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Preview: The Picnic's first era

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Photo by Ron McKeown


"This is a voice from the time when the outlaws rode.”

Lee Clayton is telling a story about the night before the inaugural Picnic. He was at Willie’s house, not far from the Hurlbut Ranch. “In the living room was Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Coach [Darrell] Royal, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, and myself,” the musician said. “It was in the evening and we’re playing songs and stuff like that. And around midnight, Jerry Jeff Walker came through the door.”

Jerry Jeff, Clayton said, was wearing a T-shirt and a short bathing suit, complemented by a cowboy hat and boots, and he was carrying a quart-sized plastic mug of beer. “He says, ‘I want to play a song I’m gonna record.’” Jerry Jeff put down his beer, picked up a guitar, and played the Guy Clark song “Desperados Waiting for a Train”—which he did record the next month in Luckenbach for his landmark Viva Terlingua! album.

“That’s the first time that me or anybody else in that room had ever heard that song,” Lee said. “Every hair in that room stood straight up. And I’ve seen and heard many performances of that song . . . but that was maybe the best that I ever heard because he was a desperado waiting for a train at that moment. We all were.”

It was now the Fourth of July. The Picnic was under way.


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Woody Roberts

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Joe Nick Patoski

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Eddie Wilson

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Bill Bentley

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Photo by Ed Malcik / Austin American-Statesman


It was about time for the citizens of Gonzales County to go to work on Monday morning when the rain came down. But at the Picnic site, Willie Nelson and his fans had been partying all night—Willie had just sat in with Leon and Mary Russell. The 1976 Picnic had officially been going strong for twenty-four hours, though for some the party had started Saturday, or even Friday.

Or, in the case of promoter Geno McCoslin, the party wasn’t measured in hours or days but in alcohol- and drug-fueled manias that could go on for weeks before he melted down. An enormous number of people had joined Willie and Geno in the impossibly tiny community of Little New York, Texas, about eight miles east of Gonzales, descending en masse despite a pretty remarkable community effort to reject the Fourth of July Picnic.

The weekend was its own alcohol- and drug-fueled mania, an orgy of nudity and drunkenness and drug consumption that the people of Gonzales County had scarcely been able to imagine—at least not until many of them stopped by the Kelley Ranch to witness it happen.

Now the skies had opened up. The canvas roof over the stage had collapsed. The sound system was fried, and Leon’s piano was soaked. The freshly bulldozed ground in front of the stage turned to mud, and the mud mixed with effluent from the few overflowing Porta Potties. The picnickers packed up and fled toward Interstate 10, stopping only to clean out area restaurants and food stores like a swarm of locusts.

Given the religious fervor of those who opposed the Picnic, there’s no doubt some saw a higher power at work—a cleansing flood to wash away the wicked. Mike Benestante, who worked for promoter Dahr Jamail and did much of the advance work in Gonzales, doesn’t disagree. “It’s divine intervention that ended the concert,” he said forty-four years later. “That’s what it was.”

The kidnapping, though . . . that probably wasn’t part of the spiritual script. “Walking back to the trailer, I felt a gun in my back,” Mike said. “I turned around and it was Geno. ‘You’re coming with me kid.’” 


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Mike Benestante

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Melinda Wickman

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Ray Wylie Hubbard

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Laurie Kelley Taylor

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Photo by Stanley Farrar / Austin American-Statesman


On July 3, 1980, twenty-seven Lincolns, Cadillacs, and chartered buses pulled up to Austin’s Capital Plaza Cinema. A parade of movie stars, film and music industry VIPs, and press from across the country emerged for the world premiere of Willie Nelson’s first starring role, in Honeysuckle Rose.

Dyan Cannon and Slim Pickens were there, as were director Jerry Schatzberg and producer Sydney Pollack. Even eleven-year-old Joey Floyd, who portrayed Willie’s son in the movie, greeted the enthusiastic crowd.

The Austin American-Statesman reported that Willie was in high spirits after the screening. “I was fantastic,” he said. “Well, I was okay.”

It wasn’t all praise. A writer from the New York Times condescendingly presumed that Austin’s first movie premiere would also be its last and noted that nearly everyone “looked like an extra from ‘Urban Cowboy.’” (The NYT writer wasn’t just condescending; he was wrong: Austin’s first movie premiere was the 1966 Batman film.)

Pollack was optimistic about his film and his star. He was overheard telling a fan that Willie would soon be in high demand for leading roles—a movie star up there with Robert Redford. That would prove to be a little hasty, though it would have been hard to judge from Honeysuckle Rose. Willie was essentially playing himself on-screen, and the line wasn’t always clear, to the point where Willie and costar Amy Irving’s on-screen affair played out in real life for several years.

But there was no denying Willie was a superstar. His 1978 album Stardust was still a multiplatinum nationwide sensation. He was in the tabloids. He had his own country club and golf course. The man had his own jeans: A women’s wear firm in Dallas had quickly sold half a million Willie Nelson jeans with “Willie” embroidered on a back pocket.

That night, thirty miles west of the premiere, workers were on the roads leading to Willie’s country club in Briarcliff. Along FM 2322 and State Highway 71, they were installing two-foot-square white cardboard signs with large, bright lettering:


FRIDAY, JULY 4, 1980


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Roger Collins

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Connie Nelson

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Delbert McClinton

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Ray Benson

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