Willie Nelson's 4th of July Picnic at Billy Bob's Texas
An hour into Willie Nelson's set at yesterday's 40th anniversary 4th of July Picnic, his halo was starting to seem a little dim. He's old, after all -- 80 years old, to be specific -- and though his voice has proven more resilient than some of his peers, he still sing-talks his way though a lot of the subtleties. And the long, hot day had taken its toll on the crowd, all dusty and drunk. People were getting distracted and outright leaving in surprising numbers.
But then the annual sing-along started. David Allan Coe, Jamey Johnson, Gary Allan and more of the day's undercard joined Willie and his family band on stage and they started with "Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)." There was no fanfare, no introductions made. These sizable country stars stood next to Willie sheepishly, smiling. And Willie led the thousands through old gospel standards and "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," which he quipped was a "newer gospel tune." The extra bodies bolstered the old legend. He gave his bandana to Jamey Johnson's daughter and the joy on his face matched hers. No one has ever been better at making music a communal experience than Willie Nelson.
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One reason for that is Willie's endless respect for his fans. His songs are never opaque or backhanded. Whether he's writing about his own hardship and heartbreak or telling stories about outlaws, he does so clearly, frankly and beautifully. His earnest generosity is also what allows him to find the unpretentious core of songs like Coldplay's "The Scientist" or Dave Matthews' "Gravedigger."
Live, he does not dally. He moves from one song to the next so quickly that his band is often still finding their instruments. Willie sings, and Trigger whines and everyone else works their way in. He plays the hits because he has so many to choose from, and people sing along. He keeps his moralizing and editorializing to the songs, but there's plenty there. There is no light show, no backing tracks -- shit, no electric guitar. Just a grand piano, an upright bass, some harmonica and an assortment of percussion and peaceful man with long braids playing a battered old Martin N-20.