For the past decade, the event has been held in the North Forty area of the famous Stockyards at Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth. Nelson's tour manager John Selman described the concert by saying it was "two stages out in a hot dirt field." It was exactly that with, of course, great music.
The gates opened at noon with the revelers entering the picnic to the music of Amber Digby on the North Stage. Before the temps maxed out at 93, Johnny Bush, Charley Pride (who was booked last minute due to Billy Joe Shaver having a scheduling conflict) and David Allan Coe each played 30 minute sets. Coe did a couple of new tunes about his recent automobile accident.
After Coe's performance my wife and I went backstage, chatting with artists and hopping from bus to bus as Jamey Johnson performed in the 4 pm slot on the South Stage. The crowd could be heard all through the Stockyards singing Johnson's cult classic "Can't Cash My Checks."
All day Nelson never made any stage cameos, but he made sure all the performers joined him on stage for his closing anthem, 'Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.'
Cowpunk Ray Wylie Hubbard followed with "Snake Farm" and fan favorite "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother." We sampled some great Texas BBQ and street style tacos but opted for a couple footlong dogs as its only appropriate to eat food served on a stick at a festival.
Ryan Bingham's late-afternoon performance drew the biggest crowd of the day. In fact, the audience loved it so much that he came back for the only encore of the picnic with a moving rendition of "Hallelujah" solo and then, with his band, Bruce Springsteen's "Born in The U.S.A."
Backstage, Bingham said it was his second time performing at the picnic. "It's all about Willie today," he added humbly. "It's an honor just to be part of the show. The Stockyards are my old stomping ground and I'm just here to learn from the legend."
Others I saw backstage included Nelson's longtime actor friend Bill Russell, who appeared alongside Nelson in Barbarossa and The Red Headed Stranger (Nelson only smokes "top-flight shit," he told me) and Randy Travis, who looked in grave condition walking hunched over with a cane while being assisted on each side.
Current county music superstar Dierks Bentley headlined the North Stage. "So I guess after the show I'm gonna go take a shot of wheat grass with Willie," he said. The crowd laughed as Bentley's guitarist whispered in his ear. Then Bentley explained, "I've been informed we will be smoking some sweet grass." After the set he told me that his next single will be either "Say You Do" or "Pretty Girls (Drinking Tall Boys)." The latter tune really amped up the picnickers.
Nelson finally appeared on the South Stage for the day's final performance, opening as always with "Whiskey River." Nelson did a string of hits before introducing the band that included drummer Paul English, sister Bobbie Nelson on piano, Mickey Raphael on harmonica and son Lukas on electric guitar, who provided a moving tribute to Dallas legend Stevie Ray Vaughan on "Flooding Down in Texas."
You'd think that at a Willie Nelson concert there would be joints blazing all around but the first smell of burning buds came during "The Wall" off his latest album, Band of Brothers. Standing on the side of the stage, a guy in a red hat passed me a one-hitter and I was happy to take a puff and pass it to my wife. All day Nelson never made any stage cameos, but he made sure all the performers joined him on stage for "The Circle Will Be Unbroken," "I Saw the Light" and his closing anthem "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die."
The night even included fireworks provided by the city of Fort Worth.
After attending various picnics since 1993, I have to say this year's experience was like none other. Don't forget Willie Nelson holds two events annually: The 4th of July Picnic and Farm Aid, which is being held Sept. 20. The location has yet to be decided.