Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic

Willie Nelson performs a song at the 1983 Willie Nelson July 4th Picnic.Ric Feld, Associated Press

by: Vince Hoffard

Rain, snow and even air filled with microscopic virus particles can lead to the cancellation of outdoor music events. So can tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes, though far less frequently. The one element Mother Nature cannot threaten concert promoters with is heat.

Through the years, I’ve watched local performers and major stars melt as they battled through shows to meet contract obligations. The Southern Illinois sun can quickly bake everyone on stage, but it’s nothing compared to a blistering Texas heat wave.

In 1980, the hottest day of the year in Austin was a sweltering temperature of 105.1 on June 27, the second day of an eight-day stretch that had triple-digit heat everyday. It had been 102 on each of the first three days of July, scorching the earth at the Pedernales Country Club, located in nearby Spicewood.

In a vast vacant field next to the links, crews were putting the final touches on staging for a country music Woodstock happening the next day. The upcoming spectacle was Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic, also known as “The National Event of Texas.”

The lineup included Charlie Daniels, Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb, Ray Price, Faron Young, Asleep at the Wheel and many other nationally known artists. There was a definite Texas Hill Country flavor with Lone Star legends “Fiddlin’” Frenchie Burke and the Geezinslaw Brothers in the mix.

Back then, I was a 22-year-old sports reporter and country-music-lover. My passion developed as a youngster. I was mesmerized as a kid when my dad took me to the Williamson Country Fairgrounds in Marion to see Marty Robbins.

My young ears were flooded with the music of Hank Williams, George Jones and Haggard. Although he has been gone 41 years, I can still hear my father singing the opening “Put the bottle on the table” line to the Jones classic “Just One More.”

I was on the Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker bandwagon early as the outlaw movement emerged in country music during the late 1970s. Listening to “The Outlaw Hours” on WKYQ in Paducah on Friday and Saturday nights was a don’t-miss ritual.

Nelson’s annual event was the Super Bowl of outlaw country music, but attending seemed like an impossible dream. Texas was 850 miles away. However, when Nelson announced the eighth picnic in 1980 would be his last, I had to make the journey.

“It takes a lot of time,” Nelson said of his plan to discontinue the festival. “It takes six months to put together and it takes another six months to get over it.”

Joining me for the incredible trip were Larry Peterson and Billy Sands, who grew up good friends in Carbondale.

Peterson moved to Goreville and would be an assistant coach for Rich Herrin at SIU as the Salukis made a historic run through the Missouri Valley Conference. He also assisted Gary Barton in putting together the women’s basketball dynasty at John A. Logan College. He worked his way up to vice president at JALC and served as president of Shawnee Community College.

Sadly, Sands died in a car wreck shortly after our excursion.

With Texas in the grip of a historic heat wave, it was like driving into an oven. There was a traffic jam on the gravel road leading to the concert site. Hundreds of cars lined the road the night before the show. All night there were fireworks. Groups of people “keeping hydrated” would congregate every 100 feet or so. Trying to sleep in the car was futile.

Gates were supposed to open at 8 a.m., but they let people in early. It was a mad dash for the half mile to the stage, a difficult chore carrying a very large cooler. Finding a spot near the front of the 10-foot-high stage, we hunkered down for 18 hours of pure joy.

There would eventually be 60,000 fans at the venue. Some reported the crowd at 100,000. It was a crazy mix of true music fans, drunks and exhibitionists. Yes, clothing was optional.

Music was supposed to start at noon. Nelson walked on stage at 10 a.m. to survey the situation. Someone in the crowd threw him a beer. He cracked it open and took a long swig. Then, someone flipped him a joint and he took a long toke. Two hours early, he unexpectedly picked up his guitar and started playing solo. Band members Jody Payne, Mickey Raphael, Paul English, Bee Spears and sister Bobbi Nelson scrambled to joined him over the next 30 minutes.

There were countless memorable moments during the day. Icon Ernest Tubb singing “Walking the Floor Over You,” Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel bellowing out “Miles and Miles of Texas” in this setting was extraordinary, and Faron Young stopping in the middle of his performance, taking out his wallet and tossing all of his money to the crowd, was different.

A white hot-air balloon was filled at dusk, the fire inside illuminating “Honeysuckle Rose” painted in red, a major motion picture that debuted a day earlier starring Dyan Cannon, Slim Pickens and Nelson. Pickens and Cannon both performed at the picnic.

At midnight, Nelson brought on stage the local sheriff, who waived a local ordinance restricting live music after 12 a.m., and the concert raged for two more hours.

The next morning, there were hundreds of stranded attendees, who got left behind as their rides abandoned them, trying to hitchhike home. The clean-up crew made a massive 10-foot by 10-foot pyramid of surviving unopened cans of beer.

“This is the fourth beer I’ve found so far this morning,” said one straggler. “It’s like hunting Easter eggs.”

Well, Nelson was wrong about 1980 being the last picnic. The event still thrives and viewers this year will not have to battle the heat. Luck Productions will allow you to take in the show from your couch or favorite easy chair.

The COVID-19 virus has turned the 47th annual picnic into a virtual online presentation, complete with a 90-minute documentary film telling the history of the event, followed by several hours of livestream music. Shakey Graves, Asleep at the Wheel and Charley Crockett will play complete sets. A grand finale features live and taped performance by Margo Price, Robert Earl Keen, Sheryl Crow, Ray Wylie Hubbard and many more.

Tickets went on sale Monday. Advance tickets are $35 and prices increase to $45 the day of the show. For more information, visit www.williepicnic.com.

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