When Willie Nelson brought his Fourth of July Picnic to Circuit of the Americas last year, it felt like a sign that all was right with the cosmos again.
Things had gone well in a four-year run at Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth from 2011 to 2014. But the Picnic was born in the Austin area, beginning with the first one in Dripping Springs in the early 1970s. Though it has traveled all over the state — and beyond — in the 40-plus years since, there’s no place like home.
“It was the easy thing to do, because I’m there in Austin,” Nelson said on Monday from a tour stop in Minnesota. When Circuit of the Americas opened a few years ago, he saw it as an opportunity.
“We wanted to check it out and see how it worked out. And it seemed like the folks around Austin and Texas liked the fact that we did come back around Austin,” he continued. “It was great at Billy Bob’s; I love the place up there, and I still want to play it five times a year if I can. But I just wanted to move the Picnic back down toward Austin.”
Last year’s event was a solid success, with only a delay in set changes for Merle Haggard and Eric Church slowing things down before the fireworks and Nelson’s past-midnight finale. Earlier, the venue’s wide-open Grand Plaza area proved ideal for short sets by longtime Picnic favorites such as Leon Russell and Johnny Bush.
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Many of those regulars are back again this year. “Well, it’s everyone with three names,” Nelson joked, referencing the likes of Billy Joe Shaver — who played the very first Picnic — and Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Others in the daytime lineup include Amber Digby, Dallas Wayne and Asleep at the Wheel. “There’s a lot of great talent that’s from Texas and around Texas that has worked the Picnic since the beginning,” Nelson said, noting that it’s a priority to make room for those acts. “All the regulars, I want them all on there.”
But the Picnic is about new faces, too. Last year’s late afternoon/early evening slots perfectly summarized country’s current renaissance, as Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell took turns on the big Austin360 Amphitheater stage.
One bright spot this year is an increased representation of female performers. Country star Lee Ann Womack, an East Texas native, is among the big names, and angelic-voiced singer/fiddler Alison Krauss will join Jamey Johnson during his set. Perhaps most promising is the addition of Margo Price, whose recent debut album landed her on “Saturday Night Live” earlier this year.
And then there’s the local angle. New to the Picnic this year are Austin’s own Shakey Graves and Jamestown Revival, two rising stars of indie/Americana music. Their inclusion also pushes the Picnic’s boundaries beyond old-school country, broadening the draw beyond the hardcore faithful.
It’s an especially poignant milestone for Graves, a native Austinite who grew up under the infinitely tall shadow of Nelson’s living-legend stature.
“Playing Willie Nelson’s Picnic feels absolutely surreal,” Graves said Tuesday. “The real kicker is the full-circle nature of it all. I used to run around this festival as a kid trying to talk my parents into buying me neon green pickles and listening to some weirdos play guitars. And now I’m going to be one of those weirdos.”
Tapping the hometown well also allows Nelson to bring aboard some of the musically inclined members of his extended family. That includes granddaughter Raelyn Nelson, who’ll perform with her band, and the humorous duo Folk Uke, which includes his daughter Amy and Arlo Guthrie’s daughter Cathy Guthrie.
Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah Nelson can’t make it this year, as they’re touring Europe with Neil Young in support of a recent collaborative album between Young and their band Promise of the Real. Nelson said he’s heading overseas in a couple of weeks to catch a few of the shows. He added that he also recently finished an album of his own with Lukas and Micah. “It turned out real good — a lot of great country songs,” Nelson said.
It’ll have to wait its turn amid the constant flow of records Nelson has cranked out in recent years. Next up, he revealed, is a Ray Price tribute album, which will follow the splendid “Summertime” collection of classic Gershwin tunes he issued in February.
That came on the heels of last year’s country chart-topping collaboration with the late Merle Haggard, “Django and Jimmie.” Haggard’s appearance at last year’s Picnic was one of the highlights, especially when Nelson joined him near the end of the set for a couple of tunes.
“I think it’s incredible that the last year of Merle’s life, he had a number one record, and he had a number one video,” Nelson reflected. “It was incredible. And he died on his 79th birthday. So God bless him.”
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Last year’s appearance with Haggard renewed what once was a common sight at the Picnic: Nelson sitting in with some of his pals. It has become rare in recent years, though Nelson says he’s open to doing it again if the circumstances allow.
The most likely suspect this year would seem to be Kris Kristofferson, who’s done some shows with Nelson on his current tour. He’s in the lineup a few slots before Nelson on the Austin360 Amphitheater stage.
“It depends on what time I get back to town and everything that’s going on. It’s kind of hard to make plans,” Nelson said. After a July 2 show in Indiana, Nelson and his band will have a long way to go and a short time to get there (with apologies to “Smokey and the Bandit”).
With all of his musical activity, it’s hard to fathom how Nelson has time to launch his own line of marijuana. But much of the attention he’s received recently has regarded “Willie’s Reserve,” with word circulating in June that positions are being filled for the, uh, rollout in weed-legal locales such as Colorado and Washington.
He has help, fortunately. “Annie, my wife, is kind of handling all that with the growers up there,” he says. “But things are happening, and everybody’s getting ready.”
Nelson has gone on record as saying he believes marijuana may be legal in all 50 states in the next few years. So where in that row of dominoes does he expect Texas to fall?
“Probably one of the last, I think,” he says after a hearty laugh, before turning more thoughtful. “We’ve got a lot of die-hard folks who just really don’t understand the situation.”
The change, he figures, will occur “as they get educated more about what cannabis really is, the medicinal value there is, and the hemp part of it. … I think as people learn more and more about it, and as young people become more and more involved and get old enough to vote, that will have an impact.”
Just how long it might take is still anyone’s guess, but Nelson’s not much for speculating — whether the issue is marijuana, his music or life itself.
“Oh, it’s minute by minute,” he says with a chuckle, when asked if he has any year-by-year plans for the Picnic’s future. “I’m 83, you know; I can’t make a lot of long-term commitments. So I’m just glad to be there this year, and we’ll let next year take care of itself.”
Where: Circuit of the Americas, 9201 Circuit of the Americas Blvd.
When: Gates open 11 a.m. Monday; music begins 11:30 a.m.
Grand Plaza Stage acts, in order of appearance: Amber Digby, Dallas Wayne, Folk Uke, Raelyn Nelson Band, Asleep at the Wheel, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Johnny Bush, Billy Joe Shaver, Cody Johnson, Jamestown Revival, Shakey Graves
Austin360 Amphitheater Stage acts, in order of appearance: Margo Price, Lee Ann Womack, Kris Kristofferson, Leon Russell, Jamey Johnson with Alison Krauss, Brantley Gilbert, Willie Nelson & Family
Cost: $39.50-$85; VIP also available for $300-$500. Separate camping and RV fees: $45-$350
What you can bring in: One 1-quart-sized clear plastic bag with food per person; one 20-ounce water bottle per person. Water fountains are available at the venue for refilling.