Willie Nelson’s annual Fourth of July picnic is a far cry today from its outlaw roots. Once a communal country-hippie party in central Texas, today it’s a slick corporate affair that takes place at the state-of-the-art Circuit of the Americas racetrack outside Austin. Yet, as the 44th installment of the picnic unfurled on the country’s most patriotic holiday, it felt refreshingly in touch with those roots. Nelson, never one to shy away from an opportunity to jam, rolled out plenty of old friends and a number of his family members as he celebrated America’s birthday like only he knows how, fireworks show and all. With 17 acts playing over 12 hours on two stages, these were the 10 best things we saw.
Trying to carve out your own music career as the child of an icon like Willie Nelson is one of the toughest gigs in the business, but Lukas Nelson is used to it. Playing a few hours after his second cousin, Raelyn Nelson, Lukas and his band, Promise of the Real, sounded like a chip off the old block, with the pretty “Forget About Georgia” – a response to one of his dad’s most famous recordings that included an Allman Brothers-worthy coda – proving a midday highlight. But Lukas really starred during his old man’s set, when he stepped up to sing and play a fiery rendition of “Texas Flood.”
Early in the day, the picnic featured a series of old outlaws and Texas mainstays, including David Allan Coe (the first set of the day), Billy Joe Shaver and Johnny Bush, all on the smaller Honor Flight Grand Plaza Stage. Ray Wylie Hubbard, the first performer on the main pavilion stage in the 360 Amphitheater, was the perfect bridge to the past, with his ominous, loping back beats, off-beat banter, and the stellar guitar work of his son, Lucas. And, of course, there was his “long-haired cosmic cowboy” anthem, “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” “This ain’t exactly ‘Kumbaya,'” Hubbard told the crowd, “but looking at y’all, it seems more appropriate.”
The picture of pop-star polish, Sheryl Crow and her band put on a masterful performance, with Crow herself taking turns at guitar, bass and harmonica. Early hits like “Strong Enough” and “If It Makes You Happy” were easy crowd-pleasers, while songs off her latest album Be Myself proved the singer-songwriter is making some of her best work yet. Crow, sporting a T-shirt adorned with an image of the host, also created one of the highlights of the night when she brought out Willie and Lukas Nelson – with whom she’s touring this summer on the Outlaw Music Festival – to pay tribute to Gregg Allman with a cover of “Midnight Rider,” a song she’s been known to slip into her sets in the past.
During the daylight hours, no one’s singing came close to matching that of Margo Price. Following Carll on the pavilion stage, the Illinois native – who’s had a breakout year since she played the picnic last year – gave the gutsiest performance of the day, her vocals a cross between a twangy coo and a siren wail, reverberating around the amphitheater no matter the intensity. Her band, including husband Jeremy Ivey on harmonica, never missed a beat, especially on a rollicking cover of “Me and Bobby McGee” that Price kicked off with an a cappella intro that was downright spine-tingling.
“Fixin’ to die, reckon I’ll be going to hell,” Steve Earle snarled as the sun began to set behind him, the final set on the smaller Honor Flight stage. No one else rocked like Earle and the Dukes. Really, only one other group, the delightfully eccentric Insects Vs. Robots featuring Lukas Nelson’s brother, Micah, rocked at all, but Earle was in particularly fine form. Angry and defiant in song, he virtually spat the words out, but was loose and engaging in between. While some of the classics were present (“Copperhead Road”), it was songs like “Fixin’ to Die” from his newly released LP, So You Wanna Be an Outlaw, that really stirred.
References to Independence Day were inevitable at Circuit of the Americas, but they proved relatively few and far between besides the occasional stage banter. That was just as well, seeing how Turnpike Troubadours nailed it with a storming version of “The Bird Hunters.” That song was the finale of an amped-up set from the Oklahoma natives, who turned the Red Dirt up to 11 and never backed off with their flurry of fiddle, accordion and banjo. Singer Evan Felker pointed out that it was the Troubadours’ first picnic, which he followed up by shredding his way through “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead” on acoustic guitar.
The best set of the day arguably belonged to Kacey Musgraves. Pitch perfect, sweet and salty, the Golden, Texas, native hit all the right notes between girl-next-door charm and trailer park sass. She swooned one minute (“Late to the Party”) and got sentimental the next (“Family Is Family”), striking the perfect love-’em-and-hate-’em balance that family is liable to evoke on any holiday. Best of all was Musgraves’ touching new “Butterflies,” which she admitted was one of many new love songs she’s written. “I went and got happy,” she told the crowd. “Sorry, not sorry.”
The Troubadours may have done well by the Fourth of July, but Jamey Johnson took poignant patriotism to the next level with a particularly emotional set. His cover of “This Land Is Your Land” was a tearjerker that gave Margo Price a run for her money in the vocal department, a fact that was appropriate given that the pair – who’ve been on the road together recently – then collaborated on the Band’s “It Makes No Difference.” But theirs wasn’t even the best duet of the set. That honor went to Johnson’s rendition of his sole hit “In Color,” which saw the Alabama native joined by two little girls – his daughter Kylee and her best friend Alyssa Greene – who got a standing ovation.
The 100-degree heat hadn’t begun to break yet by the time Hayes Carll played on the pavilion stage, where there were zero options to hide from the sun. As such, there was something particularly welcome about the Austin native’s off-kilter sense of humor, which added a delirious edge to the afternoon. At one point, Carll reminisced about playing Nelson’s picnic 15 years ago, alleging that he’d been booked to play a half hour before doors even opened. The real highlight, however, was his charming duet with pianist Emily Gimble on “Another Like You,” in which the pair gave each other as good as they got.
For all the ink that’s been spilled in 2017 contemplating Willie Nelson’s health, the Red Headed Stranger was at home and in his element as he closed out his 44th picnic on Tuesday. You’re not liable to catch a better set from the 84-year-old this year, who smiled and laughed and cranked from one song to the next with nary a pause. Backed up by sons Lukas and Micah, and Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, he paid tribute to Waylon and Merle and had an all-star sing-along during “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” Most importantly, Trigger was turned up high in the mix, the Lefty to Nelson’s Pancho, there to help him close out another trip around the sun for the U.S.A. on their own terms.