The history of Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnics, by Dave Thomas


John C. Livis, American-Statesman

Thanks again to Picnic-ologist Dave Thomas, of the Austin American Statesman, as he offers up his history of Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Concerts, at
http://www.austin360.com/music/the-almost-definitive-chronology-of-willies-fourth-of-778850.html?viewAsSinglePage=true

And there are dozens of rare photos of picnics past at:
http://galleries.austin360.com/gallery/willies-picnics-through-years/#96996

1972

PICNIC? No, the Dripping Springs Reunion was held March 17-19.

WHAT HAPPENED:The Dripping Springs Reunion was, essentially, the Picnic prototype. Roy Acuff, for one, was excited about the idea, proclaiming it could “turn the entire country music industry completely around” and had more “potential as a lasting event” than the Newport Jazz Festival (which is still going strong). The Reunion attracted 25,000 fans over three days, but promoters had planned for as many as 75,000 a day. Despite later reports, it was not a Willie Nelson-organized event – a press release and early newspaper stories didn’t even mention that he was part of the lineup.

LINEUP: Included Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe, Hank Snow and Tex Ritter.

QUOTE: “The first reunion was a success in every way but financially,” bragged one promoter to the American-Statesman. That, apparently, was enough. Despite brave talk, Dripping Springs Reunion II didn’t happen. 

1973

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 in Dripping Springs.

WHAT HAPPENED: Willie was unfazed that the Dripping Springs Reunion had lost money. He wanted his own outdoor festival and, as March had already passed by, settled on the Fourth of July. He returned to the Dripping Springs ranch that had hosted the Reunion, this time bringing 40,000 hippies, rednecks and the rest of the Willie crowd. The Picnic lost money, but launched a Texas tradition.

LINEUP: Included Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Doug Sahm and Tom T. Hall.

QUOTE: Journalist Jan Reid paints a broad picture of the Picnic in his book “The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock,” but Billy Porterfield said it shorter in a 20-year look back in the Statesman: “It was miserable and it was great, one of the glorious heathen stomps between the Americas of J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy and Ronald Reagan. Many had come the evening before and spent the night passing stories and hits around campfires.”

1974

PICNIC? Yes, July 4-6 in College Station.

WHAT HAPPENED: For three days, fans baked in the shadeless infield of the Texas World Speedway just south of College Station. Promoters said they would sell tickets for only 50,000 a day, but news reports from the first two days say crowds were about half that. The Picnic was a hit its second year, but may be best remembered for the fire in the parking lot that claimed about a dozen cars, including one belonging to a young Robert Earl Keen (as well as one belonging to an Abilene man who later sued for $3,594 in damages).

LINEUP: Included Jimmy Buffett, Townes Van Zandt and Kinky Friedman.

QUOTE: In a Texas Monthly article later that year, William Martin described in detail the legions of hippies (“picking one’s way through a crowd of 25,000 people, sitting or lying next to one another like stricken pilgrims at the Ganges, is a delicate maneuver at best”), gratuitous nudity (“As they jiggled and swayed bare-breasted through several long numbers, the plight of the fifth girl became apparent and poignant. Less abundantly blessed than her sisters … she could not disrobe without revealing less than she cared to”), ever-present drugs (“By late afternoon the combination of sun, alcohol and drugs had taken a terrible toll … hundreds slumped around in a red-eyed stupor as if the life had gone out of them”) and, occasionally, some excellent music (“Waylon Jennings got a good reception with his hard-driving music about men that represent poor marital risks”).

 1975

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 in Liberty Hill.

WHAT HAPPENED:The small town in Williamson County was not prepared for a wave of more than 70,000 picnic fans, and neither were the promoters. A dire lack of portable toilets led to desecrations of the “shrubs and front yards” of residents and traffic jams, and an inability to quickly clean up the trash afterward created even more tension. Though some residents spoke positively of the Picnic, others complained of “moral pollution.” One man, quoted in the Statesman, put it bluntly: “They used the river naked; they polluted everywhere they went and I’m bitter against it.” Willie, for his trouble, was charged with violating the Texas Mass Gatherings Act and later fined $1,000.

LINEUP: Included Johnny Bush, Rita Coolidge and the Pointer Sisters.

QUOTE: “If we had arrested all the naked and drunk people I saw, we’d have filled our jail and yours and all of the jails from here to Dallas,” a Williamson County deputy sheriff told the Statesman shortly after the picnic.

 1976

PICNIC? Yes, July 3-5 in Gonzales.

WHAT HAPPENED: Willie, not letting the lingering disputes from the Liberty Hill fiasco get to him, planned another three-day Picnic. This one, July 2-4, would be held on the Sterling Kelley ranch about 7 miles east of Gonzales. That wasn’t far enough away for many of Gonzales’ residents. A group that non-ironically named itself CLOD – Citizens for Law, Order and Decency – quickly formed and by late May the county had denied a three-day permit and Willie had called off the Picnic. But a month before July 4, Willie changed his mind. By mid-June the county optimistically agreed to a one-day show and by late June, Willie said he was going to have a three-day show anyway, now starting on the afternoon of July 3.

Reports wavered between expected crowds of 100,000 and 200,000 but attendance only reached “more than 80,000″ (still the largest Picnic). Early arrivals found the site to be perilously short on water outlets and bathroom facilities and the concert ended when a downpour on the morning of July 5 shorted out the PA system – before Waylon or Willie had performed their shows. In between, one person drowned and injuries ranged from stabbings to snake bites. More than 140 were arrested – four for kidnapping – and at least three rapes were reported. Willie would later be sued by two injured picnickers, the owner of the ambulance service and the owner of the ranch.

The Gonzales County authorities were concerned enough about drugs to pick their battles: “If an officer sees someone smoking a marijuana cigarette, he won’t arrest him,” deputy sheriff Don Kincaid told the Statesman before the picnic. “But if someone is making a sale or has heroin, he or she will be taken in.”

LINEUP: Included George Jones and B.W. Stevenson.

QUOTE: “To allow this invasion is to invite the anti-American, anti-Christian, hippie sub-culture right into our homes,” the Rev. Jimmy Darnell wrote in a handbill distributed to Gonzales residents, as quoted in the Statesman.

 1977

PICNIC? Sorta. Willie played a July 3 Picnic in Tulsa, Okla.

WHAT HAPPENED: After the Gonzales debacle, Willie took the Picnic idea on the road, playing at the Tulsa Fairgrounds Speedway, drawing a crowd quoted by the Oklahoman as “far above the 40,000-50,000 expected to attend.”

We can’t confirm where Willie was on the Fourth, but one former Austin club owner, Roger Collins, recalls that Willie played the newly opened Austin Opry House, but that it was not billed as any sort of picnic.

LINEUP: The July 3 gig included Lynyrd Skynrd and Jerry Jeff Walker.

QUOTE: “Man, I’ve had it. The sun is a lot hotter than the music,” said one Texan quoted by the Oklahoman newspaper.

 1978

PICNIC? Sorta. Willie played concerts at the Austin Opry House on July 4 and 5, billing both shows as Picnics. He also played a July 2 show at Texxas Jam in Dallas and a July 1 show in Kansas City, Mo.

WHAT HAPPENED: The traditional Picnic was still cooling its heels when Willie suggested having one at the Opry House to manager Tim O’Connor, and it proved to be a welcome respite from the heat and lawsuits. A few days earlier in Dallas, 25,000 didn’t quite pack the Cotton Bowl … and Willie admitted it just wasn’t the same: “It’s too controlled,” he told the Washington Post. “I liked it better when it was out in the pasture.”

The July 1 event in Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City was billed as a “Fourth of July Picnic,” but is notable because the short lineup included the Grateful Dead.

QUOTE: “We didn’t have an outdoor location, and it was at a time when we had to kind of stay out of Texas. … It was two nights and it was the coolest Picnic we ever had,” said Tim O’Connor of the indoor mini-Picnics in a 1987 interview with the Statesman.

 1979

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 at Willie’s newly purchased Pedernales Country Club.

WHAT HAPPENED: The traditional Picnic returned, and so did the old fears – at least one neighboring couple filed suit in late June to have the event canceled. But the fears proved to be unfounded. No more than 25,000 showed up (some estimates pegged the crowd at 15,000), emergency services included helicopter flights to Brackenridge and the facilities were at last adequate for the crowds: “We’ve bought $40,000 worth of port-o-can (toilets) for it,” road manager David Anderson told the Statesman. “Willie’s an entertainer, he’s not in the port-o-can business.” Things went so smoothly that, by the end of the evening, many of Willie’s new Briarcliff neighbors were new fans and Willie was talking about making the golf course a permanent site for the Picnic.

LINEUP: Included Ernest Tubb and Johnny Paycheck.

QUOTE: “There are police in the emergency room at Brack. If you’ve got anything you want to leave here … ” a nurse in the emergency tent told Picnic casualties about to be airlifted to the hospital, as quoted in the Statesman.

 1980

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 at Willie’s Pedernales Country Club.

WHAT HAPPENED: As early as May, Willie had been saying this Picnic would be his last one, but playing the same site for a second year seemed to agree with the Picnic, with a July 15 headline in the Statesman reading: “Willie’s last Picnic made money.” The Picnic even had its own judge, who set up court a few miles from the site to allow people charged with Class C misdemeanor offense to pay fines and avoid going to jail. The Picnic drew about 60,000 fans and made about that much in profit. The heat and the traffic posed problems, but the crowd was as well-behaved as possible. Some have claimed this Picnic brought in 100,000 people, but news reports at the time don’t support that.

LINEUP: Included Ray Price and Faron Young.

QUOTE: “Come over here and fight me, both of you. I want you two to kill me and put me out of my pain,” said one hungover man early in the morning after the Picnic, according to a Statesman article. Another man searched the trashed grounds for unopened beers: “This is the fourth beer I’ve found so far this morning. It’s like hunting Easter eggs.”

 1981

PICNIC? No.

WHAT HAPPENED: Willie spent July 4 at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas as part of a two-week stand. One news report says he did throw a small, private shindig for some VIP fans. With no Willie Picnic, Mickey Gilley figured he would hold his own 3-day picnic at Gilley’s Club in Pasadena. But, despite the “Urban Cowboy” connection, it was a bust, attracting 1,000 people at most.

QUOTE: “Gilley postponed the opening act when only 10 people had arrived by 11 a.m. Friday,” an Associated Press story said on July 6.

1982

PICNIC? No.

WHAT HAPPENED: We have no idea where Willie was on July 4 or what he was doing.

1983

PICNIC? Sorta. Willie played July 4 at Atlanta International Raceway, July 3 at Giants Stadium in New Jersey and July 2 at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.

WHAT HAPPENED: Two years without a Picnic apparently gave Willie the itch to ease back into it with a few all-day stadium shows. The Associated Press duly noted that the show in Syracuse would mark the first time beer would be sold in the Carrier Dome since a Kenny Rogers concert in 1982. About 25,000 showed up.

The show in East Rutherford, N.J. attracted nearly twice that, though dueling reports said temperatures reached 96, 103 and 115 degrees on the field

And in Hampton, just outside Atlanta, up to 30,000 saw a show that mixed David Allan Coe with the Stray Cats and Linda Ronstadt.

QUOTE: “I’ll tell you how much we love Waylon. We love Waylon so much we’d give him all the beer in our cooler,” a fellow named Mac told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

 1984

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 at Southpark Meadows.

WHAT HAPPENED:The taming of the Picnic had begun, with only 27 arrests reported among the 18,000 in attendance (30,000 had been expected). News reports didn’t mention drugs, and nudity was apparently no longer the style. The Picnic now featured “legions” of security confiscating flasks, coolers, sandwiches and pocket knives. One Fort Worth picnicker was not impressed: “You can’t do this, you can’t do that – Jesus, what kind of a deal is this?” The Statesman story noted he was drinking a cup of beer that cost $1.75.

LINEUP: Included Johnny Rodriguez, Moe Bandy and Joe Ely.

QUOTE: “I just kept wondering when they were going to go really crazy,” Mark Cook, a paramedic at the medical tents, told the Statesman.

 1985

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 at Southpark Meadows.

WHAT HAPPENED: Drive into South Austin today and pull into the Southpark Meadows shopping complex off Interstate 35. Park on the south side of Jason’s Deli, facing west, and look toward the parking lot in front of the Hobby Lobby. If you had been here in 1985, you would have gazing up at the Highwaymen: Willie, Waylon, Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. You also would have been very wet. Heavy rains made the concert venue a mud pit, closed the parking lot (cars had to park along I-35) and limited attendance to about 12,000 picnickers. It might have been the coolest Picnic – and not just because Cash made his first appearance: The high temperature in Austin hit 79 degrees.

LINEUP: Included Neil Young, Hank Snow and June Carter Cash.

QUOTE: “We’re not arresting people for being drunk. We’re arresting them for obnoxious behavior,” a sheriff’s spokesman told the Statesman. The number of arrests? Fewer than a dozen.

 1986

PICNIC? Yes. Sorta. July 4 at Manor Downs was Farm Aid II.

WHAT HAPPENED: After the success of the first Farm Aid, Willie made plans the next year to hold it at Memorial Stadium on the University of Texas campus, but organizers could not secure liability insurance for the stadium. (There was also a significant concern on the part of some would-be picnickers about the prohibition of beer consumption at the stadium.) The concert was moved in late June to Southpark Meadows and – after more insurance wrangling – a week later to the Manor Downs racetrack. Despite all that, Farm Aid II drew a crowd of 40,000, though only $1.3 million dollars were raised for family farmers.

More than 80 performers played over the course of 18 hours (starting at 7 a.m.), ranging from a song each for some of the local artists to a scheduled 21 minutes for Willie at the end of the show. Celebrities on hand included Don Johnson (at the height of his “Miami Vice” fame) and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

LINEUP: Included the Beach Boys, Jon Bon Jovi, Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

QUOTE: “It sure as hell wasn’t Woodstock, with people smoking dope and women running around naked. We had grandmas and kids and moms and dads out here,” Constable Mike Simpson told the Statesman.

 1987

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 at Carl’s Corner, just north of Hillsboro.

WHAT HAPPENED: Willie intended to give the Picnic an old-school feel by taking it to a pasture outside Carl Cornelius’ truckstop and inviting people to bring in food, small coolers, sodas and umbrellas. The figuring was that up to 80,000 could come up from Austin and down from Fort Worth and Dallas, but it didn’t happen that way. A crowd of about 8,000 braved the heat and had a fine time, but the Picnic lost a lot of money.

LINEUP: Included Bruce Hornsby and the Range, Jackie King and Roger Miller.

QUOTE: “The one big problem we’ve had today has been when some kid picked up a field mouse and it bit her,” Dr. Red Duke, medical coordinator, told the Statesman.

 1988

PICNIC? No.

WHAT HAPPENED: We have no idea where Willie was on July 4. During at least a portion of July, he was filming the movie “Where the Hell’s That Gold?” Which, considering that it was a made-for-TV western starring Delta Burke, seems hardly worth passing up a Picnic.

 1989

PICNIC? No.

WHAT HAPPENED: We have no idea where Willie was on July 4. However, on July 1, he did play the Paha Sapa Music Festival in Rapid City, S.D. Billed as a “clean and sober Woodstock,” the festival featured an impressive lineup including Jackson Browne, Neil Young, John Denver and Austin’s Timbuk 3, but drew a crowd of fewer than 5,000.


by Larry Kolvoord, American-Statesman

 1990

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 in Zilker Park.

WHAT HAPPENED:The Highwaymen returned for a family-friendly picnic in the heart of Austin that drew a good-natured crowd of about 12,000 to 15,000. Advance ticket prices were a modest $7 and there was plenty of shade and free water to offset temperatures that hit 101 degrees.

LINEUP: Included Shelby Lynne and Little Joe y la Familia.

QUOTE: “(This is) the best party in the U.S. … These are good, gentle people, and there are a lot of families here,” Thom Steinbeck (son of author John Steinbeck) told the Statesman, proving that 1990 was a long way from 1976.

 1991

PICNIC? No.

WHAT HAPPENED: After the IRS implosion, Willie had to make some money – and the Picnic couldn’t even be counted on to break even. Willie spent the week of July 4 playing sold-out shows at the uppity Paul Masson Mountain Winery in Saratoga, Calif.

1992

PICNIC? No.

WHAT HAPPENED: Willie took a step even further back from the Picnic, when he opened a nightclub in Branson, Mo. on July 4. Branson? Yes. And the venue was called “Willie and Poohbah’s Restaurant and Songwriter’s Showcase.” The venue didn’t last long, and neither did Willie’s stay in Branson.

 1993

PICNIC? Sorta. July 4 at the Backyard in Bee Cave.

WHAT HAPPENED: After a few years off, Willie eased back into the saddle with a mini-Picnic to celebrate the opening of Tim O’Connor’s new venue. Originally billed as a “Geezinslaws Fourth of July Picnic,” sanity ultimately prevailed and it was made clear that Willie would be closing the show. About 3,000 attended.

 1994

PICNIC? No.

WHAT HAPPENED: We have no idea where Willie was on July 4 or what he was doing.

 1995

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 in Luckenbach.

WHAT HAPPENED:In a truly inspired turn, the picnic found the perfect venue (lack of nearby accommodations and conservative Gillespie County law enforcement notwithstanding) and brought in new crowds of college kids eager to try their hand at a Texas tradition. The 11-acre town was packed with 13,000 picnickers (for once, a bigger crowd than expected), many jammed into the area in front of the stage, the rest taking refuge in the nicely shaded vendor area across the creek.

LINEUP: Included Robert Earl Keen and T. Bingo.

QUOTE: “Did you see that?” Keen told the San Angelo Standard-Times immediately after leaving the stage. His newly revved-up version of “The Road Goes on Forever” had sent the front half of the crowd into a frenzy, tossing beer cans into the air to the point that the scene resembled a giant popcorn popper.

 1996

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 in Luckenbach.

WHAT HAPPENED: Waylon happened. At the tail end of one of the hottest Picnics in the last dozen years, Waylon Jennings finally showed up on stage. He wasn’t in the best shape and he only did a handful of songs, but – after what seemed to be a fair amount of negotiating with Willie – Waylon did perform “Luckenbach, Texas” in his one and only trip to the tiny town, and it was a magical moment.

A drought that year had turned the picnic site into a dustbowl and the heat was fierce. But 12,000 showed up anyway and drank enough water that by 5 p.m., concessionaires had run out. They didn’t slack on the beer either … by one count, more than 55,000 beers were sold.

LINEUP: Included 8 1/2 Souvenirs and the Supersuckers.

QUOTE: “Hell, I don’t know, can’t count ‘em all on my fingers, ‘cause I ain’t got but six fingers,” Billy Joe Shaver told the Standard-Times, when asked how many Picnics he had played.

 1997

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 in Luckenbach.

WHAT HAPPENED: Another crowd of about 10,000 for another year in Luckenbach. Nothing beats experience and know-how, it seemed, when it came to smooth-running Picnics. The only real problem? Merle Haggard has a heart attack days before and can’t make the show. The highlight of the afternoon comes when Dwight Yoakam drops in on Joe Ely’s set for a pair of Buddy Holly tunes.

 1998

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 in Luckenbach.

WHAT HAPPENED: Emmylou Harris brought the Picnic boys’ club a bit of beauty and a light rain provided relief from the heat. Not to say that the Picnic is getting on in years, but when Asleep at the Wheel got going in their early set, a couple of old guys in the crowd were seen thrusting their canes in the air. The fourth Picnic in Luckenbach draws about 12,000 mellow picnickers.

LINEUP: Included the Derek O’Brien Blues Band and Toni Price.

QUOTE: “It’s about the same, nothing out of the ordinary,” Gillespie County Chief Deputy Sheriff Mel Gideon told the Statesman, showing that after four in a row, even local law enforcement isn’t worked up about the Picnic.

 1999

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 in Luckenbach.

WHAT HAPPENED: The picnic got off to a sobering start at 10 a.m. Literally. It was Sunday morning and beer sales were prohibited until noon. Once again, attendance topped 10,000 and the weather was uncharacteristically cool. On his bus, Willie talked about Luckenbach as a permanent spot for the picnic and nobody disagreed.

LINEUP: Included Larry Gatlin and Pat Green.

 2000

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 at Southpark Meadows.

WHAT HAPPENED:The picnic had been prepared to make the move to the brand new Stone Mountain Center west of Dripping Springs, when a new law regarding mass gatherings and county permits became known. (Previously a permit was not required unless the event ran more than 12 hours – which is why after 12 hours the plug was pulled in Luckenbach without fail, no matter how little Willie had played. Now the cutoff was 5 hours.) The deadline had passed to get a proper permit, so the Picnic returned to Southpark Meadows (which was already zoned for such events). After 5 years in Luckenbach, Southpark Meadows didn’t seem to have a lot of soul, but the easy parking and nearby accommodations couldn’t be beat. More than 11,000 attended.

LINEUP: Included Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Mark David Manders.

 2001

PICNIC? No.

WHAT HAPPENED:The Picnic was set to make its return to Luckenbach, but by mid-May Willie had enough of the problems surrounding the required permits and other hoops to be jumped through. The Picnic was off. A Shreveport Times interview with Willie later that summer revealed Willie spent the holiday playing golf, swimming, visiting with friends and relatives and watching fireworks. “I’ve never been off on the Fourth, ever in my life,” he said.

QUOTE: “We’re really bummed. But we’ve been here (153 years), and we’ll still be here when Willie decides to throw another one,” Luckenbach mayor VelAnne Howle told the Statesman.

 2002

PICNIC? No.

WHAT HAPPENED: The Picnic made its last effort to return to Luckenbach and a permit was granted in early April, but the conditions that Gillespie County insisted on weren’t tolerable to Willie. By early May, he had made the decision to call off the Picnic again.

Pat Green tried to step in and fill the void with a July 4 show at Waterloo Park in Austin. Research hasn’t revealed how Willie spent the Fourth.

2003

PICNIC? Yes, July 4-5 at Two River Canyon Amphitheater near Spicewood.

WHAT HAPPENED: The picnic made one final effort to really bring back the old days: a two-day event on a ranch-made-venue out in the country with camping, reasonable concessions and as much big-name talent as they could pack in.

The Two River Canyon Amphitheater was born with dreams of it being Texas’ answer to Red Rocks, and promoters referred to their two-day Picnic as “Hillstock.” But the Picnic was a victim of its own success: an hourslong traffic jam backed up Texas 71 for miles on the Fourth, with many concertgoers headed toward the show at the same time to catch the Dead (no longer Grateful, after Jerry Garcia’s demise).

Unlike the 1970s, however, most people weren’t going to abandon their cars by the side of the road and hoof it to the venue. One would-be picnicker would later write the Statesman, trying to find out how to get her money back after waiting “over an hour to move a quarter-mile.”

The music was a hit and the event was typical Willie – with the host singing alongside Toby Keith one moment, and bringing politician Dennis Kucinich onstage the next.

About 22,000 attended July 4, and about 17,000 came out on July 5. Traffic the second day was easy, the weather cooperated both days and there were few injuries or arrests to speak of … but the damage was done. Two River Canyon Amphitheater had shown it had fantastic potential, but it was done in by one big traffic jam. Sadly, it would never host another event.

LINEUP: Included Patty Griffin and Billy Bob Thornton.

QUOTE: “A woman called and said Willie told her that her band could play. This was less than two weeks before the Fourth. But I called Willie and he confirmed it, so she’s on the bill. That’s the Picnic for you,” Tim O’Connor told the Statesman, revealing the go-with-the-flow mentality of putting on the Picnic.

2004

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 in Fort Worth.

WHAT HAPPENED: As the Picnic entered its golden years, it evolved in yet another remarkable way. The Fort Worth Stockyards, specifically the North Forty behind Billy Bob’s, provided an outdoor venue, surrounded by hotels, city transportation and large air-conditioned buildings. The in-and-out policy offered flexibility unimaginable to picnic veterans of the ‘70s. Don’t want to eat a giant turkey leg? Go to a nearby steakhouse. Feeling a little overheated? Cool off in a nearby bar. Don’t have a designated driver? Flag down a taxi outside the gates.

The bad news? The novelty of a Fort Worth Picnic drew a crowd of more than 20,000 – more than was comfortable. As the afternoon wore on and people poured in, early arrivals would find they were boxed in, with no routes to port-a-potties or beer stands other than stepping over and sometimes on fellow picnickers. Tempers flared, fueled by the heat and not eased at all by the comedy sets of Larry the Cable Guy or Ron White. Later in the evening, Kris Kristofferson’s more liberal-minded songs drew grumblings from many in the crowd.

A large stable of corporate sponsors didn’t feel right, but the Picnic made the most of their money, installing two stages to erase the time the audience spent waiting for sets to be stripped down and gear to be set up. The show stayed on schedule, the music flowed easily and sweet air conditioning wasn’t far away.

LINEUP: Included Cross Canadian Ragweed and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.

QUOTE: “It was naked hippies last year. This is drunk rednecks,” a picnicker told the Dallas Morning News, spelling out the difference between Spicewood and Fort Worth.

 2005

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 in Fort Worth.

WHAT HAPPENED: The Stockyards – kind of a Sixth Street for rednecks – proved comfortable enough to bring back the Picnic for a second year. This time 18,000 were on hand, but 2,000 fewer people made a big difference in being able to navigate the North Forty. Bob Dylan was the big draw, playing a long set for a divided crowd: Half hung on every word, half were respectfully waiting for a song they recognized. That moment came when Dylan launched into “Like a Rolling Stone” and the floodlights came on, illuminating not the crowd but the dust that hung in the air, giving everything a ghostly sheen.

The new millennium had erased all vestiges of the “Outlaw” era: By 7:30 p.m. one Fort Worth police officer said there hadn’t been a single arrest. “We haven’t even escorted anyone out.”

LINEUP: Included the Doobie Brothers and Pauline Reese.

 2006

PICNIC? Yes, July 4 in Fort Worth.

WHAT HAPPENED: A Tuesday Picnic drew fewer than 12,000, with no Bob Dylan to draw in the curious. But that just made everything a lot more comfortable for those who showed up. There was a Nelson, a Haggard and a Jennings on the bill, but they were Paula Nelson, Noel Haggard and Shooter Jennings. Waylon’s son, making his Picnic debut a decade after his father’s final Picnic appearance, stole the show in the mid-afternoon. Another Outlaw offspring, Lucas Hubbard, son of Ray Wylie, stole the show right back that evening, playing blistering guitar for his dad. Yes, the Picnic has reached that age.

The day began with a stifling combination of heat and humidity, but an intense rain shower (that shut down both stages for at least half an hour) cleared that up, only to leave the North Forty a muddy mess.

LINEUP: Included the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Folk Uke.

QUOTE: “I don’t know. It’s still fun,” Willie Nelson, when asked by the Statesman how long he intended to keep hosting the Fourth of July Picnic.

 2007

PICNIC? Sorta. July 4 at the Gorge Amphitheater in Washington.

WHAT HAPPENED: You can blame David Letterman for this. An agreement to play his Montana ranch on July 3 apparently led to this pseudo-Picnic. If Willie had hoped to escape the Texas heat, it didn’t quite work out. Temperatures brushed 100 degrees for the half-day show that featured Son Volt and the Old 97s instead of longtime Picnic cohorts such as Leon Russell and Johnny Bush.

LINEUP: Included the Drive-By Truckers and 40 Points.

2008

PICNIC? Yes. July 4 at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Selma and July 5 at the Sam Houston Race Park in Houston.

WHAT HAPPENED: Nearly nothing of note at the dying amphitheater in Selma, where a small rain shower soaked a smaller afternoon crowd and David Allan Coe, dressed in black, performed against a backdrop of black. You couldn’t swing an overpriced T-shirt without hitting a vendor hawking overpriced beers. Ray Wylie Hubbard had the best set, even escaping without playing “Redneck Mother.” Houston also had early-afternoon rains, but a more spirited atmosphere, even though Merle Haggard continued a Picnic tradition of calling in sick. Attendance figures weren’t available for either show.

LINEUP: Included Los Lonely Boys and Del Castillo, but, mysteriously, no Leon Russell.

QUOTE: “I’m going to do a song I did so many years ago I don’t tell anyone when I did it,” Ray Price, 82, joking with the San Antonio crowd.

 2009

PICNIC? Not really. July 4 at South Bend, Indiana.

WHAT HAPPENED: Bob Dylan, Willie and John Mellencamp went on a tour of minor league baseball parks in July and August of 2009. With July 4 falling on a Saturday, a stop at Coveleski Stadium was promoted as a “Fourth of July Picnic” and Willie took Dylan’s closing spot for the night. Reviews were favorable and a crowd of 8,500 packed the park, but it was a Picnic in promotion only.

2010

PICNIC? Yes. July 4 at the Backyard in Bee Cave.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN:  The Picnic will be back in the hands of Tim O’Connor at the new Backyard. The veteran Picnic performers will all be there for a more traditional show. The venue only holds 7,500, though. Will the Picnic be packed? Will it be reinvigorated? Or is this a benediction for a Texas tradition?


By Stanley Farrar, American-Statesman

19 Responses to “The history of Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnics, by Dave Thomas”

  1. The history of Willie Nelson?s 4th of July Picnics, by Dave Thomas…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  2. cherie says:

    :) Love the history Lesson!!!!

  3. Judy says:

    Cool, thanks for a trip down picnic lane………

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  8. Hogitall says:

    I believe that there actually WAS a 1983 Picnic. I have a postcard from it. I did not attend. It’s the one where Willie’s dressed as Uncle Sam and he’s pointing and it reads…” I want YOU for Willie’s 4th of July picnic” on the poster done by Danny Garrett. I would provide a picture but I don’t think I can attach it here.
    Anyway..Good job on the website!

  9. Hogitall says:

    I believe that there actually WAS a 1983 picnic. I have a postcard from it though I did not attend. The poster was done by Danny Garrett and it’s Willie dressed as Uncle Sam and it reads..” I want YOU for Willie’s 4th of July Picnic.”

    Anyway..great job on the website!

    Hogitall
    Austin, Texas

  10. Cassie says:

    You forgot to mention “48 Hours in Atoka, OK” one of the early picnics…..I was there. I think it was in the 70s.

  11. Pam T says:

    I’m not able to locate any information on Willie’s 4th of July Picnic held in Atoka, OK in the early 70’s. I was there as were some friends of mine and we’d like to see any information possible. I know it happened…as surely as I remember the guy who was so stoned he had to crawl…and the 50 cent rolls of toilet paper…, ticks, etc.

  12. Pam T says:

    Yes! Cassie was there, too! Yes Cassie, it was the early 70’s. Traffic backed up on the l.o.n.g. dirt road……it wasn’t pretty, but at that age, we still had a blast….from what I can remember. You had to walk up a hill to get to toilets and outdoor water spout shower. Remember? I do remember passing out on a blanket (also on a huge slanted grade of earth) and into the night waking up to hear Goodnight Irene…then I passed out again…Could not do this today!

  13. Anonymous says:

    RED Was there in 1972, at the 4th of July Picnic, billed as 48 Hours in Atoka!
    Heat, dirt, dust, mud and a long walk down the trail to water at Atoka Lake!Hell of a time! Great music and greater memories! PARTY!!!!!!!!

  14. RED says:

    RED Was there in 1972, at the 4th of July Picnic, billed as 48 Hours in Atoka!
    Heat, dirt, dust, mud and a long walk down the trail to water at Atoka Lake!Hell of a time! Great music and greater memories! PARTY!!!!!!!!

  15. Tonya says:

    1975 was not a 4th of July Picnic…it was on Labor Day Weekend. I was there too at 16 years old.

  16. longone says:

    I was at 48 hrs. in Atoka too. I split a bottle of wine with Jerry Lee Lewis behind the old DX at the 4 way

  17. Isabel Stensland ne Rath says:

    I did a poster for Willie Nelson for the 1976 picnic. It was called “The Last Picnic” and had a picture of the room of the last supper with Willie in the middle of the table and all the people billed around him at the table. Paula Nelson hired me to do it and Willie Nelson first paid me with a hot check but then paid me in cash. They called me tell me that the check was no good.

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