NOTE: This follow-up story on my interview with Willie at the Picnic ran in the Statesman in 2012.
2012 Picnic interview with Willie Nelson
By Dave Thomas
The green room backstage at Billy Bob's Texas might be a safe haven for performers, but don't expect to find Willie Nelson hanging out there. Just out the back door is a very large and very familiar bus.
Willie can't be far. There goes "world's oldest roadie" Ben Dorcy on a mission of some sort for his boss.
Inside the bus is the architect of 39 years of Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnics, pigtails and all, seated at a small table, drinking coffee from an "Old Whiskey River" coffee cup.
He extends a warm greeting — indeed, it could prove to be unnerving how he gives an interviewer his full attention despite who else might be with him, which, at the moment, includes his wife, Annie, and son Micah.
Willie is friendly but does not prove to be chatty over the course of a brief interview.
American-Statesman: In 39 years, the Picnic has changed a lot. What does it mean to you today?
Willie Nelson: It's a way for all of us to get together one day of the year, all my friends that I've played music with all our lives. The Fourth of July has always been the natural day to do it.
What is the future of the Picnic?
Oh, I don't know. We're taking it one year at a time.
Do you think there'll be a big 40-year celebration next year?
I'll be 80 years old — I might as well have a 40th anniversary.
The days of the big outdoor Picnics, are they done?
I don't know. The thing about those is that they're expensive to put together, for one thing, especially when you have them in somebody's pasture. It was a great idea 40 years ago, but I think nowadays people are more accustomed to their comforts.
Fort Worth certainly provides comfort for the fans (as opposed to a fest in a field). What is it about Fort Worth that makes you want to come back?
This is one of my old hometowns. I lived here, played here a lot and I just enjoy coming (to) Fort Worth for any reason.
The Picnic has its regular crew of performers, but some have been missing recently. The Geezinslaws stopped coming after 2006. This is the second year without Leon Russell. Ray Price couldn't make it this year. Is it hard to put on these shows without your old friends here?
Sure it is, yeah, sure it is. (Willie looks genuinely pained for a moment, surprising for a man who is relentlessly positive.) Maybe next year they'll be ready to play.
Recently, your sons Micah and Lukas and daughters Amy and Paula have made a new tradition of playing the Picnics. What does it mean to you to share this event with your family?
It's great to have your family on stage with you. It doesn't get any better than that.
Thousands of fans out there are waiting for you, I'm sure many are wondering, how does Willie spend his Fourth of July before he takes the stage?
(Willie laughs and glances around the bus.) This is it. (He adds that he does get to visit with old friends such as Billy Joe Shaver and "Whispering Bill" Anderson.)
Having Bill Anderson step in for Ray Price, was that your idea?
Yes. I'm glad he could come. I've always been a Bill Anderson fan, we've been writing music and hanging out together forever. He said he told the crowd, I'm not sure if you heard it, what I told him about his singing.
No, I missed that.
We were flying to Texas and he said, "Willie, how come you're drawing so good down here and I just can't seem to draw a crowd?" And I said "Well hell, Bill, they drink beer louder than you sing!"
You've described to me in a previous interview how you and Leon (Russell) were surveying the aftermath of the inaugural 1973 Picnic and kind of said to yourselves, 'What have we done?' Could you have imagined then that we'd still be having Picnics and talking about them in 2012?
No, I figured we'd do one and have a lot of fun, then I wouldn't have the nerve to do another one. But I did.