by Julian Spivey
Willie Nelson’s 42nd annual Fourth of July Picnic was good for my soul.
Imagine if nearly every one of your favorite current artists could be at one music festival on the same day doing staggered sets so you could see absolutely every one of them. It sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?
It truly was.
When I heard that Willie Nelson’s annual Fourth of July concert would include Merle Haggard, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Jamey Johnson, Kacey Musgraves and Eric Church I just knew that I had to buy tickets and make the trek from Central Arkansas to Austin, Texas (eight hours each way).
It was worth every second and penny.
In a time where country music is utter bullshit featuring talentless hacks like Sam Hunt, Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan wreaking havoc on the radio it was nice to be able to go to a place where you could hear real country music and real songwriting talent. For 14 ½ hours on Saturday, July 4 I was in music heaven. It truly was Independence Day and the best one I’ve ever had and probably ever will.
More than 20 artists took the stage on Saturday at the Austin360 Amphitheater just outside of Austin, Texas on two separate stages to perform sets that ranged from as a few as two songs to about 75 minutes.
Because of the way the sets were staggered and the close proximity of the stages I had the great pleasure of seeing every single performance at Willie’s annual party.
It was blistering hot in that central Texas heat on Saturday, but I didn’t care about a little sunburn or slight heat exhaustion with the talents of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Jamey Johnson and on and on singing their hearts out for the biggest concert crowd I’ve ever seen.
How do you even go about reviewing something this massive?
Maybe just the highlights …
The best thing of the entire day was seeing Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson perform three songs together at the end of Merle’s set. When Willie came out on stage to join Haggard on their classic early ‘80s duet “Pancho & Lefty,” written by the great Townes Van Zandt, it was easily and automatically one of the three greatest concert moments I’ve ever seen and honestly was almost enough to have me crying tears of joy had every ounce of liquid not already escaped through my pores in that sweltering Texas sun earlier in the day.
Merle might be 78 and Willie might be 82, but they are still better than just about anybody else you’re ever going to see. It was my third time seeing Haggard and my fourth seeing Nelson and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything else in the world.
At one point in his set Haggard performed Johnny Cash’s iconic “Folsom Prison Blues” and his classic “Mama Tried” back-to-back and I turned to my wife, Aprille, and said: “He just freakin’ played two of the three greatest country songs ever written in succession.”
Speaking of hearing one of the greatest country songs ever written … Jamey Johnson covered George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” the song many experts rank as the greatest country song ever recorded, during his set at the smaller Budweiser stage and it was breathtaking. Johnson did both the song and Jones proud.
Saturday marked the fourth time I’d see both Nelson and Eric Church, my third time seeing Haggard, Johnson and Jason Isbell and my second time seeing Kacey Musgraves. I’ve been truly blessed to see so many terrific artists over this last decade of my life … but I’d never seen Kris Kristofferson (who might be the greatest songwriter country music has ever known).
I didn’t think I’d ever see him. He wasn’t initially supposed to be part of Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic this year.
But, just a couple of days before leaving for Austin I saw online that he’d been added to the lineup. A bucket list moment I hadn’t even expected is what this resulted in. Kristofferson, just equipped with his guitar and the wrong harmonica (which unfortunately cut “Me & Bobby McGee” slightly short), took the stage and sounded amazing (which frankly surprised me because oftentimes when I’ve seen him perform on TV he’s been honestly incoherent).
Kristofferson wrote “Me & Bobby McGee” (made famous by Janis Joplin), “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” (made famous by Johnny Cash), “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (made famous by Sammi Smith) and “For the Good Times” (made famous by Ray Price) all in the span of about a year and they became massive hits for those respective artists in about the same time. I can say with absolute certainty that no songwriter has ever had that kind of output in such a short amount of time. On Saturday I got to see the genius behind every one of those songs. Unfortunately – and this is one of the few complaints I had on Saturday – some ignorant woman right behind me talked throughout Kristofferson’s entire set (which was quiet with just his voice and acoustic guitar) about how she only came to Willie’s festival to see her favorite David Allan Coe and how great he was (he wasn’t). Kristofferson is a legend. Coe just thinks he is. I couldn’t believe this woman didn’t give a damn about the legend on stage.
Kristofferson’s songwriting is potentially equaled in greatness by Americana darling Jason Isbell – who without a doubt has been my favorite singer-songwriter of the last three years. Isbell is always perfect on stage and his vocals are always exquisite. The highlight of his half hour set on Saturday was two songs I absolutely adore of his that I hadn’t had the pleasure of seeing him perform the two previous times I’d seen him: “Dress Blues,” about a young soldier killed in a pointless war (which I thought was a perfect tune for the Fourth of July), and “Decoration Day,” truly one of the greatest story songs of the last dozen or so years. I don’t believe I belted out songs along with the artists louder than these two all day …
Well, maybe I did when Sturgill Simpson performed “Living the Dream” from his excellent 2014 album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, which I have no doubt was the best written and recorded country song released last year and topped my annual list. Simpson is a revelation in a day and age where country music just doesn’t sound like country music anymore. He gives 100 percent every second he’s on stage both vocally and musically and his vocals when he really ramps them up are Waylon Jennings-esque. Sturgill is the real deal and I’m glad he’s developed a cult following of us fans pissed at country’s current state and is selling out venues all across America. He was worth the price of admission alone.
Jamey Johnson was billed as “Tradition & Truth” on the T-shirt bearing his likeness that I just had to purchase on Saturday and that’s an apt description. This true and talented songwriter loves real country music and loves to cover it. Every time I’ve seen him he fills his shows with great covers and I previously mentioned him doing George Jones justice, but one of the truly American things I saw on the Fourth of July at this festival was him covering Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” with the jam-packed crowd singing along in unison.
Saturday’s festival was chock full of badasses on the stage. But, when it comes to badassery it’s damn hard to top both Ray Wylie Hubbard and Billy Joe Shaver. These men are the real deal and I thoroughly enjoyed every single second of both of their sets. There were certainly better songs performed during this day (it’s hard to top Merle Haggard, after all), but the one that truly got itself wedged in between my ears was Hubbard’s “Snake Farm” – who’s joyfulness in performing truly shines through on stage. I’m of the feeling that Jason Aldean is perhaps the biggest poseur in the history of country music with his supposed bad boy schtick that all of real outlaw music fans can see straight through and needs to be kicked down a notch or two (or even six feet below), so hearing Billy Joe Shaver do “Hard to Be An Outlaw” with its lines like “some super stars nowadays get too far off the ground/singing ‘bout the backroads they never have been down/they go and call it ‘country’, but that ain’t the way it sounds/it’s enough to make a renegade want to terrorize the town” really made my day.
Eric Church is a guy that I swear gets a bad rep from some of those “saving country music” guys, but this one right here sees he’s the real deal. It only takes a little deeper listening to realize this. There’s more to his music both lyrically and musically than those other bro-country dudes ruining the genre and I’m surprised people don’t get or hear this in his music. Saturday night was the third time I’ve see “Chief” do “Springsteen” in person and the song still gets me every time. It’s the best mainstream country song since Jamey Johnson released “In Color.”
Kacey Musgraves is my favorite current tomato in country music. Anybody who doesn’t get that reference hasn’t really been paying a whole lot of attention to the state of country music lately and ignorant comments made by executive Keith Hill who claimed if country radio wants to thrive it must eschew all female singers. Musgraves is a little too real for mainstream country, but that’s why she fits in so well with the crowd at Willie’s festival. Musgraves has this cutesy, but at the same time tough as hell thing (Loretta Lynn had that), about her that works for her so well. Her new album Pageant Material is going to be one of the best albums of the year and she was a real ball of fire on Saturday evening.
There were other highlights on Saturday – hearing real Texas Swing in Texas thanks to Asleep at the Wheel, hearing Chris Stapleton belt a tune like no other, watching Willie’s granddaughter Raelyn Nelson rock out to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” and more – but if I were to write about every great thing I saw and heard on Saturday we’d be here all day.
I’ll just say this – if you weren’t at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic this past Saturday you missed one of the greatest shows there’s ever going to be.
100 Best Performances From Willie's Fourth of July Picnic:
1. Pancho & Lefty – Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard
2. Mama Tried – Merle Haggard
3. Folsom Prison Blues – Merle Haggard
4. For the Good Times – Kris Kristofferson
5. Decoration Day – Jason Isbell
6. Me & Bobby McGee – Kris Kristofferson
7. It’s All Going to Pot – Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard
8. Dress Blues – Jason Isbell
9. Living the Dream – Sturgill Simpson
10. He Stopped Loving Her Today – Jamey Johnson
11. Sunday Morning Comin’ Down – Kris Kristofferson
12. Springsteen – Eric Church
13. The Weight – Eric Church & Chris Stapleton
14. Long White Line – Sturgill Simpson
15. Hard to Be An Outlaw – Billy Joe Shaver
16. Listening to the Rain – Sturgill Simpson
17. Snake Farm – Ray Wylie Hubbard
18. Whiskey River – Willie Nelson
19. The Pilgrim – Kris Kristofferson
20. Outfit – Jason Isbell
21. Big City – Merle Haggard
22. Stockholm – Jason Isbell
23. Life of Sin – Sturgill Simpson
24. This Land is Your Land – Jamey Johnson
25. Silver Wings – Merle Haggard
26. Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain – Willie Nelson
27. Super 8 – Jason Isbell
28. Follow Your Arrow – Kacey Musgraves
29. Bad Reputation – Raelyn Nelson Band
30. Traveller – Chris Stapleton
31. Are the Good Times Really Over? – Merle Haggard
32. I Think I’ll Just Stay Here & Drink – Merle Haggard
33. That Lonesome Song – Jamey Johnson
34. Old Chunk of Coal – Billy Joe Shaver
35. Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother – Ray Wylie Hubbard
36. Route 66 – Asleep at the Wheel
37. Merry Go ‘Round – Kacey Musgraves
38. Always On My Mind – Willie Nelson
39. Bob Wills is Still the King – Asleep at the Wheel
40. Roll Me Up (And Smoke Me When I Die) – Willie Nelson
41. This Town – Kacey Musgraves
42. The Bottle Let Me Down – Merle Haggard
43. The Trailer Song – Kacey Musgraves
44. These Boots – Eric Church
45. Railroad of Sin – Sturgill Simpson
46. Set ‘em Up Joe – Jamey Johnson
47. What She Said Last Night – Billy Joe Shaver
48. High Time – Kacey Musgraves
49. Tennessee Whiskey – Chris Stapleton
50. Mama’s Broken Heart – Kacey Musgraves
51. Help Me Make It Through the Night – Kris Kristofferson
52. On the Road Again – Willie Nelson
53. Reasons to Quit – Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson
54. Why Me – Kris Kristofferson
55. Pageant Material – Kacey Musgraves
56. Smoke a Little Smoke – Eric Church
57. Good Hearted Woman – Willie Nelson
58. Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell
59. 24 Frames – Jason Isbell
60. Get a Room – Raelyn Nelson Band
61. Creepin’ – Eric Church
62. Georgia On My Mind – Willie Nelson
63. Ride Me Down Easy – Billy Joe Shaver
64. Can’t Cash My Checks – Jamey Johnson
65. Wanna Rock & Roll – Ray Wylie Hubbard
66. Knock Me Up – Folk Uke
67. These Boots Are Made for Walking – Kacey Musgraves
68. Me & Paul – Willie Nelson
69. Loving Her Was Easier – Kris Kristofferson
70. Over When It’s Over – Eric Church
71. Screw You, We’re From Texas – Ray Wylie Hubbard
72. Jambalaya (On the Bayou) – Leon Russell
73. Hank Williams Medley (Jambalaya, Hey Good Lookin’ & Move It Over) – Willie Nelson
74. Still is Still Moving to Me – Willie Nelson
75. That’s The Way Love Goes – Merle Haggard
76. Homeboy – Eric Church
77. If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time) – Willie Nelson
78. The Silver Tongue Devil & I – Kris Kristofferson
79. I Got a Woman – Leon Russell
80. Just to Satisfy You – Paula Nelson
81. Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Papa Was a Rolling Stone – Leon Russell
82. Twinkle, Twinkly Lucky Star – Merle Haggard
83. Outlaw State of Mind – Chris Stapleton
84. Cold One – Eric Church
85. Orange Blossom Special – Greezy Wheels
86. Like a Wrecking Ball – Eric Church
87. Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man) – Merle Haggard
88. I’m Getting Stoned – Eric Church
89. Crazy/Night Life/Funny How Time Slips Away – Willie Nelson
90. Jack Daniels – Eric Church
91. Georgia On a Fast Train – Willie Nelson
92. Drink In My Hand – Eric Church
93. Step Off/Three Little Birds – Kacey Musgraves
94. There Stands the Glass – Johnny Bush
95. Will the Circle Be Unbroken?/I’ll Fly Away – Willie Nelson
96. Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends – Kris Kristofferson
97. Stranger in a Strange Land – Leon Russell
98. Stupid – Kacey Musgraves
99. Fire Away – Chris Stapleton
100. You Can’t Always Get What You Want – Hudson Moore