In 1973, Willie Nelson—idealist, crass opportunist, and periodic genius—threw a July 4th “picnic” jamboree, envisioned as a “Woodstock in Texas.” He’s been saving the date since, though this year finds Nelson busy on a summer mega-tour.
Anthology picks up the slack. Its release delayed by now-obscure difficulties, the concert-film Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Celebration was already nostalgia when it premiered in the summer of ’79, around the same time that Willie was becoming an actor in earnest and recording Tin Pan Alley schmaltz. The film flashes back to the second picnic, an open-air affair in College Station, Texas, 1974, at the crossover moment of longhair outlaw country. The crowd—happily less in frame as the movie progresses—are self-consciously liberated Texas A&M undergrads, barely distinguishable from the meth creeps in their midst.
Nelson’s setlist draws heavily on the previous year’s album, Shotgun Willie, with a jam-extended “Funny How Time Slips Away”/”Night Life” medley prototyping the one on 1976’s The Sound in Your Mind. There’s dark, grave, steady Waylon Jennings, his rhythm section seeming an unbending, eternal fact of life, and gamboling fiend-with-a-fiddle Doug Kershaw, dressed in the bayou version of Edwardian dandyism, winking, bounding his big bouffanted head, enunciating with delectation, hotfoot jigging, and shredding bows on “Diggy Diggy Lo.” Nelson, Jennings, and Kershaw, all prewar-born with pre-hippie hits, hold the stage with an authority that featured young’uns B.W. Stevenson and Michael Martin Murphey haven’t earned; the Lost Gonzo Band, though, reconciles palatably “literate” lyrics with shitkicker swing.
The film isn’t cut to the beat, and attempts at groovy style are blessedly awkward rarities—I’m thinking of the slo-mo of a naked broad “spontaneously” stage-rushing an embarrassed Kershaw. (Oddly, there are reports of a SpaceVision 3-D version of the film.) The simplicity is largely a virtue here. This picnic went three days, but 4th of July is structured as a day and night, coherently charting a constellation of musicians as they play, drift off, drink, drift back. (Yeah, that’s Wolfman Jack.) Nelson is a discreetly withdrawn host, hovering tender and private over his ballads, visibly lit up when harmonizing with Waylon. The near-constant presence is emcee Leon Russell, who, glaring through a cowl of prematurely gray hair, becomes oblivious to everything but the liquor as the night wears on, to the alternate irritation and bemusement of his badgered co-stars. Leon: “I do drink, bless your heart—some of us got to . . .” Willie: “Or else it won’t get done.”