by: Allie Hinds
Long before Bonaroo, Lollapalooza and Ozz Fest, there was Willie’s Picnic — an outdoor music festival started in a small town in Texas that would be around for decades.
We’ve gone back in time and followed the picnic through the course of its 39 years to what it is today — an all day concert at Billy Bob’s Texas with a fan base that spreads across generations.
The Wild Years
At its start in 1973, the hippie movement was spreading fast and 40-year-old Willie Nelson holds a music festival in a field in Dripping Springs, Texas. Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Tom T. Hall headlined the festival that brought over 40,000 for the inaugural run of what would soon be a Texas tradition.
Sanitation and electricity were hard to come by, fans suffered from heat exhaustion, and understaffed security tried to keep the stage clear of intoxicated listeners. But good music was played and a good time was had (by most).
Nelson threw another picnic in 1974 in the form of a three-day outdoor festival at Texas World Speedway in College Station. Waylon Jennings, Jimmy Buffett, and Jerry Jeff Walker were the leading acts. This was the year Willie’s picnic established itself as an “annual” event.
In 1975, just a few days before Willie’s third annual picnic, the Texas Senate honored Willie by declaring July 4, 1975 as “Willie Nelson Day in Texas.” An estimated 70,000 people made the journey to Liberty Hill (about 45 minutes from Austin). Neither the picnic promoters nor the small Williamson County town was prepared for the wave of fans flocking to the picnic.
Fans solved the problem of the lack of toilets by using people’s front yards and bushes. Picnic goers took over the town. Traffic was impossible throughout the weekend and trash remained for days after the picnic packed up and left. Residents complained of “moral pollution.”
Ironically, the same Texas legislature that had given Willie his own day enacted the Texas Mass Gathering Act in response to the problems of the picnic, in particular the overcrowding. It set a limit on the number of hours an event could last and number of people who could attend without a permit.
In typical Willie style, he kept right on with the picnics and in 1976 had another three-day concert (despite being denied a permit) in Gonzales, Texas. The crowd was estimated to be over 80,000- the largest crowd yet.
The concert was brought to an end the morning of July 5 after a downpour shorted out the PA system. Willie and Waylon hadn’t performed yet. Somewhere between its start and abrupt ending one person drowned, four people were stabbed, over 140 arrested, four for kidnapping, and at least three rapes were reported. Willie was sued by the owner of the ranch, the owner of the ambulance service and two injured fans.
If nothing else had shaken Willie, this was it. After the 1976 picnic he swore them off, vowing this would be his last.
Transforming the Picnic
But in1977, Nelson’s love for the annual events got the best of him. He wanted to have a picnic, just not in Texas. They moved the party to Tulsa, Oklahoma joined by Lynard Skinner and Jerry Jeff Walker. After 1977, he returned to Texas for the remainder of the ’70s picnics.
In May of 1980, Willie announced once again this picnic would be the last. This time he was serious — it was even printed on the tickets.
If it really had been the last one, it would have gone out with a bang. Performers were flown in by helicopter; journalists were brought in by boat and picnic fans sat in traffic for hours. Merle Haggard, Asleep at the Wheel, Ray Price and Johnny Paycheck took the stage at Willie’s newly purchased Pedernales Country Club.
The picnic didn’t stop, but the 80’s did mark transformation.
The picnic of 1984 drew only 18,000 attendees. There were hardly any reports of drugs, and everyone remained fully clothed. By all accounts (for Willie’s Picnic), it was tame. The security of this picnic and all picnics to come was amped up and prepared. By the end of the ’80s, the picnic had transformed from outdoor fields, no rules, and wild fans, to fenced in, supervised, and tame. But in the transformation, the picnic maintained its credibility.
In 1990 Nelson kicked off the new decade with big names and a modest audience. 15,000 fans came to Austin to see Willie, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings. For the rest of the ’90s the picnic would mostly take place in the Hill Country town of Luckenbach, Texas.
In the early years of the new millennium, Willie’s Picnic drifted around various Texas towns. Despite Fort Worth being one of Nelson’s home towns, the closest the picnic had ever come to DFW was about an hour away in Carl’s Corner, Texas.
Bringing it to Fort Worth
So it was a big deal when Nelson announced at a press conference in the Fort Worth Stockyards that he was bringing his picnic home in 2004. The announcement made the front page of the Dallas Morning News and the mayor of Fort Worth gave Nelson a key to the city.
The picnic that year was held at Billy Bob’s Texas. It was outdoors in the North Forty behind Billy Bob’s with the brilliant addition of two stages so audiences didn’t have to wait for the stage to be stripped and set back up between each set.
The 2012 picnic will mark the picnic’s fifth return to the Stockyards.
Though there’s a lineup listed every year and specific times allotted for each performer, the picnic’s format has always been free flowing enough so acts can be free to play together or more than one set if they choose.
Nelson is still involved in deciding the lineup, choosing his old friends, his family and new acts that catch his eye.
Acts like Billy Joe Shaver, Asleep at The Wheel and Johnny Bush have been playing Willie’s Picnics for decades and will play again this year alongside picnic newcomers like Corey Smith, Stoney LaRue and Whiskey Myers.
“It’s great exposure. With all those other people on the bill it opens our music up to people who may have not heard it before.” Cody Cannon, the lead singer for Whiskey Myers said.
“It gives them a chance to be a fan, to learn how to run with the big dogs and to really watch a major machine in action.“ Pam Minick, the Marketing Director of Billy Bob’s said. “It gives them an association with an artist that’s been in the business for over 60 years.”
Minick said many of the new artists will finish their set then go watch the other performers in the crowd like everyone else.
“I’m excited. The thing is legendary.” Cannon said. “My dad went to that when he was younger than me, so it’s cool I get to play it finally. It’s a big deal.”
How does one artist maintain a fan base of nearly three generations?
“He’s ageless,” Minick said. “When you look at Willie, you don’t think 79. He has not let age be a number. There’s a coolness factor about being Willie that transcends generations. Yes, you will see a lot of grey hair here but you’ll also see some young people with their babies in strollers.”
The show’s longevity can be attributed to the one thing about the picnic that has remained constant — Nelson’s unabated passion for his music.
“Some artists like to perform, but when they’re done they’re done. They’re contracted to play 60 minutes and they’ll play that and no more. Sometimes we have to turn the lights off to get Willie off the stage,” Minick said.
Next year will be the picnic’s 40th anniversary. Billy Bob’s is hoping the picnic will return to the Stockyards.
“I think its got the potential to be huge,” Minick said.
It all depends on Nelson.
“He’s smart. He doesn’t take for granted that if you build it they will come. There’s always got to have energy around it and there’s always got to have the right mix of artists even though the picnic is legendary,” Minick said.
Tickets for the Picnic are $35 in advance to $45 at the door. Under 17 must have a parent or guardian to attend. The venue asks attendees to not bring chairs, coolers, umbrellas, or pets.
Billy Bob’s Texas
Fort Worth Stockyards
July 4, 2012