Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic (1986)

Wagner’s Time Off
The Leisure magazine for Professional Painters
Summer 1986
Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic
by David Standish

Picture this:  It’s the Fourth of July and deep in the heart of Texas a crowd of 15,000 has braved the sweltering heat to attend a picnic.  But then this is a picnic with star power — Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic, a weekend-long festival featuring the biggest names on the country music charts.  It’s a laid-back affair:  People come bearing coolers, spread their blankets, pop open a frosty, and stomp their feet all day to country tunes.  It’s probably the most American thing to do on this most American of days.

There’s a rumor that this year’s picnic will be titled Farm Aid II, and that the money raised will be distributed to needy farmers (much as it was after the original Farm Aid).  Whatever larger meaning it takes on, however, the event will still be, first and foremost, a picnic presenting no less than 36 hours of traditional and progressive country music.  Past programs have included Kris Kristofferson, Jimmy Buffet, Asleep at the Wheel, Merle Haggard, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jerry Jeff Walker, Leon Russell, Michael Murphey, Waylon Jennings, and, of course, Willie Nelson.  This year’s lineup, which won’t be announced until just days before the event, is sure to include many of these stars.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Willie for Playboy magazine, and he explained that the picnic got its start in 1972 at the First Annual Dripping Springs Reunion held in Dripping Springs, Texas, on Willie’s birthday.  “Everybody was there,” remembered Nelson.  “Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter, Roger Miller, Merle Haggard.  Over a three-day period there were probably forty or fifty acts.  It was the best country music, the best show, and the best sound that anybody in that area had ever heard.  But for some reason the crowds weren’t large and the promoters lost a lot of money.”

“But it was still a good idea, and the location was a good idea, so I did the same thing the next year — only I did it on the Fourth of July because I knew it would be hot.  I knew we were bringing together a lot of hippies and a lot of rednecks, and I wanted it to be hot… too hot to fight.”

“I also wanted it to be the kind of time where everyone was gonna drink beer… as long as we had the heat there to.. keep down energy levels.  Throw out a blanket on the ground, open up a case of beer, and enjoy the show.  We had Charlie Rich, Kris Kristofferson, Leon Russell, Asleep at the Wheel, us…  It was really a picnic.  That was the atmosphere I wanted to create, that of a picnic with entertainment.

And he’s done it year after year.

The picnic my wife Carol and I went to was hotter than hell and just great.  It took place at a former country club (which Willie owns) few miles outside of Austin.  The site was lovely, with rolling oak-crested hills, and it overlooked Lake Travis, a tranquil section of the much-dammed Colorado River.  It was a setting that dispelled any prejudices about Texas being ugly, dusty, and flat.

A festival-style stage had been built across the top of a hill on the golf course, and the crowd spilled down the hillside, over a fairway and a couple of greens.  It was a big crowd.  Over 15,000 people were packed onto the golf course and, while they were generally friendly, the grounds were torn and trampled at the end of the weekend.  (One reason Willie’s picnics are rarely held at the same site from year to year is the mess they leave behind.  Willie’s country club, where the picnic was held several summers in a row, became off-limits when residents of the area complained.)

The weekend presented a nonstop lineup of country stars, but the best of them were Willie & Family, a band of longtime friends that includes drummer Paul English, bassists Chris Ehtridge and Bee Spears, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, and guitarists Grady Martin and Jody Payne.  The group is occasionally joined by Willie’s sister Bobbie on piano.  They pose as a country-rock group, but they’re really a fine jazz band playing in a country mode, probably the best performing band of it’s kind since Duke Ellington quit the dance hall circuit — like Ellington and the other great ones, their music changes every night.  Willie and Family played a long, pleasing morning set, and then closed the show that evening. It’s worth staying for both sets, if you can stand the three-digit heat.

And it is all day singin’ and picnicking on the ground.  The day gets rolling around 10 a.m.  Musicians play for 30 to 45 minutes, sometimes joining other bands later in the day. Forty or 50 acts are scheduled for the weekend.  Vendors sell beer and soda, as well as hot dogs, chips, and simple sandwiches, but most picnickers bring their own food and drink.  Because its so hot, medics are on hand to dispense  free salt tablets — every year, a number of people pass out from dehydration.  Many others suffer severe sunburn.  But Willie’s theory about the heat does seem to work.  The year I went everybody seemed to get along just fine.

Willie’s picnic was the most fun Carol and I had had in a long time.  But we did come up with a few parting tips to ensure that other first-time picnickers will enjoy Willie’s party, too.

— Take a good sun-shading had and a long-sleeved shirt.  The sun is so strong it’s possible to get sunburned through thin cotton shirts, so bring a heavy one.

— Bring a plastic jug full of ice water.

— Be prepared for no shade.  However cumbersome, toting along a beach umbrella is a good idea.

— Finally, don’t forget the essentials:  a quilt or blanket to stretch out on, and a cooler full of your favorite refreshment.

Basically, it’s like getting ready for a nice long day at the beach — except the music at the beach was never so good.

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