Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic (1979)

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Willie’s Bash
by T. Edward Bell
Texas Girls
December 1979

Prior to Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic, held this year at his recently purchased Pedernales Country Club  west of Austin, members of his stage crew were seen sporting tee-shirts which bore the words “Willie Nelson’s Seventh Annual Injunction Hearing.”

Indeed, in each of the seven years Willie has held the orgy of country music, beer and dope he has had to go to court to fight folks who feel his music and fans are better left in honky-tonks and beer joints.  But, Nelson has won every one of the legal battles, and the show has gone on.

The 1979 bash seemed to prove, however, that Willie has found the winning formula.  This one was pulled off with none of the violence previously associated with the picnics, and the only casualties were the usual assortment of dope and sunstroke cases.  Not a bad feat on the part of Willie’s security crowd considering that osme folks take the picnic as an opportunity to play outlaw.

The fans who came out this year were treated to some of the best music anywhere, including Leon Russell, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Steve Fromaholz, and country music legend Ernest Tubb,  Bobby Bare and Johnny Paycheck also decided to make unannounced appearances. Paycheck especially delighted the Lone Star soaked crowd.


But the music was almost secondary.  This was a bona fide social event.  By the time Willie took the stage for the first time at noon, the crowd was well oiled and ready to get drunk on Lone Star beer and good old Texas jingoism.  As Nelson played, large banners waved amid the sea of humanity, bearing “Secede” and “Free Texas.”  It has become obvious that Willie — not entirely by accident — has set himself up as more than just the state’s favorite mujsic star, but as a sort of renegade to Texans everywhere, ready to lead them to some land of Lone Star and pot, separate from the rest of the nation.

It is not, however, some patriotic ideal which motivates Nelson to hold his picnics, nor is it the immediate profit to be gained — Nelson has lost money on picnics, as his press agent is proud to point out.  It is no secret that Nelson gets large amounts of national publicity from these shows, and his popularity has been on a steady ascent since the first picnic in 1973.  But the faithful fans of Willie Nelson are not concerned.

One fan from Eagle Pass said between snorts of speed, “I been to everyone one of these things.  We just come to get f’d and raise hell.  I wouldn’t care if they had it in Alaska, I’d be there.”

His girl friend chimed in:  ” ‘Cept if they had it there, we wouldn’t be able to get nekkid.”

And indeed they did get nekkid.  Women cruised around the savage Hill Country sun wearing little but glazed eyes and thong sandles as skin burned.

It seemed that the only people complaining throughout the twelve-hour festival were the press, whose press passes got them only a ticket into the fenced-in area in the back and to the side of the stage, without access to food or drink.  Several grumblers in the press area attributed the conditions to the bad write-ups given Willie for his previous picnics.

The revelers up front were not concerned with the plight of the fourth estate, however, and contineud to delight network and local camera crews with shots of themselves toking on joints, sucking down beer, and flashing for the folks back home.

The music itself was almost over-ridden by the atmosphere, but the crowd was willing to divide its attention between the mind-altering business at hand and the business on stage.  When Willie opened with a cordial “Happy Fourth of July!” the crowd rushed the stage, jumping, whooping and sweating throughout the hour-long set.

By mid-afternoon the medical tent was reporting a few casualties.  One medical staffer said as she bent over an unconscious man:  “These people don’t realize they can’t get out here in this heat and mix speed an beer.”  And as helicopters shuttled in assorted press, performers and VIPs, other choppers were taking the wounded to Austin’s Brackenridge Hospital.  They suffered afflictions ranging from a broken leg to insulin shock, but there were no serious injuries.

Residents of the adjacent Briarcliff subdivision had signed a petition and sought an injunction against hold the festival, and could be seen blocking the roads leading to their houses with pickups and shotguns.

On the other hand, merchants and itinerant barbecue salesmen through they had died and gone to the great fleece in the sky.  Concertgoers lined up at the doors of surrounding food stores to stock up on beer, ice and rolling papers.  Judging from the prices on such merchandise, it appeared that the shopkeepers had labored all the previous night to mark up every item in the stores.

By late afternoon most of the row of convenience store along SH71 had sold out of suds and the crowd had either passed out, left, or prepared for the rest of the evening’s music.  Bobby Bare came on and received one of the best welcomes of the day with some of his staples.  the fans went into near hysteria when Bare got around to his classic “Drop Kick Me Jesus.”

But it was Ernest Tubb, who came on prior to Willie’s closing set, who got the fondest welcome.  The ageless Tubb’s presence on the bill was a surprise to many, since the septuagenarian star is hardly associated with Willie’s outlaw faction.  You couldn’t tell it by either his performance or the crowd reaction, though, and Tubb’s set came off as well as any of the day.

Willie came on again with Russell to close the show shortly after eleven.  They played until just pass midnight, as Willie had said they would, so that Willie could catch a plane to open an engagement in Vegas the next day.

With the acquisition of Willie’s country club, the picnic has a permanent home.  Willie’s fans have shown that they will brave heat, rain, bad dope and bikers to spend a day with their outlaw messiah, and with at least a few of the bugs worked out of the formula for putting on a day-long festival, the numbers of the faithful should grow.

One fan outlined the lure of the Willie Nelson mystique when he said, “Shit, I gotta get home so I can start planning for next year!”

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