Photo by Rick Henson
CHAPTER SIX: LUCKENBACH 1995
As Robert Earl Keen launched into his newly revved-up version of “The Road Goes on Forever,” the first empty beer can flew into the air. Then another. Then a dozen more. Then hundreds at once, all rising and falling until the area in front of the stage looked like an old-fashioned popcorn popper. A not-quite empty can flew over the stage, leaking Shiner beer.
“I remember the police talking about how Robert was about to whip the crowd into a frenzy,” said Doc Mason, the Picnic’s chief medical officer.
VelAnne Clifton, Luckenbach’s manager at the time, remembered it well: “About three or four thousand Aggies went apeshit.”
Reflecting on it twenty-five years later, Keen still sounded a little awestruck. “I don’t know what’s really happening at this point.”
In the months before Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic first came to historic Luckenbach, the community had feared that it would be too rowdy. Gillespie County Sheriff Milton Jung had diplomatically handled neighbors’ concerns, given notice to Picnic producers on what he expected, and worked with Luckenbach to make sure they were ready.
So far, the Picnic had unfolded with little drama. But as Jung watched the crowd react to Keen, his own deep-seated fears came back. “Yeah, I figured that’s when all hell was gonna break loose.”
HEAR FROM A FEW OF THE 1995 SOURCES
Robert Earl Keen
Photo by Gary Miller
CHAPTER SEVEN: TWO RIVER CANYON 2003
“When it’s your time to take the stage, Poodie would lead you out. And, you know, it’s like the backstage is really packed, right? When Poodie headed toward the stage, that big packed crowd would just part like the sea.”
James Hyland of the South Austin Jug Band is telling a story about performing at the Picnic. “We’re right behind him. And I remember looking out, and it was just like an ocean of people. I’d never played in front of a crowd that big. I couldn’t possibly estimate how many people were there.”
Poodie Locke had explained to the young band that there was a countdown clock on the side of the stage. It started at ten minutes and counted down. When it hit zero, it was time to get offstage to make way for the next band. As it turns out, the clock wasn’t the most distracting part of the setup.
“Willie Nelson’s guitar was onstage like . . . it was right there, man,” Hyland said. “It’s like the holy fucking grail. It’s more impressive than the ocean of people, to turn around and actually see that guitar right there. It was so amazing. It’s like that scene from Pulp Fiction when they open up the briefcase. You don’t know what’s in there, but it’s something special. It’s like an extended part of Willie. To be that close to history is moving.
"It’s really cool. It goes by so fast. It’s the fastest ten minutes of your life.”
HEAR FROM A FEW OF THE 2003 SOURCES
Photo by Billy Bob's Texas
CHAPTER EIGHT: FORT WORTH 2004
What if a city hosted Willie’s Picnic and everyone loved it? In mid-April, Willie was standing on the steps of the historic Livestock Exchange Building in the Fort Worth Stockyards, alongside Mayor Mike Moncrief under a giant banner announcing the Picnic.
Wilie had already leaked the news, telling the crowd about the Picnic during a show at Fort Worth’s historic Ridglea Theater in late February. On Texas Independence Day, Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy had confirmed the show, quoting fellow writer Joe Nick Patoski: “His career was really launched in Fort Worth. It’s like bringing Willie back home.”
At the press conference, enthusiasm for the show was still growing.
Mario Tarradell, who spent nearly twenty years as the music critic at the Dallas Morning News, was one of those allowed on Willie’s bus after the press conference for a brief interview. He remembered that “Willie in person was a whole lot like Willie on the phone: super calm, super chill, making sly jokes, laughing at his own jokes.” It wasn’t hard to be charmed by Willie. “It was a huge deal,” Tarradell said. “There was a lot of buzz about it. It was a pretty hefty lineup with some serious legendary names.”
Mike Moncrief hadn’t been mayor of Fort Worth very long at the time, but he recalls that the city didn’t hesitate to embrace it. “It was an exciting time for our city. Our western heritage was an attraction to Willie and his folks. [People here] anticipated this event, planned for it, put it on their calendars early on.”
Indeed, from a marketing standpoint, Pam Minick saw a smooth road ahead. “It was so easy to get people interested because it was something new.”