10 things I learned at Willie's Picnic: 2014

ONE: I joked on Twitter about a Waylon “hologram,” but if I were in charge of the 2014 Picnic, I totally would have screened 10 minutes or so of Waylon’s performance at the 1974 Picnic. Where do you get that? Easy, they released a movie of it: "Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Celebration." I have a copy of it on DVD, includes a jaw-dropping look at Waylon back in the day and a shitload of Leon Russell hogging the spotlight.

Here's what I would've done: Set up a giant bedsheet, for lack of a more descriptive term, over the front of the South stage. After Dierks Bentley drives ‘em nuts, wait a minute or so and turn that giant projector on, maybe with an introduction, but probably with just some overlay type on the film: “40 years ago tonight.” Then run about 10 minutes of Waylon’s performance (you have to include “This Time”). Then the giant screen falls to the ground and there’s Willie and band, ready to hit the opening chords of “Whiskey River.”

PEOPLE WOULD GO BATSHIT. It would be the most awesome thing I have ever seen. And that’s because of the nod to Waylon, that’s because of the surprise (don’t advertise it), but it’s mostly out of respect of the history – which is a huge part of the Picnic experience. I can’t imagine that Jessi Colter wouldn’t agree to it – it would only add to the value of Waylon’s estate. And, sure, you’d have to hunt down whoever has the rights to the film and pay them, but I’m sure Billy Bob’s has lawyers for that kind of thing.

TWO: My traditional night-on-the-town on July 3 was pretty tame. I bar-hopped, but without any real joy. I tweeted to zero effect. I did end up finding an interesting new bar, tucked away off the street real close to the Hotel Texas (Sam's Saloon) that I would've probably thoroughly enjoyed if I had started the evening there. It had a very San Angelo sort of feel to it, right down to the semi-wasted fellow in the Affliction T-shirt doing "Proud Mary" on Karaoke.

At one point, I was looking around the Longhorn Saloon and their awesome Texas beer artifacts, and decided that it was fine to be honky-tonkin' that night, but I'd much rather spend an afternoon discussing these treasures with the owner. I'm not saying I won't continue to give it the Ol' Army try, but it's possible that I'm not as in love with bars as I used to be.

(For the record: The Hotel Texas, which I roundly criticized in this blog last year, was very satisfactory this year. No problems at all until the morning I was checking out and Mrs. Grumpy showed up and tried to cheat me out of my $2 deposit for my room key. I gave her the Bullworker treatment, not because I wanted the $2 that much, but because I enjoy reminding her that I can match her attitude.)

THREE: Willie children scrutiny time. Just when I was ready to write off Folk Uke as a one-note act, they shined through this year with new songs and really impressed me with their empathy for the fan at the front of the stage who passed out and their comic skills once they figured out he was all right.

Micah's band, Insects vs. Robots, proved to be interesting for the pair of 12-minute songs they performed, ending the last with a fit of atonal wailin' -- which would be as close and as far that this Picnic would get to Waylon. (Yes, I know I used that line on twitter and in my review, but nobody fucking said anything about it, so I'm saying it again.)

Lukas didn't do the guitar gymnastics we saw a couple years ago, opting instead for a bluesier slow jam which proved impervious to any sort of criticism or analysis on my part. It was talent, no doubt, but it didn't stir me. I stood there, notebook in hand, forcing myself to watch until I came up with 3 things to say about Lukas. After 15 minutes, I went back to the shade and waited for Bingham.

FOUR: Crowd-watching is one of the better parts of any Picnic. Of course it is an endless sea, teeming with jiggle, but there are more PG moments. I liked the family of five who set down chairs near me at one point. A dad, three young boys and mom. Dad heaved the chairs off his shoulder, set them up, got the boys settled into them and then (and only then) mom interrupted -- pointing toward a nearby fellow with a cigarette and doing the pantomime "we are not sitting here, he is smoking" routine. The beleaguered dad quickly shot back: "OK, where do YOU want to sit?" I saw them a few hours later and they looked like they weren't on the verge of murder, so that's good.

Later came the best fashion moment of the day: Another family of five, each decked out in black T-shirts that said CASH and featured the famous photo of Johnny shooting the finger to the camera. That's family togetherness.

FIVE: Saw Ben Dorcy (the world's oldest roadie) at Stockyards Station before the Picnic started. Wanted to grab passers-by: "Hey, do you like John Wayne movies?! See that guy there!? He was John Wayne's valet! HISTORY PEOPLE! You're missing it!!!"

Later I saw him at the back of the stage during Johnny Bush's set, puffing on a pipe and wearing dark shades. Twenty minutes later, he was on the other side of the North Forty watching Charley Pride from the side of the stage.

It was Willie's show, but there was no doubt who owned the place. (I did approach him in '96 after a Keen show, and got a handshake before he figured out I was a journalist. Not that he was rude. He just didn't want to talk about himself.)

SIX: Am I the only one who really wished that Charley Pride would have followed David Allan Coe? Would've felt right. I had no expectations for Pride, but he was one of the highlights of the day for me, pacing the stage like it was 1965, mike in one hand and a white towel in the other to mop the sweat from his head. Pride started off sounding a little rough, but he worked through it. "Is Anybody Going to San Antone" sounded froggy, but "Kiss an Angel Good Morning" was straight out of history.

Coe, on the other hand, was terrible. I took it easy on him in my official review, but the man is not well. He skipped through a medley of hits like an impatient man searching through an iPod. I could've gone to get a corn dog or something.

SEVEN: No need to gush over Bingham, my favorite artist younger than I am, the real interesting headliner of the night was Dierks Bentley. Everyone knows that I spend my time watching geriatric and semi-geriatric singers do songs I've heard a thousand times before, but I could hardly have been less prepared for the human super-ball that was Bentley.

No, I still don't care for his brand of music, but it's hard not to find the guy likable -- he tweeted all day about watching the other arists -- or at least to be impressed by his skill at working a crowd. The fellow said "Fort Worth" more than everyone else the rest of the day, combined. 

EIGHT: I didn't tweet or write a word about the Josh Abbott Band. That's because I didn't see a second of their show. I went back to the hotel to charge my phone for more pointless twittering and to write the first third of my review. Last year, I spent the whole Gary Allan show having a steak and a beer at Riscky's. You can probably guess what I will do next year.

That's because I'm probably done with "covering" the Picnic. I'll still go as long as Willie is there. And I'll still take notes in case I ever write that book. But there's no sense in expending a live coverage kind of effort for a bit of writing that gets and has gotten so little notice.

Besides, after being treated so well by Billy Bob's for the past six years, they really left me kind of cold this year. I didn't dig it.

NINE: Willie? He was Willie. The crowd was huge, he sounded younger this year, he opened with the same stretch of eight songs, in the same order, that he has done the past four years. Shut up, he's 81 years old. If you're a fan, and I am, you take what you can get and are thankful for it.

TEN: Will the Picnic return? I really thought last year was it. Kris Kristofferson was struggling with his memory. Ray Price was on the way out. Leon Russell was obviously doing one more for the road. Coe was just returning from a serious car wreck and in bad shape. It looked like the Pichic had reached the end of its life expectancy.

But Bingham was a revelation. Johnny Bush and Ray Wylie Hubbard still do the heavy lifting for not much recognition. And where Billy Bob's wasn't quite sure what popular artists to augment the Picnic with last year -- Justin Moore stood out like a pig in church -- they sure got it right this year.

I saw one report that said the North Forty field was targeted for development, leaving the Picnic without a pasture (please don't put it back inside Billy Bob's -- that was just sad). I don't know if that will happen, but barring the curse of progress, or the unthinkable, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see a 42nd (somewhat) annual Picnic next year.

I'll be there. And I'll be doing it different.