Fort Worth "But it's been so long," crooned Willie Nelson late Wednesday night, "It seems like it was only yesterday/Ain't it funny how time slips away?"
The 79-year-old singer-songwriter was drawing the 39th annual 4th of July Picnic, held for the second year in a row at Billy Bob's Texas, to a close for an estimated crowd of 5,000 attendees. Performing one of his signature hits, Nelson, flanked by his long-time bandmates Mickey Raphael, Paul English, his sister Bobbie, as well as his sons Lukas and Micah, was the very picture of bedrock permanence, a Texas icon firmly fixed in place.
Yet, reflecting upon the day (which, mercifully, was not nearly as broiling as last year's sold-out Picnic), Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away took on decidedly more elegiac connotations, an amplification of sorts of something I'd glimpsed off and on through the eight hours I roamed between the three Picnic stages.
Nelson will turn 80 next year, and while he maintains a pretty brisk pace of touring and recording, particularly for an artist entering his ninth decade, he can't keep this up forever. So thoughts to turn to the idea of succession -- it's understood that there will never be another musician like Willie Nelson, all myth and skill and mischief rolled up in one, but his legacy will need tending for future generations. That's where Lukas Nelson would appear to fit in.
Although he has a band of his own, the Promise of the Real, which features the baffling spectacle of his brother Micah painting onstage while the musicians perform, Lukas was a frequent guest Wednesday. He popped out during Jamey Johnson's main stage set for a tune, and was right alongside his dad during the final set of the night. Lukas was featured prominently on Willie's most recent LP, Heroes, and even though the son doesn't precisely emulate the father, there's enough that's recognizable to make the transition bearable.
Elsewhere, the boundaries of country music were firmly stretched Wednesday. From Hall of Famer Bill Anderson (subbing for a sick Ray Price) to young guns like Corey Smith or Stoney LaRue, the full spectrum of the genre's styles -- traditional to rock-infused -- were on display. Anderson, making not only his debut at the Picnic, but also Billy Bob's, was every inch the old pro, while the next generation (Whiskey Myers, Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers) ably kept pace. Even a performer somewhat caught between the two worlds, Ray Wylie Hubbard, doled out plenty of Lone Star brio in the sun-soaked outdoors, the tang of marijuana in the air.
The changing times weren't only evident in the performers on stage -- there was also the large banner announcing the Stockyards Music Festival greeting arrivals. It almost felt like the Picnic was a loss leader for this new venture. The line-up for the Stockyards Music Festival, set in the North Forty (where Picnics of yore were staged) on Sept. 2, boasts a high-profile line-up full of legends (Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr., David Allan Coe) and fresh faces (Jonathan Tyler & the Northern Lights, Shooter Jennings, Turnpike Troubadours).
It's the kind of talent one might expect to see at Willie's Picnic, but perhaps, rather than compete to get bigger names, there's a sense the Picnic has had its moment, and, for now, is content to let time take its course. After all, seems like only yesterday Nelson easily attracted the biggest names to his yearly summer gathering and moved among them easily. Ain't it funny how time slips away?