Willie Nelson brings his Picnic Home to Austin

photo:  Gary Miller
by:  Kevin Curtin

On Saturday, Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic returns to Austin for the first time in five years with the strongest lineup in double that time. Like its 82-year-old host, the enduring Independence Day concert may have its wildest years behind it, but it’s managed to remain relevant beyond any reasonable expectations.

Willie’s 2015 picnic basket packs a lineup sensibly combining the elders, the upstarts, the commercially viable, and a plethora of Nelson spawn. Veteran twangers at Circuit of the Americas include Nelson, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Leon Russell, and David Allen Coe, who’ll likely repaint his Confederate Flag guitar in light of recent political developments (just kiddin’). Budding outlaws on the bill include Kacey Musgraves, Jamey Johnson, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and the concert’s big ticket mover, Eric Church.

“It’s like an ol’ family reunion,” says Billy Joe Shaver, who’s missing more fingers than he’s missed picnics. “They’re all pretty much like kinfolks. If they ain’t there, we say, ‘Ah well, he must be dead.'”

Shaver remembers the event that inspired the picnic, 1972’s Dripping Springs Reunion.

“I played that. It was pretty strange, too. I got bit by a brown recluse spider and I thought I was Jesus Christ, so I started baptizing people in a mud pit. Finally somebody convinced me I wasn’t, so I quit healing people. I had a great time though,” laughs Shaver. “It seemed like there were more entertainers there than there was people.”

Willie, who retreated to Austin from Nashville in 1972, launched the Picnic the following summer in Dripping Springs, unwittingly creating outlaw country’s Woodstock equivalent and spurring a Texas tradition. Early Picnics drew a notoriously eclectic (naked and on drugs) audience and often made headlines with bizarre incidents. The 1974 outing in College Station had the famous parking lot fire that torched 12 cars – one of them belonging to a young Robert Earl Keen. Two years later, the Picnic drew 80,000 unruly fans to Gonzales. Local news reported 147 arrests and one drowning death.

“It was a raucous affair. They tore down the fence and nobody paid to get in,” remembers Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, a Picnic fixture since year two. “But they got to see George Jones because of Willie.”

The Picnic’s been a casual obligation to Nelson for over 42 years. A dozen Julys have come and gone with no festival. When it does happen, the event’s malleable: sometimes big, sometimes small, sometimes a weekend long, sometimes a single day. He’s utilized property far and wide, holding picnics at Southpark Meadows, Carl’s Corner, Luckenbach, and the Backyard at Bee Cave, where it made its last Central Texas appearance in 2010.

“Willie called it a picnic because it was a gathering of musicians,” says Tim O’Connor, who booked many of Nelson’s midsummer outings. “It was a way to celebrate the Fourth of July and the freedom to do what we wanted to do. You have to respect what Willie’s done. He’s a generous and genuine man. He never one time thought about the money.”

“I really didn’t like the Ft. Worth thing. It was a big ol’ piece of pavement, just a big parking lot,” says Benson. “I liked being there because I got see everybody, but the physical location wasn’t half as nice as it’ll be out at the racetrack.”

Music’s the real draw at the 2015 picnic. While Willie still personally invites his friends to play, he’s not the one emailing Kacey Musgrave’s manager to negotiate performance contracts. The heavy lifting’s been taken on by C3/Live Nation, who exclusively book the COTA amphitheatre. Nonetheless, Benson sees the lineup’s younger bloodline as a modern representation of what was happening at the onset of the progressive country and outlaw movement.

“It’s really the antithesis of the of the Top 40 bro-country bullshit,” he says. “I think it was the same going on back then. We were all going, ‘Yeah, we’d love to be on the radio, but we’re not going to do it your way. If you want to play us, do it.’ That’s happening now with a different radio landscape. I think Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Kacey Musgraves are the new example of that.

“I call them sons of Willie Nelson.”

Leave a Reply