe most concerts. Willie Nelson’s annual Fourth of July picnic isn’t like most concerts. Now in its 43rd year, it still boasts a lineup stacked by both classic and contemporary artists coaxing country diehards and casual listeners alike outdoors all day into the sweltering Texas summer.

As such, when the grizzled gentleman sporting a sequined button-down shirt and shoulder-length hair in front of me set off a chorus of metal detectors at the entrance to the Circuit of the Americas, I could hardly be upset. To him, strapping three knives to his belt was as natural as putting on a pair of cowboy boots.

Margo Price (Photo by Gary Miller)

When we did finally make it through the gates around 3:45pm, Margo Price’s pristine vocals floated across the festival grounds from the Pavilion stage. The Nashville country upstart and Third Man Records signee had the unenviable task of rousing a crowd that had shown up at 11am from its afternoon slump. Price proved up to the task, belting out note-perfect renditions – in a voice evoking Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton – of tracks off March debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, which features storybook lyricism and an indelible blend of sensitivity and sass.

Price later tweeted that country legend Kris Kristofferson shook her hand and kissed her cheek when he left the stage. She earned it.

Women continued to win the afternoon, Lee Ann Womack taking the Pavilion stage next. Whereas Price played the role of gutsy newcomer, Womack exuded the coolness of a seasoned pro. The 49-year-old hit every note on up-tempo hit “I’ll Think of a Reason Later” and sultry ballad “I May Hate Myself in the Morning,” her seemingly ageless voice rising, falling, and fluttering within every vocal run.

Lee Ann Womack (Photo by Gary Miller)

Of course there was also “I Hope You Dance.”

“This is the one we’ve heard at weddings, funerals, births,” announced Womack before launching into the megahit. “So if you want to dance, dance.”

She got her wish.

As Price and Womack worked the main stage with their robust melodies, Johnny Bush, Billy Joe Shaver, and Cody Johnson held a captive audience at the Budweiser Grand Plaza stage with crunchy guitar riffs and chicken-pickin’ solos. It was successful counterprogramming as the crowd tried to beat the heat by sipping $9 Bud Lights and sprawling out on the lawn, welcoming the relief provided by several tents and giant misters.

Less successful were the back-to-back sets of Austin rockers Jamestown Revival and Shakey Graves. Leon Russell had been scheduled to perform between them, but his tour bus broke down in Texarkana. The former act pleased the crowd with serviceable roots-rock and gorgeous harmonies, but Graves puzzled with his half-hip, half-heavy brand of blues-rock.

Shakey Graves (Photo by Gary Miller)

Not for a lack of trying, either: The Austin native was an absolute workhorse onstage, jumping off the drum riser and hurling beach balls into the crowd when he wasn’t attacking his guitar strings. Though his first call for crowd participation fell on deaf ears, the rocker redeemed himself on final song “Dearly Departed,” allowing the audience to sing Esmé Patterson’s falsetto vocal hook.

The sun had begun to set by the time Graves left, and Jamey Johnson finally coaxed it under the horizon with the help of singer/violinist Alison Krauss. After a day of rowdy, rock-tinged country bands, Johnson’s somber songs and deep, plaintive voice were a stark, refreshing change of pace. As he sang the heartbreaking chorus to “In Color,” the band swelled and his guitarist fired off a transcendent solo that cemented the song as one of the highlights of the entire picnic.

Alison Krauss & Jamey Johnson (Photo by Gary Miller)

“We don’t get to do this often, but I see one of my heroes standing off to the side of the stage: Mr. Kris Kristofferson,” said Johnson humbly before playing “For the Good Times.” It was the song’s second appearance of the day, the first having come during Kristofferson’s own set several hours earlier. The harmonic weave of Johnson and Krauss wafted impossibly smooth, their backing band ridiculously tight.

Kris Kristofferson, on the other hand, dazzled in the afternoon with nothing but his voice, acoustic guitar, and harmonica, which he played upside-down and had to fix midsong.

“Feeling good was good enough for me – and Janis,” said Kristofferson, 80, in a weathered, gravelly voice on his indelible “Me and Bobby McGee.” The Texan croaked and cracked in spots, but neither were a distraction. Both only added color to a voice defined by its mileage.

Kris Kristofferson (Photo by Gary Miller)

“God bless you. Hold on to your spirit,” said Kristofferson prior to walking offstage, capping another impactful performance that relied solely on the strength of the music.

And then Brantley Gilbert showed up.

A stage-left video screen played corny pre-show footage of Gilbert and his band preparing to take the stage. “Let’s rock as hard as those who came before us and 10 times as hard as anybody who’ll come after us!” he roared. “Amen!”

Subtlety be damned. This was a rawk show, and Gilbert made sure everybody knew it. Three guitarists riffed and soloed ferociously as a mohawk-sporting drummer pounded a kit whose two bass drums were adorned with a pair of brass knuckles and the words “Take It Outside.” On the video screen, a copy of the Miranda Rights went up in flames.

Brantley Gilbert (Photo by Gary Miller)

Gilbert hails from Jefferson, Ga., and he apparently speaks with a Southern accent – not that you could tell from his tuneless, throaty growl that masquerades as singing. “Mind your business, watch your mouth, before I have to knock your loud ass out,” he rapped during “Dirt Road Anthem (Revisited)” to massive applause. He then tossed a Confederate flag bandana into the crowd on the anniversary of America’s independence from the British Empire.

The irony was apparently lost on everyone.

By this point, 11:21pm – more than 12 hours after the show had begun – a few of us were in desperate need of a savior. Enter 83-year-old Willie Nelson and his band, who brought 10,000-plus fans in the now-packed amphitheatre to their feet. Before the applause could subside, Nelson broke into “Whiskey River,” and although the song had played over the loudspeakers between sets all day, to finally hear the real thing was inexplicably relieving.

For a man so steeped in legacy, Nelson’s onstage persona remains remarkably human. He smiled playfully and pointed at the audience with arms that resemble tree bark. His bandmates surrounded him in an intimate, protective semicircle, looking far more like a ragtag bunch of outlaws and friends than a collection of hired hands.

Nelson’s syncopated vocal phrasing alternated between singing and talking, and his band changed tempos accordingly, keeping things loose but never losing track of their leader. Naturally, one band member was closer to Nelson than the rest: Trigger, the Martin N-20 classical acoustic guitar that’s been by his side since 1969. Nelson picked, strummed, and slapped the instrument with a tenacious unpredictability more akin to jazz master Django Reinhardt than a honky-tonk six-stringer. The notes tumbled out of Trigger, slowly at first, and then all at once.

Willie Nelson (Photo by Gary Miller)

Trigger (Photo by Gary Miller)

Nelson and his band barreled through all of the requisite hits: “On the Road Again,” “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” and the tear-inducing “Always on My Mind.” There was nary a sad face in the crowd, not even from the two women sitting in front of me who had been busted for smoking pot.

Busted for smoking pot.

At a Willie Nelson concert.

Speaking of which: Near the end of his 80-minute set, Nelson welcomed Kristofferson back onstage for a lively rendition of “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” The latter looked dazed and confused, but he never missed his cues on the chorus.

Now that both men are octogenarians, the song plays as less a tongue-in-cheek taunt than a carefully considered plan for their future. “I didn’t come here and I ain’t leavin’, so don’t sit around and cry,” they sang. “Just roll me up and smoke me when I die.”

They wouldn’t have it any other way.

Full photo gallery

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Willie Nelson, WIllie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic, Margo Price, Lee Ann Womack, Alison Krauss, Jamey Johnson, Billy Joe Shaver, Johnny Bush, Cody Johnson, Jamestown Revival, Shakey Graves, Kris Kristofferson, Brantley Gilbert

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