NOTE: This story was published in the Austin American-Statesman in 2013.
Dawn of the Picnic: 40 years ago Eddie Wilson got Willie off to a steady start
By Dave Thomas
When Ron McKeown took the photo of Leon Russell and Willie Nelson opening Nelson’s inaugural Picnic at sunrise on July 4, 1973, few would have guessed that the pair and the Picnic would be carrying on four decades later.
Shot from behind (and featuring a now-incognito clean-shaven Nelson in a snap-brim cap), you can see the sparseness of the crowd. Only several hundred are there as things get underway. But already they are trickling in from the hills.
There is no camping allowed, no beer for sale, no creature comforts to be had, and still they come. They come though the site is rural and remote, many walking miles in the relentless sun — unnecessarily, thanks to a chain of parking misjudgments.
By the end of the day, 40,000 (a DPS estimate, though other counts vary wildly) will have ventured into the wilderness to see Nelson, Russell, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Sammi Smith, John Prine, Tom T. Hall and more.
How did this happen? In mid-June 1973, the first Willie Nelson Fourth Of July Picnic wavered between two futures: It could become an iconic event for the next 40 years, a national phenomenon for the next decade and the jet fuel for Nelson’s rise to Lone Star royalty. Or it could become Dripping Springs Reunion Part 2 — a musical masterpiece barely remembered for the masses who didn’t come and the tickets not sold.
At the right moment, in stepped Eddie Wilson. The fellow who today is keeping the Austin flame burning as owner of the Threadgill's restaurants was in 1973 cultivating that flame as owner of the Armadillo World Headquarters.
THE LURE OF LEON
If you’ve ever framed a Jim Franklin poster or picked up an antique beer sign, Eddie Wilson’s house might be where you go when you die. It’s a modest place near his original Threadgill’s restaurant, but packed with treasures.
At a table near his kitchen, Wilson recounts some of his Picnic stories even though (just a few years removed from a lung cancer scare) he is aching and sore from breaking up a dog fight. His mane of white hair suggests he knew better than to literally dive in, but such an approach seems to be old habit.
In 1973, it wasn’t more than a few months before July 4 when Nelson committed to the idea that was born of the Dripping Springs Reunion, held a year earlier at the Bert Hurlbut ranch just west of Dripping Springs. And it wasn’t more than a few weeks before July 4 when Wilson realized that the Picnic was going nowhere. He feared his new friend was in for a big loss.
“We were riding together, coming toward Doug Sahm’s place up on Bee Cave Road,” Wilson recalled. “And I told him I was really worried and he said, ‘Do anything you can to help.’ So we jumped in.”
Wilson’s first move was to put San Antonio’s Woody Roberts — a “a legendary radio genius” — in charge of promotion, a move that upset some of Nelson’s friends (some of ’em the sort you wouldn’t want to upset). But Wilson knew those guys “just didn’t have any of the particular kind of moxie needed to sell that particular kind of show.”
Part of that moxie was focusing the advertising on the show’s big star: Leon Russell.
If your grasp of rock ’n’ roll history isn’t that firm and your first-hand knowledge of the Picnic only extends back a couple decades, you might be surprised to learn that the man with the big white beard and not much to say is not only the William Clark to Nelson’s Meriwether Lewis, insofar as Picnic pioneering is concerned, but in the early 1970s he was one of the biggest rock stars in the world and a huge concert attraction.
“He was a rock ’n’ roll FM radio draw,” Wilson said of Russell. The man was sellable to the festival crowd, whereas “an AM country-western show … wasn’t going to sell any tickets.” With radio advertising in Central Texas selling the rock ’n’ roll aspect of the festival, “the word from Austin spread back to the places that caused people to come streaming in.”
Historical data says the high hit 91 in Dripping Springs on July 4, 1973, but first-hand accounts describe the heat in terms varying from over 100 to just shy of hell. The crowd had neither seats nor shade, they perched on rocks in the sun like so many musically inclined horny toads. The performers had no such trouble, but it was a close call.
“The stage was a big, beautiful, well-built structure,” Wilson said. “It had walls and a roof. Nothing flimsy about it. And we got a call a couple days before the show that the roof had blown off.”
Wilson and friends suspected sabotage: “We looked for tracks … we were just flabbergasted. But we didn’t have time to get too deep into forensics.”
Chances are you won’t hear another anecdote with the line “I called Lloyd Fortenberry of Uranus Urethanes,” but that’s what Wilson did after a sudden inspiration.
“I like to think that all of us have at least three or four really great moments in life,” he said, “and I had one of mine in the middle of that particular stress.”
He had recently used some polyurethane spray foam at the Armadillo to seal some basement rooms and was impressed with it. At the Picnic site, with a little framing and canvas, a new roof was made — more or less instantly — with spray foam and raised into place.
The genius came with a price: “The only downside was that it was such a magical piece of insulation that the shade underneath it was remarkably cooler,” Wilson said. “So there was a whole lot of elbowings going on with somebody trying to get someone’s famous old lady out of the sun and into the shade.”
The next mysterious crisis would come the day of the show. “Right at dusk, all of the sudden the electricity goes off,” Wilson said. He believes someone shot the transformer on the pole that was bringing power into the area. “I’d been told by somebody who claimed to be at the site when the redneck shot it with a big deer rifle,” he said.
Fortunately, Wilson had hired Showco Sound out of Dallas, which came prepared with generators and self-sufficient technology “even back in the stick-rubbing days.”
Showco was able to hook up their equipment and the show went on. “Everything went dark and quiet for a little while,” Wilson said. And just about the time things were progressing from sweaty palms to heart attacks, the power was back. “If it hadn’t been for Showco, if it had been just an ordinary little local sound company, it could of just been a horrible disaster.”
CHAOS AND RECOLLECTION
Wilson remembers it beginning with a car with a flat tire pulling over on the shoulder and everyone just pulling over and parking behind the car in front of them. In his report in the Statesman a few days after the show, Townsend Miller said it started with people parking outside the gate the night before.
Either way, one of the most notable legends of the first Picnic —a mass migration of rednecks and hippies walking miles in the sun, stubbornly lugging coolers of beer over dusty county roads — is made slightly less epic by the knowledge that there was an extravagance of parking onsite.
When their march ended, it seems Picnic-goers didn’t have much interest in finding the gate and buying $6 tickets. Many just charged in, knocking down a fence and streaming through the mesquite.
“Some of Willie’s hardcore guys were running around with fistful of hundreds and twenties, trying to collect from anybody who was coming through and they stormed the gate,” Wilson said. “It was somewhere between the ‘Red Badge of Courage’ and Gettysburg … it was not pretty.”
Still, there’s a ring of truth to Travis D. Stimeling’s statement (in his book “Cosmic Cowboys and New Hicks”) that “the difficulty of the trip imbued the Picnic with a degree of importance that a painless commute could not.” And it’s certainly true that even hardships can be recalled fondly, given enough time and a soft spot from which to consider them.
It’s obvious for all the pain and suffering he incurred by jumping into the middle of the inaugural Picnic, Wilson never lost sight of why he did it.
“I had a lot of problem with the lack of comfort that I was able to provide at the Armadillo until we had worked on it for several years,” he said. Here he didn’t have the chance to offer any comfort. “Everybody was just sitting on a sharp piece of caliche in terrible … sun. (There’s) very little to be proud of except the size of the crowd and the quality of the (music) on the stage.
“It was pulled off pretty well.”
Just don’t think for a second that Wilson ever thought about an encore.
“I didn’t go outside on the Fourth of July again for 20 years.”
1973 Fourth of July Picnic
Where: Hurlbut Ranch, west of Dripping Springs.
Attendance: 40,000 (though reports vary from 20,000 fewer to 10,000 more).
Performers: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Leon Russell, Kris Kristofferson, Charlie Rich, Billy Joe Shaver, Sammi Smith, John Prine, Tom T. Hall, Kenneth Threadgill, Rita Coolidge, Steve Fromholz and more.
Best rumor: Bob Dylan drew some fans without ever being connected to the show. He would make his Picnic debut in 2005.
Best trivia: Willie Nelson’s drummer, Paul English, got married onstage during the Picnic. Waylon Jennings was chosen to be best man.