NOTE: This story was published in the Austin American-Statesman in 2010 in advance of the Picnic.
Willie to the 10th factor: Comparing Picnics past and present by decade
By Dave Thomas
How old is Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic?
Its senior member, Ray Price, was once roommates with Hank Williams. No, don’t even think "Junior."
Jimmy Buffett played it in 1974, back when anyone calling themselves a "Parrothead" would’ve been taken to the medical tent for closer scrutiny.
When Willie comes out to greet the crowd at the Backyard at noon on Sunday, the Picnic will be 37 years old. In festival years, it could be Bonnaroo’s great-grandfather. Ozzfest calls it "sir."
When the Picnic began, in 1973, "Hagar the Horrible" was a fresh, new comic strip; "Dueling Banjos" was a radio hit; and the New York Knicks were NBA champions.
That’s pretty old, even for a somewhat-but-never-quite-annual festival.
I must disclose that — with a growing collection of memorabilia, hours upon hours of research and personal files labeled by year and site — I am a hopeless Picnic fanatic.
But when faced with such seniority, even a fanatic must submit to the natural tendency (Willie, Family and fans forgive me) and ask, "How much longer can it last?"
Fortunately, all that research offers an answer: Don’t bet against the Picnic.
Don’t believe me? Given that 2010 is such a nice round number, let’s take a look at the past three decades.
30 years ago: I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye
1980: Pedernales Country Club
Ticket prices: $15
Notable performers: Faron Young, Ernest Tubb, Merle Haggard
The 1980 Picnic was definitely going to be the last one.
Sure, Willie had said this before. After the 1976 Picnic ended in chaos, he swore them off, and even as late as 1978, he was telling Country Song Roundup that "I’m enjoying not doing it."
Never mind that when that interview hit the newsstands, Willie was scheduled for shows billed as Picnics in Kansas City (July 1) and Dallas (July 2) and at the Austin Opry House (July 4, 5).
No, in 1980 he meant it. And in 1980, that was big news.
The New York Times sent a reporter who filed a smug report saying that the Hill Country was "one of the few places in Texas that has ever been accused of having natural beauty." And Charles Murphy, like so many other reporters since, could hardly remark on much more than the heat during a quick mention of the Picnic on ABC World News Tonight.
The last one? Absolutely. It was even printed on the ticket.
It must have seemed believable at the time. The night before the Picnic, Willie had the world premiere for his movie "Honeysuckle Rose" right here in Austin, red carpet and all. Journalists and fans were saying Willie didn’t need the Picnic anymore, he was a big star now. He even had his own brand of jeans. Really.
And truth be told, the 1980 Picnic was the last of its breed. Performers were flown in by helicopter, reporters brought in by boat (and picnic-bound fans sat in traffic for hours). Willie sang onstage with Ernest Tubb, Slim Pickens and Dyan Cannon.
There was wild behavior: Police arrested more than 60 people and medics treated more than 300. Fights broke out. A justice of the peace even set up shop a couple miles away. And the crowds ... the Picnic would not see numbers like that again.
But the end lasted only a couple years. In 1983, Willie took a practice run of three picnics on the East Coast on July 2-4. By 1984, he was right back in Central Texas with a show at Southpark Meadows.
The Picnic was now smaller and tamer, but it had outlasted its own demise.
20 years ago: Uncloudy Day
1990: Zilker Park
Ticket prices: $7-$9
Notable performers: The Highwaymen, Little Joe y la Familia
A July 4 concert at Zilker Park three years earlier by the Beach Boys had drawn a crowd of 50,000, and Picnic organizers were expecting up to 35,000, so there must have disappointment somewhere when fewer than 15,000 showed up for country music’s most awesome foursome: Willie, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.
But Statesman reviews of the show don’t reveal any hard feelings, just a sense of relief over the smoothness of an efficiently run, city-embraced, well-behaved Picnic. "The smoothest Picnic ever," Willie told the Statesman. And who could argue with 30 shuttle buses, free drinking water and entertainment for the kids?
There were only about a half-dozen arrests and, despite the 101-degree temperature, an EMS technician said the problems with heat exhaustion were minimal, noting that "the crowd had good sense and wore light clothing and drank a lot of water."
Thom Steinbeck, son of author John Steinbeck, said of the Picnic: "These are good, gentle people." The article doesn’t say that he was swirling a snifter of brandy as he said it, but that’s kinda what I picture in my head.
The outlaw image (and sometimes ugliness) that had ruled the early Picnics had been disappearing throughout the 1980s. Now it was thoroughly gone. And yet, the Picnic hadn’t lost any credibility in the transformation.
No, the Highwaymen would erase any doubts about the authenticity of the evening. It might have been Willie’s Picnic, but it was Cash’s show. The Man in Black got roars for "Folsom Prison Blues" and "A Boy Named Sue" and patriotic approval for his spoken-word "Ragged Old Flag."
The Highwaymen turned in a 19-song set, ending with "Luckenbach Texas" and "On the Road Again." If you wanted to rank Picnics on a dollars-to-awesomeness ratio, this would seem like a good place to start.
The Picnic was smaller and tamer still. But it had outlasted the outlaw era.
Ten years ago: Funny How Time Slips Away
2000: Southpark Meadows
Ticket prices: $27.50
Notable performers: Joe Ely, Rusty Wier, Pat Green
Drive into South Austin today and pull into the Southpark Meadows shopping complex off Interstate 35. Park on the south side of Jason’s Deli, facing west, and look toward the parking lot in front of the Hobby Lobby. A decade ago, you would have been looking at the Southpark Meadows stage as the venue prepared for a House of Blues makeover.
You probably wouldn’t have guessed that Southpark Meadows would never host another concert after the Picnic. You definitely wouldn’t have guessed that in just over half a decade, it would be on its way to becoming Austin’s biggest shopping center.
No, you would have been marveling at how the Year of the Woman at Willie’s Picnic brought a little beauty to that boys’ club. They weren’t quite as ethereally enchanting as Emmylou Harris at Luckenbach in 1998, but Toni Price fit right in, Susan Tedeschi jammed fantastically with Willie and Shelby Lynne ... well, a man can only stare at David Allan Coe so long.
Willie would release his "Milk Cow Blues" album a few months later, so it’s no surprise that the Picnic had a bluesy feel. Willie jammed early, often and late with other performers, throwing the schedule into chaos. (Willie and Hawaiian guitarist Willie K practically put on their own concert.)
As it turns out, the third Picnic to be held at Southpark Meadows was kind of an accident. Willie was going to return to Dripping Springs in 2000, but a revised state law was discovered a bit too late.
To be brief: Texas had allowed mass gatherings of 12 hours or less to be held without county permits. In 1999, that law was changed to require any event lasting 5 hours or more to receive a county permit. Counties would prove hesitant to issue such a permit, at least without onerous restrictions.
That revised law would forever change the Picnic, steering it toward established venues already zoned for such events and, in the process, giving it a more corporate vibe. (After five years in Luckenbach, Southpark Meadows did seem like a pretty soulless place for a Picnic, but there was something to be said for the venue’s accessibility and parking.)
Willie, as usual, was unrattled. "I’ve always felt no matter where we had (the Picnic), no matter what kind of music we have, as long as we have a good mix of things, people will keep coming," he told the Statesman in 2000. "And they have."
The Picnic, smaller and tamer yet, has outlasted both state legislation and South Austin landmarks.
This year: Stay a Little Longer
2010: The (new) Backyard
Ticket prices: $55
Notable performers: Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson
There’s no rock star — no Bob Dylan, no Neil Young, no Doobie Brothers — riding shotgun this year: Is it a sign of the Picnic’s fading power? More than likely, it’s just the reality of the 7,500-person-capacity of the new Backyard. Even if the Picnic is packed from stage to gate, it’ll still be one of the smallest-ever Picnics.
(Though, even if it’s just a hundred hippies and me, it’ll probably still have 10 times as much groove as the numbingly generic Picnic at the dying Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in 2008.)
Willie’s patriotic party rolls on, fueled by the Picnic Veteran All-Stars: Price, Coe, Leon Russell, Johnny Bush, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Billy Joe Shaver, Asleep at the Wheel, even the Geezinslaws. Together, those artists have played more Picnics than they’ve missed. Heck, some have played nearly all of them. (This year, the new blood includes Randy Rodgers, Jack Ingram, Del Castillo, Los Lonely Boys and Kevin Fowler.)
Some things don’t change: It’ll be hot. The music will be good. The sunset will revive the weary.
Some things do change: It’s not really a picnic; you can’t bring your own fried chicken. You’ll need a small loan to buy beer. Nudity, sadly, is no longer the fashion (or maybe that’s a good thing, given how, uh, things have aged in the past few decades).
But the Picnic is a survivor, having outlived disco, break dancing, grunge and the best part (if you could call it that) of Britney Spears’ career. It’s gone from rotary phone to iPhone. From Lone Star Beer drinkers to, sigh, microbrew connoisseurs.
Come to think of it, I’m not going to ask how long the Picnic tradition will last. Willie wouldn’t approve of such negativity.
Instead, I’ll be keeping my Fourth of Julys open.
You know ... just in case it outlasts us all.