NOTE: This blog was published on statesman.com in October 2017. I did eat the bugs. When my coworkers ignored this story and failed to promote it on the homepage, I didn't forgive them.
I ate this bug for journalism. At the State Fair, you can eat one, too.
Dawn of the Picnic: 40 years ago Eddie Wilson got Willie off to a steady start
NOTE: This story was published in the Austin American-Statesman in 2013.
NOTE: I continued to file blog reports throughout the day with a laptop at the Picnic. As the Picnic returned to a larger, outdoor affair, it was harder to keep up, but I felt more at home. The following appeared on statesman.com and austin360.com in 2013.
Live blog: Willie Nelson's 2013 Fourth of July Picnic in Fort Worth
By Dave Thomas
FORT WORTH — Willie brought friends and family onto the stage a little after 11 p.m. for the finale. After “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” and “I’ll Fly Away,” Willie introduced his ‘new gospel song’ — “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
Alongside his children and fellow performers such as David Allan Coe and Jamey Johnson, Willie ended the night a little before 11:15 with an old gospel song: “I Saw the Light.”
And then it was over. By the time Willie finished, they were dismantling the North stage. But will the Picnic return next year?
With Willie, you never know.
Willie ran through his first four songs — “Whiskey River,” “Still is Still Moving to me,” “Whiskey for my Men and Beer for my Horses” and “Good Hearted Woman” — so automatically that they almost seemed perfunctory. But the now-Gray-Headed Stranger came to life with “Night Life,” as he drew out the song, fitting in a solo here and there. Later he lingered over “Help Me Make it Through the Night.”
You could say that Willie was Trigger-happy tonight.
Before Willie took a detour through his latest album, we got a rare performance of Billy Joe Shaver’s “You Asked Me To” and a not-so-rare cover of “Georgia on a Fast Train” — this time without the drum solo.
All in all, it was a very positive Picnic. With an estimated 12,000 people spread out between two ends of a giant lot and the cavernous Billy Bob’s Texas, it was crowded at times, but seldom was it overpowering like it was for the first Picnic in Fort Worth, back in 2004.
More importantly, the day moved along quickly, and there was little trouble. Also: no significant delays. Billy Bob’s has this thing down to a science.
Lukas Nelson was missed, as was Ray Price.
It’ll be interesting to see if the Picnic returns and how it will evolve if it does. But if 40 years is it for the Lone Star tradition, it ended on a high note.
Earlier: Opposite ends of country music
FORT WORTH — A small American flag flutters in the blessed breeze while Ryan Bingham’s rasp rattles the Stockyards. The song is “Hard Times,” and there could be a bit of symbolism there, but it feels good today.
His crowd isn’t as rowdy as, say, Robert Earl Keen’s 1995 Picnic debut in Luckenbach, but they are large and devoted. One feller by the light tower is, apparently, translating “Bread and Water” into drunken sign language.
Bingham is a natural fit for the Picnic, an animated and energetic, yet not overly complicated performer. In case you were wondering, the North stage is the South Side of Heaven today.
On the South stage, they have built a platform so Justin Moore could mysteriously rise into view, cowboy hat visible from Dallas, to a throbbing beat and flashing lights. There is a disco going on, at least until Moore finishes his pose and launches into a song about how you can’t take his guns.
Don’t get me wrong, his crowd is large and raucous. They love it. I’m not familiar with his songs, but here’s a few lyrics:
“When I was 8 years old I used a muzzle loader to kill my first doe.”
“She looks good on a tractor.”
“I don’t care if you don’t like my twang.”
Two things: Moore is not shy about singing about all the famous people he’s palled around with and he sure is a talker for a man with an hourlong show.
“I don’t play pop country music,” he tells us, going on to say how glad he is to be in Fort Worth, where people like traditional country music.
It’s true. We love traditional country music. Only 2 hours until Willie.
Earlier: Santa Claus and Mr. Sandman
FORT WORTH — Once again, the south and north stages offered a study in contrasts.
On the south end, Jamey Johnson ran through his excellent, if soporific, set. On the north, Leon Russell limped out to his keyboard, aided by a cane, sat down, let fly and hardly let up for 30 minutes. Russell’s set — including, for posterity, a little bit of “Jumping Jack Flash” — would hardly let you catch your breath. Johnson’s set encouraged you to catch some Zs.
Make no mistake, Johnson is a fantastic songwriter, but the heat of the afternoon at the Picnic isn’t the right fit for a sleepy version of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Two of his big hits: “High Cost of Living” and “In Color” were enthusiastically greeted by the crowd. A George Jones tribute — “The One I Loved Back Then” — was a nice touch.
Russell took the stage in white hat, white coat, like Santa at a formal, made a quick joke about the heat and got to work. His nonstop 30-minute set was one of the day’s highlights.
Late afternoon, early evening is the high point of attendance at any single-day Picnic, because the early crowd hasn’t gone home yet and the late crowd has just arrived. And it is packed here today. We’ll get word on official counts a little later. Coming up: Ryan Bingham and Justin Moore.
Earlier: Straight from Picnic Central Casting
FORT WORTH — “I been a little puny, y’all,” Billy Joe Shaver told the crowd. “I’m gonna live, I think.”
Then the slightly more subdued honky-tonk hero launched into “Georgia On a Fast Train,” which most folks never knew has been missing a drum solo all these years.
In addition to the half-dozen food trucks (among the options: a $8 brisket sandwich which was fairly tasty), the 4oth anniversary Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic featured the cast of characters any veteran picnicker would recognize: the sunburned, the burnt-out, the curiously overdressed, the already overserved, the shirtless guy you want to punch, the shirtless guy who wants to punch you, old bikers, old hippies, and little old ladies who have long loved the old men on the stages. And, oh yeah, the bikini-clad, too. Almost forgot.
Shaver, a longtime veteran of these affairs, might be slower, but remains unbowed. All denim-clad, he started into “Live Forever,” struck his Jesus pose and … well, if you were also a longtime veteran of these affairs, it was a moment to make your hairs stand on end.
Coming up soon: Jamey Johnson and Leon Russell. Then the younger performers pave the way for Willie.
Earlier: From 'Snake Farm' to Strait
FORT WORTH — The difference from last year was striking, even at 11 a.m., with an hourlong line of picnickers just waiting to get into the venue. Billy Bob’s Texas official Pam Minick said she was hoping for a crowd of 15,000, but expected about 12,000.
The North stage featured the groove of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Snake Farm” and the twin fiddles and steel guitar of Johnny Bush’s 8-piece band rollicking through “There Stands the Glass.”
At the other end — a rocky and dusty walk under faded blue skies with puffs of clouds — legendary songwriters Sonny Throckmorton and Kris Kristofferson soldiered through forgotten words with soulful, if ragged voices.
The folks in the $250 “skybox” looked particularly happy with their investment. Pam Minick said those seats sold out in weeks, despite the high cost. A line of enterprising concert-goers parked their lawn chairs in the slim line of shade at the bottom of the elevated platform.
Ray Wylie Hubbard, back in an early-afternoon time slot after a couple years of later shows, gave the crowd what they wanted, alongside son Lucas, who was wearing a pink Woodstock T-shirt. If this is the last Picnic, we certainly got in one more “Up Against The Wall Redneck (Mother).”
Throckmorton joked with the crowd after they cheered his comment about a recent divorce — “You people are sick!” — while showing off songs made hits by Merle Haggard (“The Way I Am”) and George Strait (“This is Where the Cowboy Rides Away”).
If you’re keeping track of concert inflation: 16-ounce beers were $6 a pop and water was $3.
“This may be our last good night together,” Kristofferson sang at the end of his rough, but appreciated set.
Let’s hope not.
July 3: Ray Price bows out
FORT WORTH — Ray Price has been battling illness and will not be able to make his gig at Willie Nelson’s 40th annual Fourth of July Picnic, even though he had been moved to an indoor slot at Billy Bob’s Texas at the Fort Worth Stockyards.
It’s an unfortunate development for the Picnic, which until now had been able to boast of hosting all of its original or mostly original performers save for Waylon Jennings, who died a decade ago, and the Geezinslaws, who retired after their 2006 Picnic performance.
The Picnic site is all dust and rocks, unless you’re one of the lucky few to have shelled out big bucks for the VIP “sky box” – which is actually an elevated stage stacked with bar stools, folding chairs and five air-conditioning units under a large tent. At 5:30 p.m. on July 3, the Picnic site wasn’t especially hot, but it was very bright and very sun-soaked. A half-hour later, under the escort of Concho Minick, who is president of Billy Bob’s, the “sky box” was a remarkable oasis with an awesome view of the north and south stages.
Minick said he was the one who made the call to upgrade the Picnic from the indoor-and-outdoor 4,000-or-less fest it had been the past few years into a full-scale outdoor event. He admitted that there was some nerves involved with making that call but said that any outdoor music festival is an inherently risky proposition.
For Minick and Billy Bob’s, it has paid off so far: More than 10,000 are expected for the outdoor festival, which appears to have been fenced off in a slightly smaller footprint than the 2006 Picnic, which was the last to be held at the North Forty behind Billy Bob’s.
Unless you’re part of the VIP skybox elite (and trust me, it is mighty cool on that platform), or the not-so-elite regular VIPs with their by-comparison smaller tent, you are going to sizzle in the sunshine. The rich folks will have a monopoly on the shade.
Minick has an understanding of the Picnic tradition, which he has complemented with the Billy Bob’s favorites that he needs to sell tickets. Gary Allan, Randy Rogers and the up-and-coming Justin Moore are anchoring the festival for the new crowd that hasn’t heard of Leon Russell or Johnny Bush. “It has a straight-up Texas feel to it,” said Minick, who said he’d be up late making sure the Picnic site was awash in American flags.
With just hours to go before the gates opened, everything appeared to be in order.