NOTE: This story was published in the Austin American-Statesman in 2006

Willie Nelson's 2006 Fourth of July Picnic a family affair

By Dave  Thomas

FORT WORTH — It’s probably rude to sit in Willie Nelson’s bus, look him in the eye and ask: “How long are you going to do this?”

But Willie isn’t letting on if he has any worries about mortality or infirmity. His answer is straightforward, delivered with a gracious grin: “I don’t know. It’s still fun.”

Fun? By 10:30 a.m., anyone already on the Picnic grounds — or lined up at the gate, waiting to get in — was dripping with sweat. By 3 p.m., the rain was falling hard enough to stop the show, leaving thousands to sit in muddy silence. The Picnic had the worst of both worlds: hot and humid, cool and soggy.

Fun? The Back 40 at the Stockyards is mostly dirt and gravel, with patches of torn-up grass near the main stage. And it is ringed with high-priced merchandise; $35 for an official concert T-shirt, $6 for a beer, $3 for a bottle of water.

Fun? Absolutely.

When Shooter Jennings hit the chorus on “Fourth of July, ” at least one person’s hair stood on end. There were women on shoulders, guys waving beers, thousands pressed up against the South stage or streaming that way in a hurry.

“Happy to be with me, on the Fourth of July,” Jennings sang. And about 10,000 people were.

Pam Minick, director of media relations for Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, said they were expecting about 12,000 people by night’s end, down from last year’s 18,000. But with no Bob Dylan and with the Picnic on a Tuesday, the smaller crowd was expected.

Still, the Picnic is an endurance test. Why would anyone go through this more than once?

Ask any fan of Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic — heck, ask any performer — why the Picnic still survives after 33 years, and he’ll tell you: “Willie.”

And that would be true for any other show the Red-Headed Stranger performs. But the Picnic, what makes it special is the sum of its aging parts.

“It’s a family reunion, ” Billy Joe Shaver said. “People think us artists get to see each other all the time, but we don’t. I don’t care if I even play. I just want to see everyone.”

It's a reunion year after year. Check out the Picnic lineup, and you’ll see the same names: Shaver, Leon Russell, Ray Price, Johnny Bush, David Allan Coe, Ray Wylie Hubbard, the Geezinslaws.

“The rest of them are just fillers,” Bush jokes of the other artists, but it’s at least partly true. The Picnic has survived because its most regular performers have, too.

And for the most part, the artists’ relationships are as comfortable as an old pair of jeans.

“There’s not a lot of ego at Willie’s Picnic, no real divas,” Hubbard says. And it’s because the old friends won’t put up with it from each other, and the youngsters and lesser-known artists are just happy to be there.

This year’s Stockyards picnic, the third consecutive, kicked off right on time with a touching version of the national anthem by 9-year-old Mario Macias.

Then came Heather Myles with a great cover of “Help Me Make It Through the Night”; Mike Graham, whose songwriting has moved beyond the simple anthem “I Feel Like Drinking Today,” but it’s still a fun song; and Jimmy Lee Jones, who spent most of his set showing off his band’s musicianship, but came back to form with “(My Baby’s) All Liquored Up.”

The concert-goers come in all shapes and ages. There are hippies, rednecks, families, college kids and bikers, some curiously overdressed for the Texas heat, others practically undressed.

One couple ingeniously created an awning for their lawn chairs with PVC pipe and blue tarp. Another group backed itself against the fence and used tent poles and plastic sheeting to create shade.

These days, the picnic is not just a Willie and Family event; it’s a Willie and family event, too.

“We got a Haggard, a Nelson and a Jennings, ” Allred points out. “But it’s Noel Haggard and Paula Nelson and Shooter Jennings.”

Jennings, son of the late Waylon, was making his picnic debut 10 years after his father last performed at the picnic, an anniversary he hadn’t realized.

“For me, it’s kind of a full-circle thing. I came to Willie’s Picnic four years ago.” He ended up writing a song about his trip to the 2003 Picnic in Spicewood (“Fourth of July”) but couldn't return until this year, as a performer. “I’m proud to be here. I’m proud to be moving along fast enough that I could get on and play.”

Haggard, sounding reminiscent of his father, made the most of his 15 minutes, bringing out an obscure Waylon song, “Ain’t No Good Chain Gang,” and an old Waylon tune, “Stop the World (And Let Me Off).”

So let us rephrase that opening question: Why has the picnic survived?

"There’s other festivals where the music is just as good, but there’s something about it being Willie’s Picnic that makes you think, ‘man, I gotta go see that,’” Hubbard says.

Bush agrees: “If nobody showed up besides Willie and his guitar, I don’t think nobody would leave.”

Willie, ever the guru, has his own answer.

“After it’s all said and done, it’s about the music,” the 73-year-old says. “If the party’s happening during the music, that’s good, too. But it’s all about the music.”