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.