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In Search of Real America at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic

An exploration into the idea of "hillbilly humanism."

Arielle Milkman

The afternoon heat in Austin's Circuit of the Americas hits me in waves. The Texans seem more than equipped for the blazing sun—loping beneath cowboy hats with various insignias of the outlaw or patriotic type, young men hang by vast fans, booted feet thumping to steel drum rhythms, taking turns dumping water into the blade chambers to spray heat-choked passersby.

Because it is my first day ever in Texas, perhaps I can be forgiven for forgetting a hat. I'm here with the goal of learning about America through Willie Nelson's Fourth of July picnic. We are gathering just outside of Austin under the auspices of Nelson himself, so I figure this event will draw a left-of-center crowd.

I'm wrong. At Willie's picnic, I learned about a well-mannered, welcoming version of libertarianism, and I found out that Willie is politically untouchable—the man is rendered apolitical by his near-universal appeal. But more on that later.

I don't usually feel patriotic—that is, until I leave the country for an extended period of time and have difficulty finding decent peanut butter. But the Supreme Court's recent decisions to uphold healthcare and protect gay marriage (I'm a queer, coastal lefty with dual citizenship) have made me feel (very skeptically) more proud of this country, and I'm wondering if these Southerners will feel the same.

My theory going into this is that I'll find a kind of liberal humanism advancing at the festival. This is Willie's picnic, after all, a legend among the living—but also a man who has (safely and at times inadvertently) advocated for progressive causes, like marijuana legalization, marriage equality, farmworker aid, and the use of biodiesel fuels.

Nelson didn't cover "Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other" until 2006 (right around the time that Hillary Clinton's views started to evolve on gay marriage), but even then he was the first major country artist to feature an LGBTQ-themed song.

Before I go to the picnic, I talk with Nadine Hubbs, a University of Michigan professor and the author of Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, who schools me in Steve Goodson's theory of hillbilly humanism.

Goodson and other scholars, including Hubbs, have argued that country music has preached non-judgment and elevation of the human spirit since the Hank Williams' reign in the 1950s. Hubbs tells me, over the phone: "The idea of hillbilly humanism is: Nobody is better than anybody else in God's eyes," and she says that's a working class theme.

"If we do start judging, the working class know that they are going to land badly because our culture is dominated by the middle class."

For Hubbs, this tradition of acceptance and non-judgmental welcome to the tent of humanity has its origins in Hank Willliams and is perpetuated by artists like Willie Nelson and newcomers like Kacey Musgraves.

I find plenty of hillbilly humanism in the audience on Saturday as well.

David Sapp, 20, is watching Billie Joe Shaver's set on the lawn of the Budweiser stage when I approach him for a chat. When I ask about Willie's famous position on marijuana, Sapp says he doesn't smoke pot, but he wouldn't judge others for doing so. Sapp's position extends to gay marriage as well, although when I ask about last week's Supreme Court judgment, he stiffens. "I've always thought marriage is between a man and a woman, but if they were going to call it something else, if they were going to come up with their own thing …" he trails off, squinting at me.

Earlier at the pavilion tent, the crowd loves Kris Kristofferson's homage to Janis Joplin as he croons "Bobby McGee," a song which he wrote and she made famous posthumously. Leon Russell's performance is a favorite as well—the man takes to the stage looking like a southern version of an Aglo mono-deity, banging out his signature "Jumping Jack Flash/Papa Was a Rolling Stone" with rollicking and wild precision.

Now Sturgill Simpson has taken the stage, and the amphitheater is filling up. The guy directly to my left wears a denim cut-off button down on denim jeans, and when Simpson starts into "Living the Dream" he whoops out: "Take your pants off, ladies!" exchanging a meaningful glance with his girlfriend as he pulls her closer. His friend sports a "Let's get red, white, and wasted!" T-shirt, and responds with more whoops and an eventual "No" when I ask to talk.

Every single person I talk to here loves Willie. There are folks of all stripes (and stars here)—I speak with big government folks and small government folks—people who would have us regulate carbon emissions and those who wouldn't—people who think that the Confederate flag is a harmless part of Southern identity and those who want to see it gone, same-sex couples who have recently gotten engaged, those who think the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality undermines their rights to practice religion.

The overwhelming majority of the audience is white, and from where I'm sitting it skews male. But there are folks of all ages and professions here.

The mortician's assistant and bartender was raised on Willie's music. The musician from Austin loves the vulnerability in his lyrics. The young man getting a beer with his friend tells me he loves Willie because he's the original outlaw, a highway man.

The two women who got engaged in the state of Texas as soon as they legally could (last week) came to see Nelson because he's a living legend—and a constant cultural obsession in their home city of Austin.

It seems to me, as the night wears on, that Willie is the Messiah because he offers every one of us something to connect to. We all pick and choose from his defining traits; we take what we like and throw out what we don't.

The crowd heats up for Jamey Johnson's set, which includes a sing-a-long rendition of "This Land Is Your Land," including an improvised line: "On one side it said 'no trespassing'—on the other side it didn't say nothing—that side was made for you and me," which gets massive applause from those gathered below the Budweiser stage.

Johnson also panders to the audience in "Yellow Rose of Texas"—the crowd hollers again when he croaks out "The yellows of Texas beat the blues of Tennessee," a reference to the ongoing culture wars between the Austin and Nashville schools of country.

Unsurprisingly, Texas exceptionalism is on display here just as much as American sovereignty. Early in the afternoon, David Allan Coe and Ray Wylie Hubbard led the crowd in a rousing "Screw you, we're from Texas," and there are plenty of Confederate flag hats and ponchos to go around.

When I ask folks what they think of activists calling South Carolina to remove the flag from the State Capitol, I meet an enraged shrug. I find Onie Gorman, Jr., 61, a white man decked out in an American flag button-down and cowboy hat, staying cool in his wheelchair and bobbing his head to Chris Stapleton. He has the stars and bars tattooed on his arm, and says he doesn't understand where the controversy comes from. "The Confederate flag has been a part of our heritage and history for years… It simply means I'm a rebel. But I'm still a full-blooded American. I went and served for our country and I'd do it again."

Others say similar things about Southern heritage—and the Confederate flag in today's context? And the massacre in a black church by a white shooter in Charleston, SC? Gorman says it's not relevant.

Musgraves is up next on the Main Stage—and her performance is a breath of fresh air after such a dude-heavy afternoon. Like Johnson, she throws in a few Texas lines here and there to remind us she's part of Willie's outlaw club.

Hillbilly humanism is in Musgraves' set as well. She flawlessly delivers "Follow Your Arrow," a song that's essentially about being, no matter what anyone says ("or kiss lots of girls, if that's what you're into," but no homo, right?). Musgraves' message, echoed in Biscuits and Trailer Song, both in her set on Saturday, instructs us to do our own shit, mind our own business, and stay out of everyone else's way.



She slyly comments on the show of masculinity around us—"This line-up, huh?… I'm just glad they threw a girl into the mix!"—before dropping a couple of lines about her relationship with Willie ("I shot a video with Willie yesterday"). The last song in her set is a powerful cover of "These Boots are Made for Walkin'"—and Musgraves does this unadulterated, booty-shaking dance with her tambourine, stomping and singing, while her band of men in sequined suits beat out the harmony's thumping heart like a tribe of well-trained peacocks. The crowd is tolerant but seems unimpressed—they are waiting hungrily for Merle and Willie.

Meanwhile, Christie Dorch, 25, and friend Michelle Ripin, 37, give me a lesson on country values. "Country means: Can you go fishing on a Friday? You gotta hunt, you gotta fish, you gotta wear boots. You gotta know how to ride a horse. You know how to survive off the land. You gotta look at the stars with that smoke."

I don't know how to do any of those things, but I'm getting the picture that to these folks, country means radical self-reliance, independence, a live and let live attitude, and vulnerable, hetero-masculinity. Willie appeals to this base because he has just enough of that to keep going—and his most famous causes are essentially ones of non-intervention.

Everyone I talk to agrees that the government should not criminalize marijuana consumption. Most see the use of biodiesel as a positive development. Jeremy Gete, 41, is tickled by Willie's biofuel company, BioWillie, as long as it doesn't lead to further government regulation of the oil industry.

And where these fans differ with Willie on gay rights—some just shrug and say, "I'm not gay, and I don't know many gay people, but it's not for me to judge"—all the while looking at me askance.

Bill Malone, professor emeritus at Tulane University and the author of Don't Get Above Your Raising: Country Music and the Southern Working Class, tells me that artists like Nelson and Haggard pick and choose the issues that they concentrate on.

"Everyone loves farmers and convicts—issues surrounding them are pretty safe. You can admire the live and let live attitude found in outlaw country music, but where is the bold advocacy of gay rights, women's rights, workers' rights, minority rights, immigrant rights, and so on?"

Looking and listening around Circuit of the Americas, I agree with Malone, albeit reluctantly. These songs, and these folks, are celebrating the idea of America in which everyone can do exactly as they want, with zero government or other interference.

Hubb and other scholars who use the term "hillbilly humanism" will see a sort of non-judgmental positivity and celebration of blue collar culture in songs like Musgraves' "Biscuits."

To me, "Biscuits" is an original libertarian anthem. "Just hoe your own row and raise your own babies, smoke your own smoke and grow your own daisies, mend your own fences and own your own crazy," Musgraves commands us from the stage.

And for those of us who need a little help, from a neighbor or from the state? We should go back to our own damn trailers.

Merle Haggard gives us a good dose of his medicine—between his hits, like "Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star," and his tribute to Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," halfway through the set—we get the portrait of tough but vulnerable masculinity and acceptance of fate we've been waiting for— but the crowd only wakes up when Willie wanders onto stage, during "The Bottle Lets Me Down."

Merle's stiffened lips barely move. But Willie genuinely looks delighted at the applause, and springs into his guitar with the pluck and the smile of a much younger man. Everyone is up recording the shit out of this on their cell phones—tall beers in hand.

And then, somehow, between the long wait for the fireworks to go off and Eric Church's interminably long set (complete with muscular and time consuming power riffs by guitarist Driver Williams), things fall apart. We're still waiting for the Messiah to deliver us to end-of-Fourth of July bliss, but our attention wanders. Someone spills beer all over my camera bag. The folks in the row behind me literally fall asleep—leaning gently into each other on plastic seats.

I head toward the lawn to find out more about why Willie Nelson is worth waiting 13 hours in the July heat, but meet diminishing returns when audience members drunkenly tell me that they love Willie because "he's the best," or because "he's country," or because he's "my musical hero."

When Willie finally gets on stage, at 12:23 AM on July 5, he does so in his most predictable way, plunging into "Whiskey River," the song he has started with in his sets for over 40 years. The crowd has opportunities to sing along in "Beer for My Horses" and "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time," but is either too intoxicated or too exhausted to do more than a half-hearted job. The band catches up as he plunges on through a set that seems driven through pure muscle memory.

Around 1:15 AM, an official asks Willie and Family to wrap it up. Willie responds by bringing the day's remaining performers on stage for a heartfelt cover of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and "I'll Fly Away," ending with the 2012 marijuana tune "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," as he reminds us that there are "only a few more Willie days left" before beaming his giant grin toward each and every one of us.

Pushing the sound curfew to the last minute is a mild form of outlaw hijinks, but this man still captures American dreams of fierce independence and matter-of-fact, come-as-you-are exuberance.

Willie has reminded us that his brand of outlaw country is limited by time, but the festival's younger artists will carry its spirit forward. Judging from the shouts of "Yeah Willie!" and "Thank you, Willie!" I hear from the hardcore fans who remain, Willie's supporters continue to connect with—and crave—music that promotes non-judgmental community and streaks of fierce independence.

Willie is luminous on stage, his boyish smile somehow making him look smaller as he says goodbye, shrinking into the ethers of the late night. I peer out one more time and he's gone. Scattered beer cans and paper—discarded red, white and blues—remain to remind us that an idol has been here, and that we've all gotten through America's birthday together, one way or another.