NOTE: This story was published on statesman.com and in the American-Statesman in the days before the 2017 Picnic. It was surprisingly popular.
2017 preview: Advice from a Picnic vet
By Dave Thomas
My name is Dave and I have been to 18 Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnics.
That’s not a record, I’m sure. Somewhere a hippie is absolutely not impressed.
But that’s enough to say that I know things about Willie Picnics. And, rookie Picnickers, I’m going to share them with you.
I admit this isn’t crucial stuff. The Picnic is in its winter years. It no longer offers quite the opportunity for disaster that it once did. In 1976, Gonzales saw 19 sent to the hospital, 20 drug overdoses, 5 snake bites, 15 stabbings, 12 motorcycle accidents, 13 fireworks injuries, 3 reported rapes and one drowning.
Last year, COTA disasters likely ran along the lines of run-up credit cards, wicked headaches, painful sunburns and missing all of Lee Ann Womack’s set because you’re STILL in line for food.
But in the interest of a little more fun and a little less misery, let’s run through it anyway.
“I woke up still not dead again today, The internet said I had passed away”
— Willie Nelson
In 2000, Willie was near the release of his probably-best-not-remembered blues album and spent so much time jamming with Hawaiian guitar legend Willie K, that he threw the whole Picnic schedule into chaos.
The old-timers will tell you it’s the best part of the Picnic. Willie coming out to jam with his friends! It’s awesome!
It’s also not going to happen.
In 2015, Willie came out to single a couple songs with Merle Haggard — the first time he’d come out before his closing set in a decade. The truth is that Willie is an octogenarian. And he’s saving his energy for the finale.
So if your plan is to stay just long enough to see Willie, well, you’re going to be there for awhile. And if you’re not one of those folks, well, about 3 songs into Willie’s set, you’ll see them. Glassy-eyed and sun-burnt, gingerly limping toward the exits on sore feet, all of ‘em with “at least we got to see Willie, now let’s go home” written all over them.
“Hey baby, it’s the Fourth of July”
— Dave Alvin
July. Texas. It is going to be hot.
(There have been seven Fourth of July Picnics of varying degrees of authenticity outside of Texas. Bonus points if you can name them.)
Ask anyone who’s been to a Willie Fourth of July Picnic what their favorite moment of the day was, and they’re going to start narrowing down musical highlights. But that’s revisionist thinking in action. At the time, their favorite moment of the day was absolutely when the sun dipped below the horizon.
Acclimatizing yourself to the heat beforehand is a good idea. A hat is a great idea. Applying sunscreen liberally is a must. Restraining yourself from drinking beer all day long is absolutely critical. (At COTA prices, it’s also good fiscal policy.)
COTA will let you bring in one 20-ounce, factory-sealed bottle of water. Do it. Drink it. Then go to one of the water stations and refill it. Repeat when dry.
My hard-learned rule of thumb is to abstain from alcohol until sunset. But if you’re a drinker and you don’t want to feel like you’re missing out, check your performance schedule, find your two favorite afternoon artists, and make sure you have a beer in hand for their opening song. Follow with water. You’ll have good memories.
Bonus fact: The 1985 Picnic was held at Southpark Meadows, when it was a concert venue instead of a shopping center. It was not only rainy, but relatively cool at about 80 degrees. Maybe we’re due ...
“Old friends, they shine like diamonds / Old friends you can always call”
— Guy Clark
A large part of what makes four decades of Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnics a Texas tradition rather than just a somewhat-annual show is the cadre of old friends who regularly perform.
So many of them are gone now — Ray Price, Leon Russell, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings — that it’s not a point of emphasis these days. Still, two of the remaining regulars should be on your must-see list:
Ray Wylie Hubbard is often pound-for-pound the highlight of the day, even if he’s limited to an early set and a handful of songs. Stand up front for his show. And, unless he throws a curveball this year, go ahead and sing along to “Redneck Mother.” Don’t be embarrassed, you are tapping into 40 years of Picnic tradition.
Johnny Bush is the traditional country heart of the Picnic. There will be twin fiddles and songs such as “There Stands the Glass” and “Undo the Right.” Even if Garth is your idea of old country, see Bush while you can, because when he’s gone, you’ll not see his like again.
Other good information:
If you’re parking in the hinterlands with the non-VIP Picnickers, there will likely be pedicabs available to give you a ride to the gate. But they won’t be there when the show ends at midnight. Expect a long walk/hobble to your car.
If you want to stand in front of the main stage, you needs a “General Admission Pit” ticket and its accompanying wristband.
If you are going to buy food around 5-7 p.m., you are going to miss at least most of a performance. Lines are long and slow.
Not sure about last year, but in 2015, a tallboy of domestic beer was $8.
I’ll be tweeting live from the Picnic again this year. Follow me @williepicnic