NOTE: This story was published on statesman.com in April of 2016 as part of a week's worth of stories I did to mark Willie Nelson's birthday.
2016 preview: The 10 most interesting Fourth of July Picnics
By Dave Thomas
Country music festivals come and go, but Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic is like that proverbial road. You know the one? It goes on forever.
And in 43 years of frying in the Texas sun (and New Jersey and Kansas City and Tulsa and a few more places north of Dallas) … the Picnic has stayed true to its founder by never staying quite the same.
It’s been crazy and dangerous (1976 Gonzales) and family-friendly (1990 Zilker Park). It’s been an adventure (1973 Dripping Springs) and deadly dull (2008 Schertz). It’s been a tiny indoor gig (1978 Austin Opera House) and 3-day outdoor extravaganza (1974 College Station). It’s had the same ol’ musicians for years and years (Johnny Bush, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Billy Joe Shaver) and it’s had some unusual guests (The Pointer Sisters, Jimmy Buffet, Bob Dylan).
If you’ve seen one Picnic, well, you’ve seen one Picnic. For many, that’s quite enough. After sitting through the entire hot, crowded 2004 Fort Worth show with me, we had driven halfway back to Austin when my wife said, “Honey, I love you. But I’m never doing that … again.” She was explicit — but also happy to let me keep seeing ‘em on my own (I’m at 17 now).
So for those who hope to never again see a shirtless man guzzling $8 beers at 11 a.m. and yelling obscenely for David Allan Coe, and for those who can’t wait for their next Picnic … here’s a little Picnic history you can enjoy at home:
The 10 most interesting Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnics …
10. Fort Worth, 2014: The record 7 Picnics hosted by Billy Bob’s Texas in the Stockyards were all wonderful displays of logistics and providing what comfort one could for a July 4 outdoor show. But by 2014, it was evident that Willie’s mix of old pals was no longer going to heat up ticket sales. Enter Dierks Bentley, who pretended his 90 minutes was his own arena show and somehow pulled it off. Charley Pride also was fantastic in his first Picnic performance.
9. Southpark Meadows, 1985: 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. If you had been here in 1985, you would have gazing up at the Highwaymen: Willie, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. You also would have been very wet. Heavy rains made the concert venue a mud pit, closed the parking lot (cars had to park along I-35) and limited attendance. It was the coolest Picnic, with a high of 79 degrees.
8. Luckenbach, 1996: At the tail end of one of the hottest Picnics, Waylon Jennings finally showed up on stage. He wasn’t in the best shape and he only did a handful of songs, but – after what seemed to be a fair amount of negotiating with Willie – Waylon did perform “Luckenbach, Texas” in his one and only trip to the tiny town, and it was a magical moment. A drought that year had turned the Picnic site into a dustbowl and the heat was fierce. But 12,000 showed up anyway and drank enough water that by 5 p.m., concessionaires had run out. Of the five Luckenbach Picnics, this is the iconic one.
7. The Backyard, 2010: ‘Interesting,’ of course, doesn’t always mean ‘great.’ Not that 2010 didn’t have its moments — Ray Wylie Hubbard was excellent and Kristofferson’s interaction with an appreciative Austin crowd was something to see — but a capacity crowd of 7,500 quickly found out the venue didn’t have parking, space or food for anywhere near that many. Willie didn’t appear on stage until after midnight and many concert-goers went home disappointed before then. After the show, complaints poured in.
6. Pedernales Country Club, 1980: The last (Willie meant it this time) Picnic drew a nice crowd, didn’t have too much trouble, avoided lawsuits and even made a profit. If the aim is to quit while you’re ahead, Willie finally got there. The Picnic drew about 60,000 fans — marking the end of the first era of the Picnic. When it would return in 1983, it would be a smaller and more sedate event.
5. Zilker Park, 1990: If you could time-travel (and you’re not a masochist), this is the Picnic you probably want to visit first. Where else could you spend $7 and see a lengthy and excellent performance by The Highwaymen cap off a family-friendly Picnic? A far cry for the outlaw days of the ‘70s, this one had sprinklers for the well-behaved crowd, free drinking water, entertainment for the kids and shade tents for the masses.
4. Dripping Springs, 1973: Returning to the site of the Dripping Springs Reunion, Willie kicked off more than 40 years of Texas history with a stir-fry of music, dust, heat, parking confusion, epic hikes, power outages and even a few cases of mushroom poisoning. About 40,000 showed up, many to see Leon Russell and more fueled by a Bob Dylan rumor. (He finally got to the Picnic in 2005.)
3. College Station, 1974: For three days, fans baked in the shadeless infield of the Texas World Speedway, watching excellent music and a counterculture crowd that Aggieland was entirely unprepared for. In addition to altered states and nudity, this Picnic is remembered for the parking lot fire that burned about a dozen cars, including one belonging to a young Robert Earl Keen. About 20,000 per day saw an incredible lineup of talent that wouldn’t be matched until …
2. Spicewood, 2003: The Picnic made one final effort to really bring back the old days: a two-day event on a ranch-made-venue out in the country with camping, reasonable concessions and as much big-name talent as they could pack in — including The Dead and Neil Young. But one massive traffic jam on the first day spoiled the party for many. Those who made it found mild weather and a harmonic convergence of Picnic fans and Deadheads. This should have been one of the greatest Picnics, fueling a lengthy run at the site, but it didn’t work out
1. Gonzales, 1976: At the height of the ‘outlaw’ era, this Picnic is easily the most infamous. The un-ironically named Citizens for Law, Order and Decency (CLOD) protested any Picnic plans, the county refused to permit a 3-day show, Willie called the whole thing off in May, resurrected it as a one-day show in June and ultimately decided to start early and run late. Artists played all hours of the night and morning up until rains collapsed the stage roof early on the 5th and shorted out the electrical system. Willie and Waylon’s sets never happened. In between, one person drowned and injuries ranged from stabbings to snake bites. More than 140 were arrested – four for kidnapping – and at least three rapes were reported. Willie would later be sued by two injured picnickers, the owner of the ambulance service and the owner of the ranch where at least 80,000 gathered for the largest Picnic.