Live Shots: Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings

Kris Kristofferson at Willie's Picnic (Photo by Gary Miller)

Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic

Circuit of the Americas, July 4

Outlaw: Celebrating the Music of Waylon Jennings

ACL Live at the Moody Theater, July 6

In 1973, Willie Nelson held his first Fourth of July Picnic and Waylon Jennings released Honky Tonk Heroes, an album of mostly Billy Joe Shaver covers that gave voice and community to the outlaw movement that reshaped country music. Fitting, then, that as Willie's Picnic returned to Austin, many artists stayed to join in tribute to Jennings two days later. Circuit of the Americas proved inhospitable for want of shade and reasonable prices across 13 hours, but the performances moved sharply between two stages.

Early afternoon highlights offered Ray Wylie Hubbard's swampy blues and a relatively cleaned-up David Allan Coe, before the main stage opened with a rough and humbled bow by Kris Kristofferson. As much about christening outlaw inheritors as bolstering legends, the holiday convergence highlighted emerging stars Sturgill Simpson, plying a more traditional routine, and Chris Stapleton impressing behind his debut LP Traveller, though Jason Isbell's exceptional songwriting shone brightest. Billy Joe Shaver punched a short, energetic set leading into Leon Russell's uninspired turn behind the keys. Jamey Johnson oddly mined mostly covers, including a stripped-down "This Land Is Your Land."

Kacey Musgraves and Eric Church brought mainstream country fare, and while the young Texan displayed talent and provided a needed female voice to the lineup, neither she nor Church quite gelled with the aesthetic. The night wasn't helped by Merle Haggard's lackluster run, starting 40 minutes late and saved only by Willie's joining to duet "Pancho and Lefty." Nelson and family closed out in traditional style, rolling until almost 1:30am, but for all the talent in attendance, Monday's tribute to Jennings provided the better affair.

Loose and informal but kept on a tight schedule, the three-hour ACL Live at the Moody Theater show encompassed the range of its subject's contributions with both an emotional and celebratory pull. Bobby Bare surprised in place of an ailing Shaver, his appropriate baritone opening with "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line," before Shooter Jennings jammed alongside Jesse Dayton on "Whistlers and Jugglers." Outlaw first lady Jessi Colter offered a moving "Mona," penned for her late husband, and Stapleton kicked out "Ain't Living Long Like This."

Stellar backing, including bandleader Don Was and Buddy Miller, shone through otherwise mundane takes from Lee Ann Womack, Simpson, and Musgraves, but Johnson walked away as true heir with a stunning "Freedom to Stay." That gave way to Robert Earl Keen leading a raucous "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" to close the first set. Ryan Bingham, Alison Krauss, Toby Keith, and Church brought star power following intermission, but only as setup to Willie emerging with "Till I Gain Control Again."

Nelson was left hosting a ramshackle duet roulette to finish the show (Keith, Simpson, Stapleton), though the messiness still held charm, especially as Kristofferson, Johnson, and Jennings joined to reprise "Highwayman." The finale crowded the entire cast onstage for "Luckenbach, Texas." Ultimately, the tribute's casualness played more in spirit with Willie's annual gathering than the actual Picnic, plus Keen's car didn't catch on fire.

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