NOTE: This story was published on statesman.com and in the American-Statesman after the 2017 Picnic. It received high praise from several esteemed music journalists.
2017 review: Willie remains timeless at his mellow Fourth of July Picnic
By Dave Thomas
After all the talk, all the rumors of poor health, there’s Willie Nelson up on stage at the end of his Fourth of July Picnic, bending strings and singing forcefully.
He grimaces at some chords, but flashes a quick smile for applause at the end of each solo. It’s true, he’s as worn as his old guitar — ever more craggy and ever more a white-headed stranger. But he’s also as eternal as the songs he plays.
And if you’ve seen Willie, there’s few surprises on the songs he plays. He stretches the solos on “Georgia” and “Always on My Mind,” he speeds it up with “On the Road Again” and “It’s All Going to Pot” — which he dedicated to late friend Merle Haggard.
“He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” might have been a moment, not just a salute to Haggard, but symbolic of Willie, the Picnic, the whole scene. But Willie didn’t play it. Instead, Willie keeps it lighter. The only song from his new album is the irrepressibly joyous “Still Not Dead”:
“I’ve never been accused of being normal anyway / and I woke up still not dead again today.”
The Fourth of July Picnic … still not dead and happy to let you know it.
It was a mellow Picnic — unmoved by its outlaw past or short future as the Circuit of the Americas and the Austin360 Amphitheater confidently hosted for the third year in a row. Pale blue skies were dotted with picturesque and sometimes merciful clouds. Music flowed easily from both stages and crowds were appreciative and, for the most part, patient.
Only the occasional EMS rescue of someone prostrated by the heat interrupted the mood. And it was hot, hitting 100 degrees right about time Ray Wylie Hubbard kicked off the music on the main Pavilion stage — probably hotter in that concrete pit as Hubbard and band rocked through “Snake Farm.”
Hubbard’s move to the main stage this year didn’t afford him more time, so he stuck with his traditional set, giving Picnic fans the chance to join more than 40 years of Texans singing “Redneck Mother” at Willie’s Picnic.
It was just as hot an hour later, when Hayes Carll took the main stage, but he provided some shade for the fans when he sang a song he said he hadn’t done before — one with the lyrics “I think she left you because you wouldn’t shut your mouth.”
In case you’re not up on Americana musical relationships, the words were clearly a stab at Steve Earle, whose ex-wife, Allison Moorer, is now with Carll. Earle had not taken it well.
Earle was also playing the Picnic, leading to a few hours of good speculation about what the outspoken artist might say in return. But Earle didn’t retaliate. Instead he put on a clinic on how to entertain a hot and tired Picnic crowd, putting three of his greatest hits in the middle of five of his most hard-driving new songs.
A rocking “Guitar Town” and a thundering “Copperhead Road” stood in stark contrast to Carll’s rambling in the midst of “Hard Out Here” or his meltingly slow “Chances Are.”
Other afternoon highlights include Lukas Nelson, voice slipping in and out of “eerily like Willie,” jamming through “(Forget About) Georgia,” Billy Joe Shaver in full boogie mode on “Old Chunk of Coal,” and the Turnpike Troubadours singing about cheap perfume (on “Gin, Smoke and Lies”) as something else fragrant wafted through the crowd.
Later in the evening, sundown brought a different vibe. As Jamey Johnson opened with “High Cost of Living,” aged outlaw David Allan Coe came out to watch from the side of the stage. Hidden behind a speaker — just a tattooed arm and a walker visible to fans — Coe watched an emotional performance of “In Color” and a Johnson Picnic staple “This Land is Our Land.”
Kacey Musgraves was a vibrant and unusual Picnic performer in 2015 in star-spangled garb on a set decorated with neon cacti. This year, she was much lower-key, debuting a new song, “Butterflies,” and singing hits like “Follow Your Arrow” and an acoustic performance of “Merry Go ‘Round” that quieted the crowd.
Picnic rookie Sheryl Crow managed to pull off the Picnic moment of the day, bringing Willie out for a rare early appearance, jamming along with Lukas Nelson on “Midnight Rider” to close out her set.
Crow, in contrast to the quieter Musgraves, was all energy, bounding across the stage in between and during “Every Day is Winding Road,” “All I Wanna Do,” “If it Makes You Happy” and other hits.
And at the end of the night, there’s Crow, joining the end-of-the-Picnic singalong of old standards, swigging from a beer bottle during “I’ll Fly Away” and singing with Steve Earle and Margo Price during “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Crow got the hang of this Picnic thing pretty quickly.
The finale is predictable and — for the longtime Picnic fan — a little emotional. Lukas spends the performance just to the left of his dad, standing in unwavering support in the same way brother Micah spends the set just to the left of legendary Willie drummer Paul English.
Willie kicks off “I Saw the Light” at 12:45 a.m. and two minutes later it’s over. “Thank y’all,” he tells the crowd, “Hope you a had a good Fourth.”
He comes around one more time, to wave to everybody from the right side of the stage, then walks back, white hair and pigtails against a black background.