9 things I learned at the 2018 Willie Fourth of July Picnic

I attended my 20th Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic this year — my fourth year in a row at the Austin360 Amphitheater at the Circuit of the Americas race track. That’s nothin’ though. I did four years in a row in Fort Worth. And five years in a row in Luckenbach.

This time, it was different. I took my 11-year-old son (nicknamed Buddy for literary and social media purposes) … and we hadn’t spent 15 minutes inside the gate before he managed to do something I hadn’t done in 23 years of Picnicking. We were evacuated due to bad weather. We went and sat in the car for 2 hours.

The show eventually went on. Here’s 9 things I learned at the 2018 Willie Picnic …

1. Was it a real Picnic? Well, without the ever-shrinking cast of Picnic regulars, without the heat and the sore feet, without the almost-religious satisfaction in seeing the sun dip below the horizon … no, not really. What we got was the Austin date of the Outlaw Music Fest.

David Allan Coe (for what he’s worth these days) didn’t show. Ray Wylie Hubbard, Billy Joe Shaver, Johnny Bush and Asleep at the Wheel were canceled by rain.

Can it be a Picnic without singing “Redneck Mother?” Without Johnny Bush carrying the torch for classic country? Without Billy Joe doing Billy Joe thangs? I guess it can for someone else. But not for me.

(Coworker Peter Blackstock reviewed the show and noted later that it might be the first Picnic without a three-named performer. I’m almost curious enough to track that down. Certainly, if you leave out the pseudo-Picnics in 2007 and 2009 — which did not have traditional lineups — then I know you get back to ‘95 for sure, because Ray Wylie has played every Picnic I’ve attended until this month. There’s a good bet that you’d get all the way back to ‘75.)

2. What about the rain?  Was it the coolest Picnic? No, 1985 was way cooler. And not just because Johnny Cash was playing Southpark Meadows that year. With afternoon temps in the mid-70s, this year’s Picnic did spend a chunk of time below the high of 79 degrees in 1985. However, in 1985, 79 was as hot as it got all day. This year it was in the 90s before the rain came in.

3. Paying $25 for VIP parking? Shit yes. I am never not doing that again. Best $25 I’ve spent in years. (My other concession to bringing my boy — having seats instead of standing all day — wasn’t as clear cut. I’ve never been to a Picnic where at the end of the day my ass hurt more than my feet. And there were plenty of moments where I’d much rather have been standing in front of the stage. But I couldn’t have the boy standing around all day. Even in cool weather.)

4. Worst move of the day? In an abbreviated Picnic, there wasn’t time to screw up much. But we missed some of Margo Price’s set while the boy ate his pizza at a continental drift type of pace. If I could have held him off a bit longer, missing part of Edie Brickell’s set instead would have been a win-win.

5. Time for a stump speech? Our review of the show made much of Beto O’Rourke’s appearance. The Democratic Senate candidate made a short but passionate speech before the fireworks show, with Ray Benson at his side, and later came out and played guitar with Willie.

Right away, I’m gonna tell you that I don’t just tolerate artists writing and performing protest songs, I think it’s absolutely imperative. If we don’t have artists urging us to be better, we’re gonna go downhill (more downhill) pretty goddamn fast.

But I don’t know if the Picnic is the right place for a political speech by a candidate. Certainly there were a few guys in the audience behaving with the kind of classlessness I have come to expect in such situations. 

I remember the bemusement that greeted Dennis Kucinich when Willie brought him out in 2003. And I remember the boos that Kris Kristofferson’s anti-war songs got in 2004. This is a different time entirely. As much as I’d like to see Beto take down Cruz, I’d like to see the political talk at the Picnic limited to verse and chorus.

6. Great songwriting, who needs it? Sturgill Simpson introduced his band and then said “We play music.” And then went straight away trying to test the shit out of that. I remember Sturgill three years ago, in button-up denim shirt, complaining about allergies and showing off his bad-ass songwriting with Kris Kristofferson watching from the side of the stage for the whole damn set. That was freshman-year Sturgill. This was senior-year Sturgill, brushing aside those lyrics to jam. OK, I get jamming, but Sturgill and band were pushing it to the level of industrial noise.

In one of my early phone interviews with Robert Earl Keen, he instructed me about need for an artist to evolve. And I get it. Sturgill and I had a moment together a few years ago. But he’s moved on.

7. Ryan Bingham? Damn, he was badass. Set of the night. I said years ago at Fort Worth he was a natural fit for the Picnic and should be one of the new Picnic regulars — it’s an honor I don’t bestow lightly. I still hope he takes me up on it for whatever the Picnic has left.

8. So what about the boy? Did he make it to see Willie? Well, of course. He’s my boy after all, and he got a gut full of everyone in the family telling him he’d never make it to the end of the Picnic. So he did. Then again, that determination didn’t last long into Willie’s set. We left a handful of songs in. But we did it. We saw Willie do “Whiskey River.” Finally, a little Picnic traditionalism.

I’m not gonna say we had a great show together. But we had a helluva time. He’ll remember sitting in the car for two hours waiting for the rain to die down. He’ll remember wet seats, Lukas' guitar and Margo Price’s pants.

Years from now, when he’s going through my stuff, he’s gonna pull out a Picnic poster or thirty and think, “yeah, I was there for one of those.” And that’s why we did it.

And yes, the boy loved those fireworks.

9. Suggestions for the future? On the way out, an angry woman who had an ear full of Sturgill, listened to Willie playing in the distance and remarked to her friend, “Finally! They’re playing some damn country music!” I wasn't as fooled as she apparently was, but I know what she meant. 

I don’t know if the Picnic will return, but if it does, I’d like to see a classic country-focused Picnic. It doesn’t have to be all country — the Picnic never was — but it would be nice to see a focus on it. We missed the hell out of Ray Price and Merle Haggard last week. And seeing Gene Watson and Johnny Bush get rained out didn’t help a damn bit. C’mon, Willie. Bring out a traditional country headliner! Loretta Lynn! This needs to happen.

And a Waylon hologram. 

I’m not giving up on that idea.

Waylon. Hologram.

Texas book review: In a Narrow Grave, by Larry McMurtry

Having bogged down halfway (I hope) through “Indian Depredations in Texas” and slogged through Perry’s “The Story of Texas A&M,” I was in the mood for something light and quick. I figured a thin collection of essays from the eminently readable Larry McMurtry would do the trick.

But though I got what I was looking for — I finished it in just a few mornings of coffee-time reading — “In a Narrow Grave,” doesn’t hold true to McMurtry’s dominance as a novelist.

To begin and end the book, he pounds through one statement: The cowboy and the cowboy life is finished and he watched the last of them — old and failing — drive off into the west.

But there’s little magic to the first chapters about the filming of “Hud,” based on his novel “Horseman, Pass By” and, next, the state of the Western movie in general. (This book of essays was compiled in 1968, when Westerns were still vital, though very much changed from the beginning of that decade.)

The most useful chapter, “Southwestern Literature?”, along with the bibliography, intends to tear down the pedestals placed under Dobie, Webb and Bedichek, but at least offers a master’s take on recommended reading for neophyte Texas history students like myself. I added a dozen books to my reading list, and should I finish them, will likely raid this list for another dozen.

One recommended book, Dobie’s “The Ben Lilly Legend,” is my next read, and I’m already far enough along to be both suspicious and appreciative of how McMurtry borrowed this real-life man, fleshed out into legend by Dobie, and sprinkled him into the “Lonesome Dove” series of books.

McMurtry departs the theme for “Eros in Archer County” (useless filler), a chapter on driving around Texas (a string of cafes and reveries and one brief poignant moment with an old cowboy and old friend) and a hit job on the Astrodome (a fitting example of one of those LBJ-era pieces where Texas writers kick the shit out of their own state lest they be seen by their contemporaries as … what? Texan? I don’t know. It must’ve been hell to be a proud Texan back then, I guess.)

The other departure is “The Old Soldier’s Joy,” where he can barely stand to attend a fiddling contest in Athens long enough to mock it. Though a few moments shine through, particularly his description of a poverty-stricken boy longing for a vendor’s trinket, it is quickly tiresome.

This essay was included in another, much finer, collection called “Growing Old at Willie’s Picnic And Other Sketches of Life in the Southwest.”

That book, though I have not read it completely, is marvelous. I bought it just to read the magnificent title essay, though it is Larry L. King’s “The Old Man” that sticks with me. (I have long wanted to take a similar road trip with my father and son, though it now appears that I have wanted it too long and that window has closed.)

Read “Growing Old …” also for N. Scott Momaday’s otherworldly writing in “The Way to Rainy Mountain” and Leon Ralls vs. the bull in Al Reinert’s “The End of the Trail.”

McMurtry closes “In a Narrow Grave” with an extended remembrance of his family and the book comes alive with the closing tale of Uncle Johnny, a man who never forgot or really recovered from his youth as a cowboy on the range. A man whose seemingly supernatural talent for breaking bones was only matched by his stoic indifference.

We last see Uncle Johnny leaving a family reunion, folding his broken, elderly body into a Cadillac for a drive West. It’s a scene that will stick with you, no less than many of the fine ones in McMurtry’s novels.

Overall rating: 6 out of 10.

Author’s language skills: 7 out of 10 (in this book)

What I learned that will most likely stick with me: This book’s legacy will, I’m sure, be the other books that it has recommended to me.

Will it make the bookshelf? Yes.

Texas book review: Pearl: A History of San Antonio's Iconic Beer

Maybe a decade ago, when I was a copy editor and worked with a team of fine folks, someone gave me a small book. One of those advance-copy type of things that gets handed from newsroom employee to newsroom employee.

This one was about … something. Zombies? I don’t recall. What I do recall is that I kept it on my desk for years. Not because I enjoyed it. Shit no. It was because every time I felt low, I just had to look at that book and remember that somebody got paid for writing something so goddamn terrible.

It was terrible. It was a hundred-some-odd pages of un-funny humor. This guy was an author? I could be, too.

I saw “Pearl: A History of San Antonio’s Iconic Beer”on eBay and promptly bought it a month in advance of its release date. I was excited. I have a lot left to learn on the mother beer of Texas, particularly when it comes to its decline and the reason it continues to limp along.

I was disappointed.

Jeremy Banas is a craft beer expert, I’m sure, but as a history writer, he’s given us uneven lumps of awkward prose. He stumbles along, jumping over bigger and bigger swaths of history until he reaches his comfort zone: “The New Pearl” -- which is not Pearl at all, just some new businesses on the old grounds.

Banas easily and confidently writes about the new craft brewer on the old brewery site, giving them several times as much text as he devoted to the last two decades of the beer named on the cover.

I could have written this book.

No, I could have done better.

Then again, shit.

Banas has written two books. Even the zombie book guy has written at least one.

I’ve written zero.

Overall rating: 4 out of 10.

Author’s language skills: 3 out of 10

What I learned that will most likely stick with me: These days, there is apparently no particular standard for what makes a history book.

Will it make the bookshelf? Yes, sigh. Until a better Pearl Beer book comes along. Which may be never.

Texas book review: Hold Autumn in Your Hand by George Sessions Perry

When looking for something to write about, I check the Texas State Historical Association’s daily history page for ideas. The Dec. 13 entry described the death of George Sessions Perry.

Who? An author? From Rockdale? He walked into a river in Connecticut in December?

Rockdale is in Central Texas. I am into Texas literature right now. And I’ve had success (if not page views) writing about anniversaries of deaths of unusual Texans.

So I learned about him. And I wrote about him. And I wondered why I hadn’t heard about this guy or his most famous novel, “Hold Autumn In Your Hand.”

I hadn’t finished writing my story before I had ordered the book on Amazon.

It’s beautiful.

Perry’s writing is compelling and effortless to read — even the slowest reader can hardly stop himself from zipping through this book to find out what happens next.

It’s not as epic as, say, “Lonesome Dove,” but in its small scope, it is every bit as Texan. Perry illuminates the life of a poor tenant farmer, letting us peer into 1940s rural Texas and see a way of living that your grandfather might have known.

As Sam Tucker, our protagonist, struggles to feed his family on a daily basis, I felt guilt about the aging cans of food in our pantry.

When one of the characters fell ill to what I recognized must have been pellagra, I wondered why the author didn’t name the illness. As it turns out, it was because our characters didn’t yet know what it was. Identifying it, and learning how to prevent it, drives the finale of the book.

I’m not going to go on and on about it. (And I don’t have any confessions to share in this review, sorry.) But I’m gonna say it should be in your Texas library.

I bought mine through a Tennessee retailer on Amazon for less than $10. And when it arrived, it was marked “Austin Public Library.” I didn’t just buy a book. I brought it home.

Overall rating: 9 out of 10.

Author’s language skills: 9 out of 10

What I learned that will most likely stick with me: The hard times behind a romanticized way of life — and the courage and determination that elevate a man.

Will it make the bookshelf? Absolutely.

Texas book review: Armadillo World Headquarters (bonus material)

I need to get this book off my desk and into my display case. Here are 12 quotes and things I learned from Eddie Wilson's book, including the possible connection between the last night of the AWHQ and closing time at the Dixie Chicken ...

On Billy Joe Shaver ...

"Billy Joe was a gnarly piece of work with the wrinkled face of a shar-pei dog.  ...  I hadn't known him for more than twenty-four hours when I realized he had more soul than the next fifty or so songwriters put together."

On Kinky Friedman ...

I interviewed Kinky on the fly at Willie's 1996 Picnic. He told me about his first visit to Luckenbach where he and the Texas Jewboys were afraid to face a crowd of rural German immigrants (referring to himself in the third person). But Wilson confirms it was all true and it was him who threatened Kinky onto the stage.

On Austin City Limits ...

There's a lot to get into, but Wilson points out that it was the Armadillo that pioneered the idea of putting Austin music on television with the Armadillo Country Music Review, which aired more than a year before the Austin City Limits pilot. It would be nice, Wilson argues, for AWHQ to get a little credit for inspiring the eventual juggernaut.

On Lone Star beer ...

Wilson tried to explain this to me during our interview, but I didn't really get that a subset of AWHQ folks were responsible for the Lone Star Beer advertising campaigns that are near and dear to my heart. I figured Lone Star had simply borrowed Jim Franklin to do the posters, but he was deep involved, even coining the phrase "Long Live Longnecks." (FYI, the Armadillo didn't serve longnecks because of the dangers of the glass bottle. It was pitchers and plastic cups only.)

On Ray Benson ...

The Asleep at the Wheel frontman is an Austin icon, but it was Eddie Wilson who urged him to move here, offering the Wheel a chance to be the house band at the Armadillo. "Ray Benson was a six-foot-seven-inch tall, red-haired Jewish boy from Philadelphia," Wilson writes. "He looked like a baby giraffe with a cowboy hat."

On Bruce Springsteen and Kenneth Threadgill ...

Wilson writes of Springsteen pacing back and forth before his first AWHQ gig as Alvin Crow opened the show. Apparently the venerable Kenneth Threadgill was on hand, because Wilson says the old man said Springsteen was as jittery as a "cocker spaniel trying to pass a peach pit."

On the Texas Opry House ...

The venue on Academy Drive, backed by Willie Nelson's people was, briefly, stiff competition for the Armadillo. Then it was quickly done in by troubles with rent, taxes and corruption. "The Opry House's decline was like a fat man tripping on a ski jump and rolling in the snow."

On "The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock" ...

"I'm a big admirer of Jan Reid as a person and as a writer, but at the time, his take on the scne made me think of a loud party for Johnnies-come-lately at the day-old bread counter."

On the weirdest billing in AWHQ history ...

Ray Charles (legend, icon, etc.) opened for David Allan Coe one night in the mid-1970s. They had been booked at the Opry House, which had since closed, so the AWHQ took the show, only to see Coe's fans treat the legendary Charles like shit. "Coe didn't even have that many fans, but the few who were there acted like a mob ... I should have tried to quiet them down, but I was so mad I just wanted to go out and slap them all with a shovel. And so the great R&B singer cut his set short and said good night. The assholes booed him for that, too." 

(I hope that years later, Charles was watching from above with satisfaction, as Charley Pride followed a flaccid Coe at Willie's Picnic and absolutely crushed him.)

On Clifford Antone and his now-legendary venue ...

"Here came this kid from Port Arthur with big plans to showcase blues seven nights a week. I gave him six months, tops." (Wilson's admiration for Antone is later made clear.)

More on Lone Star beer ...

Taking the stand that armadillo racing was cruel and inhumane, Wilson and the AWHQ urged Lone Star beer to call off the practice. After a huge event at the Hemisfair in San Antonio in 1976, the AWHQ pulled out all of their Lone Star taps and kegs and boycotted the beer. (Something I will keep in mind when time travel is invented.)

One the final night at the AWHQ ...

The last song performed on the last night of the Armadillo World Headquarters was "Goodnight Irene." Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel performed the Leadbelly standard as a farewell to the AWHQ and to an era. Aggies, of course, know that "Goodnight Irene" marks closing time at the Dixie Chicken and it wouldn't surprise me at all if Don Ganter (a noted fan of "progressive" country music who would have been familiar with the Austin venue) was inspired to start that tradition by the end of the Armadillo. (I contacted the Chicken and asked, but Don is long gone and they couldn't tell me.)

Texas book review: Armadillo World Headquarters by Eddie Wilson

Jan Reid’s book, “The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock” was my introduction to the 1970s Austin music scene — it was ground zero for something I previously knew nothing about.

Joe Nick Patoski’s book “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” was a capstone in 15 years of learning and reading about Austin music’s king — it confirmed and clarified things I knew a lot about.

“Armadillo World Headquarters” by Eddie Wilson with Jesse Sublett fits somewhere in between, filling in the gaps of tales I love on one page then telling a story I’ve never heard on the next.

I didn’t know there was a Holy Trinity of Austin Books for Dave Thomas, but Wilson’s memoir now fits comfortably among the great three in my library.

And what would I have given to have been able to read this book in 1995? So much Austin history, all of it so effortlessly explained. From the Vulcan Gas Company to the Raw Deal and the AWHQ in between, pieces of an Austin puzzle I had scattered about in my head are now assembled — not with the (sometimes hazy) surety of someone who lived it, of course, but with a historian’s confidence.


Because I know that nobody reads these book reviews, we’re going to pause here for a confession. Back in 2013, just before the 40th anniversary of the first Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic, I went to Eddie Wilson’s house to interview him.

Eddie had been instrumental in making the first Picnic a success, before he and the AWHQ ultimately had a falling-out with Willie. He was a gracious host and I talked to him at length. After the story came out he contacted me to let me know how pleased he was that I had every detail right — one of the prouder moments of my career.

In the story (https://atxne.ws/2Eg8LmH), I had described Eddie’s house as the sort of place a Texas memorabilia collector would go when he died (it was awesome, you couldn’t look in any direction without seeing something you’d kill someone to have). So I was clearly interested a couple years later when I found out he was having a huge auction of his stuff at Burley Auction House in New Braunfels.

I went, correctly guessing that almost everything would be out of my league (I did come away with a small light-up Pearl Beer sign). And while I was there, I ran into him for a moment. I stuck out my hand and said … “Hi! Mr. Threadgill …”

The enormity of my slip about crushed me as soon as it was out of my mouth. I had been planning on asking him if the sign I had purchased had been on display at the original Threadgill’s restaurant. I stammered as he smiled wearily with the resignation of someone who gets mis-named a lot. He said, “No, I’m Eddie Wilson … “ and he moved along with the good-natured tolerance some folks have for idiots.

I didn’t expect him to remember me, of course. But what I did expect was for me to not fuck up. I knew who Eddie Wilson was. I knew who Kenneth Threadgill was. I HAD WRITTEN ABOUT BOTH OF THEM.

I guess it was just one of those things. But if there’s a more embarrassing moment in my career, I must’ve blocked it out. Shit. Back to the review …


Perhaps the only thing weird or uncomfortable about the book is the preface in which Wilson lets Ann Richards, Dave Richards and Cecile Richards brag about him and the AWHQ. I think one Richards would clearly have been enough.

Early on, Wilson sets the scene, explaining South Austin as “the domain of people who needed cheap rent and enterprises that needed to be a respectable distance from courthouses, churches, and schools.” He details the history of the AWHQ building as a skating palace, National Guard armory and “Sportcenter” — which hosted wrestling matches, fights and the occasional music act, including Elvis Presley as part of a touring Louisiana Hayride show.

The birth of the Armadillo World Headquarters (it would have been the Armadillo National Headquarters if not for the intervention of Bud Shrake, who urged Wilson to think bigger) is spectacularly documented. Certainly there were struggles in the early years. In a bit of karma for the decade of Geezinslaws performances I had to suffer through at Willie’s Picnics, Wilson mentions the only check the Armadillo ever bounced was $150 to Sammy Allred.

One of the better stories was how Dallas Cowboy quarterback Don Meredith, lounging backstage during a Freddie King show, saved the Armadillo from a TABC bust, signing autographs for the agents and giving a new sheen of respectability to the hippies who were running the joint and rolling the joints.

The Armadillo Art Squad — including my favorite, Jim Franklin — is introduced and their work is celebrated throughout, including a display of scores of posters at the end of the book.

One of the most celebrated nights in AWHQ history is detailed: Willie Nelson’s first performance in August 1972. In case you were wondering if attributing a convergence of the longhairs and the rednecks to that show is something that was a symbolic gesture settled on later, Wilson takes pains to share immediate reviews of the show that point out the cultural shift as it was happening.

It’s not all praise, though. Wilson takes aim at Jerry Jeff Walker (“Eventually, even the most foul-smelling fart leaves the room) and shares no love for Rod Kennedy, founder of the Kerrville Folk Festival. He also wouldn’t much care for how I opened this review … he did not like “The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock.”


I’ve got another dozen places earmarked in the book, but no interest in making this the longest review ever. Wilson details the Armadillo through his departure and up until its inevitable closure at the end of 1980 with a journalist’s clarity and not a touch of poetry here and there. He goes on to describe his mini-restaurant The Raw Deal and then his bigger challenge: reopening Threadgill’s.

It’s a fantastic read and perhaps one of the best possible entry points for learning about the history of Austin music. I was genuinely sad to come to the end. Like the others in my Austin Music Holy Trinity, I will read it again.

Overall rating: 9 out of 10.

Author’s language skills: 7 out of 10

What I learned that will most likely stick with me: A ton of Austin music history. This book is awesome.

Will it make the bookshelf? It will make the display shelf.

Texas book review: Homegrown — Austin Music Posters 1967 to 1982

I never understood what it was, exactly, that drew me so strongly to concert posters.

Sure, as a newspaper designer, I had an appreciation for how they were created. And as I dove deeper into the history of the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic, I appreciated the older posters as tangible connections to that history.

But there really had to be more to it. For awhile, it was a sort of madness.

My last read of 2017 and first review of 2018 — Homegrown: Austin Music Posters 1967 to 1982 — doesn’t pose the question of why these posters speak so strongly to certain people. But it does provide some clues, nonetheless.

Joe Nick Patoski’s opening essay makes a strong case for the importance of concert posters as advertising medium in an era where your favorite band could play across town and you might not ever know about it because you’re 40 years away from following them on Twitter.

Opening with 1820s broadsides posted around New Orleans seeking colonists for Texas, Patoski narrows in on Austin’s printing history and ultimately the marriage of art and information in the mid-1960s that resulted in the music posters you see in books such as this.

The major Austin poster artists get their due, but Patoski starts with Jim Franklin — my favorite artist. (And I don’t just mean poster artist. I wouldn’t walk across the street to piss on Picasso if he were ablaze.)

There is also a mini-history of important venues, starting not with the usual suspect, but the Vulcan Gas Company, the importance of which can be overlooked as it rests in the shadow of the Armadillo.

(Thank goodness I read this book recently and not during the height of my poster-collecting craze. God knows what kind of debt I would’ve racked up if I were driven to touch a larger scope of history rather than just Willie’s Picnic. Say … that Vulcan Gas poster is kinda cool though …)

The second essay, by artist Nels Jacobson, takes a more personal look at the artists and a more technical look at their art, introducing phrases like “split-fountain ink printing” and “Multilith 1350 offset press.”

The meat of the book, however, is 122 posters, divided across five chapters. The pioneering Vulcan Gas Company gets its own chapter, featuring a dozen-and-a-half posters and handbills ranging from the sort of hippie-trippy images you’d expect from San Francisco to Jim Franklin oddities.

If you’re expecting the Armadillo World Headquarters to get its own chapter, well, so was I. But those works are split across the next three chapters: Blues Portraits (including Danny Garrett’s work for Antone’s), Reimagining Texas (opening with a herd of Jim Franklin armadillos) and Traveling Bands (no, the Savoy Brown poster you’re thinking isn’t here).

The last chapter explores the rise of Punk and New Wave posters and handbills that popped up in the early ‘80s as lush professional artistry gave way to a different aesthetic entirely. Many of these posters are interesting, but only a few can stand alongside their predecessors.

Overall rating: 8 out of 10.

Author’s language skills: N/A

What I learned that will most likely stick with me: I’m not weird for loving old posters.

Will it make the bookshelf? Yes.

Willie Nelson in downtown Austin on a Saturday night

When an acquaintance calls you up and says something about free tickets to see Willie Nelson, you listen.

When you know that guy is a professional ticket broker and the kind of fellow who wouldn't blink at buying a $5,000 poster because he thought it was cool, you listen extra hard, because these seats ain't gonna be the "in-the-balcony-next-to-the-bar" kind you usually get.

That's how Shannon and I ended up on the fourth row at ACL Moody Theater on Saturday night, sipping $8 beers and thinking about ways to describe how close we were.

("I could have hit Lukas Nelson with a marshmallow" is the winner. A jumbo marshmallow, though our host did try to move us up to the front row during intermission when two in his 4-person party didn't show — but someone ratted us out and a ticket stub check hastened us back to our just-as-good seats.)

Let's get right to it: Willie, at 84 years old, sounded great. He didn't sound 1970s great. Or even 1990s great. But he sounded as great as as a grateful fan could reasonably expect. No, his set isn't much changed. The same half-dozen songs to open the show, the same gospel medley to close it. And the usual suspects in between. 

I soaked it all in—at this stage, every time is the last time — but it was also fun to watch the show through the eyes of Shannon, who hasn't seen this set annually for the past 20 years. The last time, in fact, was at the 2004 Picnic in Fort Worth, a day of heat and crowds that prompted Shannon to tell me on the Fifth of July "I love you, but I am never doing that shit again."

Shannon is not an outdoor festival person. I am, I guess. I've listened to Willie play this close before. But that was standing on sore feet, sweaty, stinking and sunburned after 12 hours at a Picnic, wedged into a crowd in the same condition as me, except drunker.

The ACL Moody Theater is a different scene entirely. Quite comfortable and easy to navigate — although the tightly packed floor seats meant you couldn't get up without disturbing your neighbors. It's probably best (for my wallet at least) that I didn't feel like I could buy more beer during Micah Nelson's set, but my enjoyment of Lukas Nelson would've been bolstered if I could've gone to pee during at least one of those 10-minute guitar solos.

Yes, Willie's boys opened the show. I've seen Micah in at least four different bands over the last decade as he has tried to find a sound for himself. Though not my taste, exactly, his musical chops seem fine to me, but it seems that it was Lukas who inherited most of the charisma. Half an hour of Particle Kid was generous. Lukas made the most of his hourlong set, opening and closing with "Breakdown" and "American Girl" in honor of Tom Petty. 

"Forget about Georgia" was the Lukas highlight to me. His voice slips in and out of eerie Willie likeness enough that I'll probably go see him at some point in my 60s when I get to thinking about how I miss the old man.

The old man was still there last night. At some points looking all of his years and then some, then at others he'd flash that Willie grin or that left-eye half-wink thing he does and he'd be the same guy I saw when I was 21 and looking for a musical hero. Every time is the last time. I cheered the Texas flag dropping down (he doesn't do that at the Picnics, so I haven't seen it in a long time). I yelled "Willie!" at least a half-dozen times. I watched Bobbie and Willie play together. I cheered a Mickey Raphael harmonica solo. I sang along with "Good Hearted Woman" and "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys" and "I Saw The Light."

Shannon and I don't get out much. We're indebted to our host (who probably just wants this eBay junkie to think of him next time I see something cool I can't afford). And we're indebted to Grandma and Grandpa Williams who came up to babysit on short notice. (You can't just get anyone to watch Ghostman.) Sure, there were crowds and lines and traffic and a lot of stairs for a woman who had four foot surgeries this year. But it was awesome. A fine, fine way to end 2017 on a rare high note.

And yes, that was our New Year's Eve. We ain't doing shit tonight.

Texas book review: The Great Chili Confrontation

Granny’s house was full of books like this. Great rows of octavo books with colorful, urgent dust jackets — usually showing signs of repeated readings — from the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these were filled with wry "comic" observations that were reduced to dry wheezes when boredom and curiosity had me sifting through them in the 1980s.

H. Allen Smith’s “The Great Chili Confrontation” would not have been out of place.

(I’m not dissing Granny’s library entirely. Among the books was “Johnny Got His Gun.” As a Metallica fan during these 1980s years that I’m referencing, this impressed me.)

Smith has been a background name for me since I learned about the Terlingua Chili Cookoff(s) in the mid-1990s, but I learned a bit more last year when I created a video about the history of the event.

I had already read Smith's self-indulgent magazine article that preceded the cookoff, but somehow, I was hoping that his book would offer a little more history and quite a bit less narcissistic blathering.


This book could have been like having a know-it-all blowhard uncle who talks nonstop about everything and is usually a little much, but, hey, you have a few drinks and he takes it down a notch and you step it up a notch and all of the sudden you’re having fun together.

Instead, it’s that know-it-all uncle with a drinking problem and a Facebook account. And he is absolutely sure that he is the funniest person who ever lived and he wants you to know it at EVERY GODDAMN MOMENT.

Smith knows how to use the language, I’ll give him that. But — in the same way that you can start a chapter in a Kinky Friedman book laughing and end that chapter a few pages later ready to punch him in the face — Smith isn’t so much caressing the words as he is molesting them.

It gets worse. It’s not just the masturbatory prose, but his favorite subject that is hard to stomach: H. Allen Smith, himself.

Ah, the Yankee humorist in the mid-20th century. Do you have a way with words? Good, then be a dick nonstop to everyone and write tirelessly about your dickishness, either explicitly or by mocking everyone around you.

Not willing to commit the effort to writing a whole book about the Terlingua cookoff (though, that’s what the title suggests we’re getting), Smith meanders through half a book’s worth of “digressions,” none so painful as the tale of his Cantonese friend Sou Chan.

Sou Chan, as you might be guessing, tells people to “go fry a kite.” He has witnessed a “terrible exprosion.” His home has a “utirrity room.” There’s no context for any of this, of course. Smith just lists these “facile phrases” to … you know … wheeze.

And nothing gets me going quite like the Yankee writer who writes wide swaths of gibberish in the aim of sharing the Texan dialect. Seriously, fuck that guy. You can pepper in a word here and there to get the point across, but I don’t need your condescending bullshit.

The parts about the cookoff? There's nothing of value between the self-aggrandizing and the Texan-trashing. You could get more history from a poster.

“The Great Chili Confrontation” made quick and breezy Christmas-distracted reading. I’m glad I didn’t spend any serious garage time on it.

Upon completion, I felt the need to cleanse myself, so I went to the display bookshelf and found “A Bowl of Red,” by Smith’s rival Frank X. Tolbert. Tolbert was a newspaper columnist and his writing is as good as his subject matter. Sometimes it's an awesome character study. Sometimes the staccato chapters read like he was aiming to beat a deadline or greet a happy hour. But the book offers history and accuracy ... and it makes me happy.

Overall rating: 3 out of 10.

Author’s language skills: 6 out of 10.

What I learned that will most likely stick with me: I didn’t learn a damn thing, except to trust my gut when it comes to Yankee humorists.

Will it make the bookshelf? This'll get me a quarter at Half Price Books. I'll be glad to make the exchange.

The censored Kerrville Folk Festival story emerges after 17 years

Editor's note: After attending the Kerrville Folk Festival in 2000 for the first time, I returned to San Angelo to write a story about it. It immediately became the only story I ever wrote to be rejected for publication. I set about trying to tone it down. Cutting out a few of the juicier bits. The features editor just laughed when I brought it back.

So this story has never seen the light of day. Unfortunately, the original version is lost to time. All that remains is the abridged version. Gone, for example, is the anecdote about the shamanistic woman who strode purposefully through the remnants of a midnight wedding to approach me, standing in my T-shirt and boxer shorts. She rubbed my belly in a Budai-like fashion and in short order I threw up in the bushes.

Anyway, this is my Christmas gift to you. It appears as I typed it 17 years ago. Mostly. Enjoy.


KERRVILLE FOLK FESTIVAL — Four in the morning is my best guess as to the time, my watch being a late afternoon casualty of an all-day Lone Star Light appreciation fest.

Cameron is on the other side of the tent, snoring. I listen with envy: I can't sleep. The ground is hard as truth, I keep sliding downhill (more on that later) and the racket outside is astounding.

Somewhere, at a campfire to the east, a hippie woman is singing a "save-our-planet" song. How do I know she's a hippie? Her voice carries an urgency — and a volume — that no non-hippie could muster at 4 a.m.

"We have to learn / to take care of our mother

We have to learn / take care of each other"

Suddenly it strikes me that this is something I should see. Something I should witness. But my body, though refusing to sleep, won't allow me to get up, either.

I have to learn, the hippie woman would no doubt sing for me, to take care of my liver.


Cameron and I were 'Kerrvirgins' when we finally caught a glimpse of the Quiet Valley Ranch (a misnomer) at 7 p.m. on Friday. It wasn't what we expected.

No wide-open spaces of pasture interrupted by communes of tents. This was all mud and rock and tents crammed up against each other to the point that it was hard to make sense of it all.

It was hard to find a campsite at all.

We finally settled — out of desperation — to set up camp on a hill behind the Threadgill Memorial Theater. Not too far from the store/showers/bathrooms, though not nearly close enough to the bathrooms in the middle of the night.

Actually, we had a little space around us — a concept that apparently the hippies in the flatlands had no use for. And also because nobody else was dumb enough to set up a tent where the occupants would perpetually slide downhill.

Cameron wasn't optimistic about the weather, either. The storms that had hit San Angelo earlier that day were just now catching up with us. By midnight we would have a river running through the tent. Thankfully, the tent was big enough that we could sleep on either bank of the Rio Kerrville.


Third beer: Lone Star Light or Lone Star? These decisions are not easy at 8:45 a.m. Time is, especially at the Kerrville Folk Festival, an arbitrary concept. I've declared Kerrvile to be another time zone this Saturday morning and Cameron has embraced the idea.

Perched on lawn chairs on the side of the hill, we survey our kingdom below. By 9:30, only the trashbag (tied to the tent to keep it from sliding downhill) has kept track of our progress. A wedding procession walks down from the Threadgill theater to Chapel Hill (directly across from us). 

We toast the bride and groom.

At noon, we kings of the hill rise for a little lunch only to find that some scoundrel has stolen our Cool Ranch Doritos. 


Ham and cheese sandwiches do not ease our pain. Or sober us up. We decide a good, long nap would put us back in condition to see the music that evening.

We actually make it to the music festival that evening. But Cameron returns from a beer run to find me ill at ease with how things have developed. The first three acts have been entertaining and Micky Newbury is coming up next.

But I've overdone it. The hour 'nap' in the slanted sweatbox was several hours short of what I needed. I return to the tent and pass out.

Cameron — ask not for whom the beer tolls — celebrates having outlasted me by having another beer ... and falling asleep in the lawn chair.


This time, having succeeded in a four-hour nap, I rise from the tent in the darkness of Saturday night. What hour is it? I'm not sure. No watch — it has disappeared. 

I finish a bottle of Gatorade and return to my lawn chair. Cameron rises and presses a beer into my hand. I'm in no condition to turn down a bad idea.

We wander down the hill in search of a party and our momentum carries us up Chapel Hill, where we find the second wedding of the day.

A whole Kerrville orchestra and a legion of Kerrverts (the moniker of choice for our fellow festival-goers) serenade the newlyweds. I feel slightly out-of-place, but that's probably because I'm not wearing any pants.

Ah, but it's dark.

Wedding concluded, we make our way down to the hippie flatlands and explore the campfires. Someone wants to know "where in the hell is everyone going at 2 a.m.?"

"It's 2 a.m.?" I ask, answering his question at the same time.

After awhile —the best measurement I can come up with — I return to the tent and listen to the campfire songs from my semi-dry sleeping bag.

In one cosmic moment, two dueling singers from campfires probably 30 yards apart launch into their own choruses at the same time.

Two voices at once come together in an extended "oooooooooooooooo" before splitting into different words. Different worlds, probably.


We had given up. There was one real good reason to stay another 24 hours in Kerrville — Ray Wylie Hubbard was going to play that night.

There were a million reasons to pack up and go home that morning.

Reasons like: We were almost out of beer. And we didn't enjoy pain. We had not paced ourselves well. Or at all, for that matter.

With dawn's decision to leave came The Kerrvert With No Name.

Sunday morning, I was mustering the strength to actually get up when a pair of bloodshot eyes peered into the tent from under a cowboy hat and behind a massive moustache.

"Howdy," I said.

"Howdy," the moustache said back.

The Kerrvert with No Name wasted no time. He abandoned our small talk to walk around the tent and discover our ice chest.

He opened it.

"Oooh! Oooh! Ah! Ooh! Ooooah!"

I was about to tell him to stop having sex with the ice chest when he made clear that he was excited about our Lone Star beer. 

He seized one and asked us — politely — if he could have it.

Now who could refuse a man a beer at 7 a.m.?

He opened it, took a drink, and literally howled with enthusiasm. Well, maybe it was more of a bark. Either way, I've never heard a man appreciate a beer so fully.

Cameron — the gracious host — got up to have a beer with him.

After getting dressed, this time, I left the tent to get a good look at our guest. He was wearing a felt hat, blue rodeo T-shirt, some jeans of considerable age and a gient pair of boots. He was no hippie.

But somwhere, this man had obviously blown a fuse.

A bird sang in the distance.

He cocked his head at an improbable angle and told us it was an angry mockingbird.

When the mockingbird — as if on cue — flew to the nearest tree, he walked over and started cussing it.

"You want a piece of me?" he hollered.

The mockingbird didn't.

He wandered back over. Another bird sang.

"Redbird!" he snarled and staggered west, toward another camp.

We were just thinking we were rid of him when the marshmallow went flying by.

"INCOMING!" he yelled.

He had found another campsite's stash of marshmallows and was hiding behind a tent, throwing them at us.

In the face of such weirdness, Cameron and I opened another beer.

The man came back and we exchanged pleasantries. Yes, it was Sunday. Yes, we've been having a good time. We were about to offer him one of the last few beers when he cocked his head at a weird angle again.

A dog was barkin in the distance.

"That's my dog. I must walk this way." And he did.

The Kerrvert With No Name was gone.

Our Kerrville experience was done.