NOTE: This blog was published on statesman.com in October 2017. I did eat the bugs. When my coworkers ignored this story and failed to promote it on the homepage, I didn't forgive them.
I ate this bug for journalism. At the State Fair, you can eat one, too.
Dawn of the Picnic: 40 years ago Eddie Wilson got Willie off to a steady start
NOTE: This story was published in the Austin American-Statesman in 2013.
NOTE: This story was published in the Austin American-Statesman in 2005
Transcend place, time at 2005 Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic
By Dave Thomas
FORT WORTH — More than 18,000 people broiled under the July 4 sun on Monday, waiting patiently at the Stockyards for that small moment of transcendence that makes Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic worth all the money, heat and trouble.
And if folks hadn’t found their moment when Willie hit those familiar chords and sang, “Whiskey river take my mind,” well then, they had spent a long time in the wrong place.
Bob Dylan took the stage at 9:30 p.m. and for 45 minutes, the 18,000 were spellbound. Well, half of them were spellbound. The other half were just trying to figure out what on Earth he was saying. Then he launched into “Like a Rolling Stone” and the floodlights came on at just the right spot, cutting through the floating dust to give the whole crowd a ghostly appearance. There’s your transcendence.
For some it came as early as 2 p.m. when Pauline Reese sang her song about “Mama Locke and her yellow wine” — the mother of Poodie Locke (who is Willie’s road manager and owns Poodie’s Hilltop Bar & Grill) and her fondness for tequila. And look, up there on the Jumbotron, there’s Mama Locke.
For others it came when Willie joined Johnny Bush on stage for “I Gotta Get Drunk.” It was after 3 p.m. and the picnic was picking up steam. Spontaneous dancing broke out throughout the sun-baked crowd.
Much of the younger crowd found their transcendence when Cross Canadian Ragweed kicked it into gear a little after 5 p.m. Others were there for David Allan Coe.
For the most part, the crowd was in just the right place. The usual mix of hippies (young and old), cowboys, yuppies, college kids and oddballs — they were out in force. By sundown the crowd had accumulated all the characters you’d associate with a Texas outdoor fest: the dude high-fiving random people, the girl in the Texas flag bikini who looks like she doesn’t know where she is, the woman dancing to a whole other tune, the big, shirtless guy whose sunburn is only matched by his eyeballs.
“Whoooooooo! (Expletive) and beer!” That’s what a young Dustin Hughes told me when I asked why he was at the picnic. I’d been watching him for awhile and by the time I interviewed him, he’d lost his hat and was down to one beer at a time.
Still, the Hillsboro resident, who’s been hitting the picnics since 1997, was just having fun. Some things about the picnic haven’t changed. Leon Russell still performed “Jumping Jack Flash.” Bob Cole was still emcee for a good bit of the show. It was still hot — though the breeze helped out a lot.
Joe Wascomb of Huguley Memorial Medical Center said there had been no ambulance calls (as opposed to six last year) and about 100 cases of heat exhaustion. “We’ve been really lucky, ” he said. “And folks have been a lot smarter this year about drinking water.”
Sgt. Billy Samuel of the Fort Worth Police Department said at 7:30 p.m. that the crowd had been impeccable. “Zero arrests, ” he said. “We haven’t even escorted anybody out.”
It wasn’t an outlaw picnic. Not by a far sight. It was a picnic of happy tourists, pretty much summed up by Kelli Greenleen, a young picnicker from New Braunfels: “I’m a big Willie Nelson fan and I wanted to see him before he got too old to play.
“I wasn’t sure who a lot of the other artists were, so it was pretty cool to see them, too.”