A soldier the size of an oak tree stands in the Texas heat, sipping from a red plastic cup of warming beer. He tells me his name is David. His intimidatingly huge tattoo of a shrieking bald eagle and waving American flag on his equally massive bicep suggests David leans conservative. But he's reluctant to admit this to me. The reason may be that I'm one of the few black faces at a country show in the rural exurbs of Austin. David assumes we'll disagree, politically. After he enjoys another swallow of beer, David seeks common ground. He happily confides this is the first time he's ever seen Willie Nelson perform live. He and his girlfriend have driven across Texas to see this show.
We're at the Circuit of the Americas racetrack. It hosts Formula One races, and just like Texas it's a big open space. Under the high sun and thin clouds, a hot, hollow wind whips across the track. Throughout the early afternoon, the music emanating from multiple stages gets caught and garbled by sudden gusts of air. If you've never been down in Austin in July, it's hotter than the Devil's balls. The heat forces people to huddle together in small spots of shade. Any direction you look, strangers share the cool.
Thousands of fans––both brand new and diehard––traveled here, like David, for Willie Nelson's annual Fourth of July picnic. There are American flags everywhere. You spot flags on the sweating cans of domestic beers. They decorate T-shirts that stretch across the bellies of fans, they unfurl and sag under the heft of a breast suspended by a tank top and nothing else; as a bandana, a flag holds back the hair of a blonde boy. The unmistakable skunk smell of pot wafts through the crowd, lacing the event with a hippie vibe. Meanwhile, families gather on picnic blankets on the grass. Baby-boomer grandparents huddle with grandkids in the stands of seats. They clap along together to an opening act. It's proof that as much as things change, some things stay the same. Budweiser wets the smiles of sun-baked fans whose shoulders are already the color of cooked lobsters. But they don't care about the sun. Not today. They're eager to see the outlaw country legend take the stage.
Behind a food truck, on her break, a young black woman smokes a cigarette. We nod and smile like two travelers lost in a strange land. Her name is Crystal Banks. Twenty-five years old, she's come from Daytona to work this event to raise money for her non-profit group back in Atlanta, Georgia–Soul Kids. She travels all over America selling food at concerts. Her face is proud. You sense what she does matters to her. When I ask her about the show, Crystal admits she's not super excited to see Willie perform. But she likes that he smokes pot. She credits Willie as a leading advocate for legalization. Like him, she's dedicated to social justice. Crystal mentions her active involvement in #BlackLivesMatter. It excites her about our future: the idea everyone can come together and change. Like a missionary for his music, I attempt to explain why Crystal may really enjoy Willie's songs. She listens, says she'll check out his show.
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