Wil­lie, fans give a down-home wel­come to the new Back­yard

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Pa­trick Cald­well

More than 30 tour buses, 20 bands, more than 12 hours of mu­sic and a sell­out crowd of 7,500 ea­ger coun­try mu­sic fans — only in the world of Wil­lie Nel­son’s Fourth of July pic­nics could such an un­der­tak­ing be dubbed “scaled back.”

The out­law and cos­mic coun­try icon — and long­time Cen­tral Texas fix­ture — threw the lat­est in his long line of Fourth of July pic­nics Sun­day at the new Back­yard venue at Bee Cave Park­way and RM 620, con­tin­u­ing a tra­di­tion that be­gan in Drip­ping Springs in 1973.

The first Cen­tral Texas pic­nic since 2003’s out­ing in Spice­wood at­tracted a di­verse crowd of pic­nic vet­er­ans and new­com­ers will­ing to tough out the blaz­ing tem­per­a­tures to sam­ple from a plethora of artists, from Del Castillo’s Latin rock to long­time Nel­son co­hort Kris Kristof­fer­son’s thought­ful Amer­i­cana.

The bill lacked the kind of ma­jor head­lin­ers — like Bob Dylan, the Doo­bie Broth­ers or Jimmy Buf­fett — that have shep­herded pre­vi­ous pic­nics, fo­cus­ing in­stead on pic­nic stal­warts like Leon Rus­sell and Ray Price. It also lacked the

Con­tin­ued from A1 ar­rests, nu­dity and may­hem that of­ten de­fined the pic­nic in its younger years. Though on-site medics said they had treated some cases of heat ex­haus­tion, no at­ten­dees had to be trans­ported off-site, and Travis County sher­iff’s deputies said no ar­rests were made.

“It’s gone re­ally smooth this year,” Asleep at the Wheel front­man Ray Ben­son said shortly af­ter the sem­i­nal Austin coun­try band’s af­ter­noon set. “It is the year 2010, and af­ter 37 pic­nics, I think they’ve fig­ured out how to do it.”

The pic­nic also served as a lit­mus test for the new Back­yard — as the venue’s fifth show and first to sell out, it brought out am­ple crowds that put the out­door theater through its paces.

“I think that this was the supreme test, and it also was in a lot of ways our grand open­ing,” said Tim O’Con­nor, CEO of Di­rect Events, which op­er­ates the Back­yard. “Be­cause Wil­lie has al­ways opened ev­ery fa­cil­ity we’ve ever had, and played the orig­i­nal Back­yard more than 30 times, it didn’t re­ally feel like we were up and run­ning un­til he played.”

The day kicked off at 11 a.m. with Di­rect Events of­fice man­ager Mar­qita Del­gado sing­ing the na­tional an­them and the Grammy-win­ning Black­wood Quar­tet per­form­ing a Sun­day-ap­pro­pri­ate gospel set. At­ten­dees fil­tered in steadily through­out the af­ter­noon, but de­spite cramped con­di­tions, the pic­nic main­tained its pas­toral vibe through­out the day, with most seated on blan­kets or tow­els. The pri­mary ob­sta­cle for con­cert­go­ers proved to be the sig­nif­i­cant — but bear­able — heat.

“The heat has been not so good,” said David Pow­ell, 59, a first-time pic­nic­goer who ob­served the stage from be­neath a small out­crop­ping of trees. “We’ve found some shade, but it’s a lit­tle rough. But it does amaze me to see this many peo­ple stand­ing in the heat and have the at­mos­phere be so cool. Eight thou­sand peo­ple wouldn’t be out here in the sun for 12 hours if the mu­sic wasn’t re­ally great.”

Leonard Schooler, 59, came with his 21-yearold son and noted that the crowd was smaller and the prices higher than past pic­nics. “But there was great mu­sic when I went to them in the 1970s, and there’s still great mu­sic, so what mat­ters has stayed the same,” he said.

Aside from out­law coun­try pi­o­neer Billy Joe Shaver can­cel­ing be­cause of health is­sues, the pic­nic largely ran on sched­ule, with short sets rang­ing from 15 to 25 min­utes. O’Con­nor said Nel­son con­tin­ued to add and re­move acts as late as Fri­day morn­ing — typ­i­cal for the pic­nic.

“Peo­ple al­ways go, ‘When is the sched­ule? Can we get the sched­ule?’ There is no sched­ule,” O’Con­nor said. “There is an in­ter­nal process that we go through, but it is kind of hel­ter-skel­ter, in a good way.”

High­lights in­cluded a blis­ter­ing set from Western swing band Jody Nix and the Texas Cow­boys, am­ple au­di­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion dur­ing a per­for­mance by singer David Al­lan Coe, Ray Wylie Hub­bard and son Lu­cas trad­ing gui­tar so­los dur­ing the psy­che­delic coun­try fix­ture’s af­ter­noon set, and Nel­son pro­tégés Los Lonely Boys re­turn­ing to the pic­nic in hard-rock­ing style. Along with a healthy dose of pa­tri­otic fer­vor — cli­max­ing when Austin’s Geezinslaws led the au­di­ence in the Pledge of Al­le­giance — the over­rid­ing tone was one of rev­er­ence, par­tic­u­larly for Nel­son.

“I think we some­times for­get how thank­ful we should be to have Wil­lie Nel­son,” coun­try singer Kevin Fowler said from the stage. “He’s the best friend a Texas mu­si­cian could have.”

No sign of rev­er­ence was more pro­nounced, or more vis­i­ble, than a wooden statue of Poodie Locke — Nel­son’s long­time stage man­ager, who died last year — that kept a watch­ful eye over the Back­yard’s stage. That re­spect for the mu­sic, Hub­bard said, is what makes the pic­nic the pic­nic.

“There’s this in­tegrity to the pic­nic be­cause it still comes down to the mu­sic. It’s not just spring break at Padre Is­land. It’s about the mu­sic and Wil­lie’s sta­tus as an Amer­i­can icon,” said Hub­bard, who’s played ev­ery pic­nic. “You gotta be pretty good to play his pic­nic. And it re­ally is fun. You come here and sweat and get up and play, and the crowd is with you. It’s a ball.”

larry Kolvo­ord pho­tos

Amy and Joe McA­nally of Ok­la­homa City let their pa­tri­o­tism show Sun­day at Wil­lie Nel­son’s Fourth of July Pic­nic.

Ray Wylie Hub­bard, left, and David Al­lan Coe per­form for a sell­out crowd at the Back­yard at Bee Cave Park­way and RM 620.

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