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Nelson's picnic adds wider musical mix and a place to keep cool

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Posted 6:52am on Tuesday, Jul. 05, 2011

FORT WORTH -- Addressing the sweating, cheering masses in the Rodeo Plaza before him, Billy Joe Shaver summed up Willie Nelson's 4th of July Picnic, whether he meant to or not.

"It's too hot to dance," said the Corsicana-born troubadour, clad simply in denim. "I'd be dancing for y'all if it wasn't so hot."

While temperatures cracked the century mark Monday and a near-statewide burn ban led authorities to discourage private use of fireworks, the blistering heat didn't stop a sellout crowd from piling into Billy Bob's Texas for the 38th annual edition of the picnic and the final stop of the second annual Country Throwdown tour.

"We feel it was tremendously successful," Pam Minick, marketing director for Billy Bob's Texas, said in a brief backstage interview. "We could not be happier. It's a great mix of people out there; we're glad it went well because the picnic belongs here in Fort Worth."

Twenty-seven artists performed on the trio of stages that worked, for the most part, like a well-oiled machine (the latest anyone ran was 15 minutes, and that happened only once).

Blending a Texas tradition with a relatively new, nationwide touring package also gave the event an expansive flavor.

The picnic guaranteed Texas iconoclasm (Ray Wylie Hubbard and Western swing stalwarts Asleep at the Wheel turned in solid sets) while the throwdown offered a taste of Nashville's future (up-and-comers like Randy Houser, Craig Campbell and Nelson's son Lukas, whose moody, psychedelic brand of Southern rock was an early highlight).

The picnic has developed a reputation for unexpected cameos, but the surprises were few: Lukas Nelson guested on one song for Campbell, and Mickey Raphael helped back Houser, but that was about it. (Deadlines prevented viewing of Jamey Johnson and Willie Nelson's sets.)

Five years had passed since Nelson's 4th of July Picnic was last held in the Fort Worth Stockyards, and there were a couple of new twists.

For the 2011 edition, no one had to brave the wide open, broiling expanses of the North Forty.

Instead, the picnic/throwdown finale used both stages inside Billy Bob's Texas, with a third stage set up in the Rodeo Plaza.

That move also resulted in a drastic reduction in capacity (from the usual 20,000 attendees to somewhere a little over 6,000) but didn't make the picnic feel suffocated.

Organizers also made it possible to stay indoors the entire day: A live feed was set up on the handful of monitors scattered around the main performance space, with the audio fed into the house speakers. It was an elegant, blessedly cool solution that likely kept more heat-related incidents from occurring.

On-site emergency medical personnel reported, at the middle and near the end of the event, that apart from "two or three heat-related emergencies" and a couple of bumps and bruises, the day was quiet.

"We didn't have to take anyone to the hospital today, so that's good," said paramedic Lee Turner.

Preston Jones is the Star-Telegram pop music critic.

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