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It's a Family Affair

Willie Nelson brings along his pals for his annual musical picnic

If they ever carved a Mount Rushmore of legendary Texas musicians, he'd certainly be on it.

Hell, if they ever made one for Texas legends period, his craggy features would protrude from the equally craggy rock. Because if any enduring public figure has proudly carried the banner of the Lone Star State through and through, it's Willie Nelson.

Plus, nobody throws a party like him.

When the first Willie Nelson Picnic was held on July 4, 1973, it was on a ranch in Dripping Springs, where access was limited to three traffic-clogged dirt roads. The temperature in the open field hit 102 degrees, nobody sold any beer, and restrooms were scarce. Bare breasts and marijuana smoke hung in the air.

The face of the mostly annual gathering, of course, has changed over the years: You won't catch this year's concertgoers at the upcoming "picnic" in The Woodlands stripping or smoking (unless it's cigars). But they will be watching a support lineup that includes Dwight Yoakam, Deana Carter, Asleep at the Wheel, Jerry Jeff Walker, Leon Russell, David Allan Coe and a side stage of regional acts.

The Red-Headed Stranger himself has seen a career boost this year with the release of Teatro. Produced by Daniel Lanois (best known for his work with U2 and on Bob Dylan's recent Grammy-winning Time out of Mind), it features Nelson songs both new and older than most of his fans. A spare, atmospheric, Latin-flavored sound buoys his guitar-picking and singing, as do the background vocals of Emmylou Harris. A combination of longtime Nelson bandmates and alt-rockers back him, most notably on instrumental arrangements that would shock the fan yelling for "Whiskey River," "Bloody Mary Morning" or even "Always on My Mind."

Willie Hugh Nelson was born on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas. He took an early interest in music and was schooled on both country radio and local church music. He was performing on honky-tonk stages by his teens, and after an unremarkable stint in the Air Force took a series of odd jobs to support a growing family. His '50s travels even brought him to Houston, where he worked briefly as a DJ for KCRT radio (now KIKK) and honed his songwriting skills on stage at the Esquire Club.

Soon after, Nelson moved to Nashville, where he began hanging out and performing in backroom guitar pull sessions at a honky-tonk called Tootsie's. Not so coincidentally — since it was right across the street from the Grand Ole Opry — Tootsie's was usually crammed with the songwriters, music biz people, genuine stars and desperate wannabes he needed to meet.

It was during this time in the '60s that Nelson become known mostly as a songwriter, penning hits for Patsy Cline ("Crazy"), Ray Price ("Night Life") and Faron Young ("Hello Walls"). However, despite a string of records under his own name, he could not break through as a performer. His voice and style were just not standard Nashville. Desolate, he got drunk one night and lay in the middle of a Music City street, hoping for some vehicle to run him over.

Luckily, it must have been a slow traffic night.

Nelson moved back home to Texas and never left. This time he settled in Austin, where he began to notice something very strange: During shows at the fabled Armadillo World Headquarters, Nelson found himself playing to a mixture of redneck country boys and long-haired hippie college kids. He began adding more rock influences, grew his hair and beard, got an earring and became the de facto leader of a new breed of similarly minded musicians, including Waylon Jennings. Dubbed "The Outlaws," these rebels mixed easily in both the rock and country worlds and were just as quick to take a toke of weed as a shot of liquor.

Subsequent records such as Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages raised his profile, but 1975's concept album, Red Headed Stranger, which included his first No. 1 hit, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," propelled him to stardom. Suddenly this weirdo with the nasally voice and long braids was the new king of country, but he proved just as unconventional as always. To the chagrin of those who thought he'd taken the lyrics of "Crazy" to heart, he released a collection of Tin Pan Alley pop classics he had loved as a child on 1978's Stardust. The naysayers were convinced it would ruin his hard-fought career — only psychics might have seen it would spend more than a decade on the charts and become his biggest-selling album ever.

Willie Nelson became a real international superstar and multimedia presence all through the next two decades in film (Songwriter, Barbarosa), in a series of high-profile duets with artists such as Julio Iglesias, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard, and, of course, in a flood of records and never-ending concert dates. This was all immortalized in the fact-or-fiction film Honeysuckle Rose, which yielded his signature song, "On the Road Again." At the height of his success, Nelson also paid tribute to the past, recording entire albums with older artists. He also took part in the supergroup the Highwaymen with buddies Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. And then there was organizing this little annual shindig called Farm Aid...

Sometimes the true-life stories of Nelson were even more entertaining than the songs, the divorces or the booze-and-drug-fueled nights. (Though Nelson has mostly sworn off the sauce, he is one of the most visible pot advocates in the world.) His most famous battle came with the IRS over back taxes, but Nelson defused that by arranging a unique deal to pay off Uncle Sam bit by bit (which meant he'd funnel all the proceeds from a special mail-order record, "Who'll Buy My Memories," to Washington). In 1999 the senior citizen still has a road schedule that would tax his grandkids. And while his record output has been spotty, he has managed to produce such critical successes as Across the Borderline and Spirit.

Today Willie Nelson is a genuine icon: a smiling, beatific figure as comfortable on the links in the morning as on the stage at night, and seemingly still amazed at his good fortune. During his most recent show in Houston, a marathon offering to the faithful at the Arena Theatre, he managed to look practically every audience member in the eye, wave and wear the endless succession of hats thrown up on stage. Afterward, he signed autographs in the parking lot long after the video crew filming him had left.

Hanging over everything, even beyond the man and his music, is that unmistakable and uncategorizable thing known as the Essence of Willie (which is not a perfume that smells like sweaty bandannas). No matter if you're a head-banger or a shit-kicker, an old coot or a young buck, Willie is cool. How else can you explain his inclusion in the lineup of this year's Woodstock '99 alongside the likes of Alanis Morrissette, Korn, Metallica, DMX and the Chemical Brothers?

So in a summer of clan gatherings with bad potato salad and obnoxious uncles you'd rather avoid altogether, this is one "family" reunion that's worth the T-shirt. Even if it gets a little sweaty.

Willie Nelson's Family Picnic is Saturday, August 1, at the Woodlands Pavilion. Music starts at 1 p.m. Tickets are $35 for reserved seats, $25 for lawn. Call (713) 629-3700 or (281) 363-3300.

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