NOTE: This story was published in the Austin American-Statesman in March 2012. It was exhaustively researched and remains one of the most comprehensive stories about the event.
40 years ago, Dripping Springs Reunion helped create Austin’s musical identity
By Dave Thomas
Staring north through a steady sleet in mid-February, it’s hard to imagine that this is the place where it all began. The skies are gray, the scrubby brush is a dull green. Every bit of the rest of the landscape is brown. If something notable ever happened here, you’d think it must have involved hard men and guns. Or at least ornery reptiles.
But this thirsty piece of ranchland — just west of Dripping Springs and 7.2 miles of twisty Hill Country road from U.S. 290 — is Central Texas’ most unlikely musical landmark.
The stage would have been up there near the stock tank. Behind it, more than two dozen of country music’s biggest stars. In front, thousands of music fans sitting in the dirt, in lawn chairs, on coolers.
Forty years ago today, the Dripping Springs Reunion kicked off with Bill Monroe leading an all-star bluegrass cast. Charlie Rich and Buck Owens would follow. Saturday and Sunday would see Dottie West, Roger Miller, Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
Months of site work and hundreds of thousands of dollars had led to this Super Bowl of country music. But the promoters didn’t promote, not nearly enough. And the crowds were a fraction of what was expected. Almost everybody lost money.
The event is mostly mystery today, occasionally mis-remembered as one of the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnics that it inspired. And yet, the Dripping Springs Reunion is not just a failed and forgotten venture by some inexperienced Dallas promoters.
Willie Nelson biographer Joe Nick Patoski knows why it is important:
“The Reunion helped spark the rise of progressive country music and recognition of Austin as a music hub,” Patoski said recently by email. “Without it, Willie might have gone back to Nashville ... and the great migration of musical talent from around the state, nation and world to Austin would have never happened.
“And without Willie, there would be no high-tech industry, no Creative Class, no Live Music Capital of the World designation, no ‘Austin City Limits,’ and no South by Southwest. Honest.”
There were other forces at work, of course. Austin’s music scene was already growing. The Armadillo World Headquarters was up and running, along with other vital venues. But this is the story of the failure that did as much as anything to make Austin what it is today.
The idea: Country Woodstock
“Dripping Springs was initially intended to be kind of the straight man’s Woodstock,” says Travis D. Stimeling, author of “Cosmic Cowboys and New Hicks,” an educated examination of the rise of progressive country music. “It was intended to be a country Woodstock for your short-hair, conservative types.”
Four promoters from Dallas — Edward Allen, Michael McFarland, Don Snyder and Peter Smith — came to the Hill Country, already with the idea that a ranch would be the ideal setting.
James Hurlbut, who owned the Hurlbut Ranch with his brother Bert, said recently that the promoters “had looked at several ranches and for some reason just liked ours, the way it was set up.”
The Hurlbuts had inherited the ranch and were looking at “a million-dollar debt from Uncle Sam on the property.”
“We were trying to figure out a way to save the ranch,” James said. “We leased the property out for a fee.”
The next step would be a little harder. A few years earlier, the Texas International Pop Festival in Lewisville was Texas’ first major rock festival, taking place in 1969, just a few weeks after Woodstock. In addition to Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin and B.B. King, there were hippies and drugs and nudity.
Not that there was trouble, really. A 1997 Fort Worth Star-Telegram story notes that “on the final day both the (Lewisville) mayor and the city’s police chief, Ralph Adams, climbed on-stage and congratulated the audience on its good behavior.”
And yet the idea that the city had been powerless to prevent the festival didn’t sit well with politicians. The Legislature passed a bill in 1971 requiring multiday festivals to secure permission from the county commissioners court, among other requirements.
In conservative Hays County, it would prove difficult. Ultimately, the promise of a remarkable amount of security did the trick. A March 9 story in the San Marcos Record spelled it out: “Patrolling the area will be an estimated 123 security men, 40 perimeter riders and numerous highway patrolmen. Also on the site will be 2 helicopters.”
James Hurlbut doesn’t recall too much community concern. “People knew the family and I didn’t get any negative comments; in fact a lot of people from Dripping Springs were hired to work there, so it was probably more of a shot in the arm.”
And there was a lot of work to be done. The stage was planned for a mild canyon, providing an amphitheater effect.
Dripping Springs businessman Pat Lyle worked then for R.O. Whisenant and Son Co., the primary contractor. Lyle said that it was a race to the finish to get set up in time. “The last day we worked 24 hours, but the three before that were 20-hour days.”
Electrical power was established. A well was put in, feeding a couple miles of galvanized piping. A festival was coming together, along with a stack of speakers like Hays County had never seen.
“You could get on that hill across from the stage and those sound waves would just hit you in the stomach,” Lyle said. “You could hear it all the way into Dripping Springs.”
The promoters had secured a remarkable lineup of stars to fill out their three days. Other performers included Earl Scruggs, Hank Snow, Sonny James and Tom T. Hall. Singing cowboy legend Tex Ritter, Roy Acuff and Nashville disc jockey T. Tommy Cutrer served as emcees. Hays County Commissioner Ray Whisenant remembers it as “a giant Grand Ole Opry right in the middle of Central Texas.”
One of the lasting myths of the Dripping Springs Reunion is that it was a Willie Nelson show.
In fact, Willie wasn’t mentioned at all in a release sent to local media, and his name did not appear on the cover of the official program (making the Reunion the last time, perhaps, that Willie was billed as “and many more”).
Ticket prices were set at $10, or $25 for three days. There was even a “Dripping Springs Reunion Ballad,” recorded by Waylon Jennings. The Reunion was going to be something extraordinary.
The event: Almost a secret
“There was just a stream of buses,” Lyle said. “They’d bring one star in, they’d get through playing and leave and another would show up.”
The same couldn’t be said for the crowd. The show drew a reported 700 fans on Friday.
“It was just almost a secret,” Austin icon Eddie Wilson said recently. “Nobody heard about it and the people that did hear about it didn’t talk enough about it to spread any word of mouth.”
James Hurlbut remembers the failure to promote ruefully: “The sad part was that the people who promoted it ran out of money and the only people promoting the thing was Coca-Cola. And what should have been 50,000 people was maybe three or four thousand.”
Newspaper accounts would later peg Saturday’s attendance at 7,000 and Sunday’s at 10,000. Other accounts vary, but nothing adds up to financial success and the 180,000 to 225,000 that were expected.
Grover Lewis wrote about the Reunion for Rolling Stone (April 27, 1972) and spent much ink describing idle time backstage, writing condescendingly in dialect and recounting indignities suffered by the press. He did offer a few lines of what fans encountered:
“The stage faces a huge, raw bowl of earth. There is no grass, no trees and consequently no chance of shade,” he wrote. “Only a few paying customers have arrived as yet ... and they’re wandering around the huge, dusty field like victims of some natural catastrophe.”
Kent Finlay, singer, songwriter and owner of the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, who attended all three days, recounts a “wonderful” show. “I just fell in love with Dottie West. She’d say ‘Oh it’s so good to be here in Dripping Springs.’ And she’d say ‘Drippin’ like you was supposed to say it.” Roger Miller’s set, too, gets high praise from Finlay and others as a highlight of the weekend.
Then there was Willie, who was clean-shaven and short-haired. “He came out in a golf cap,” Finlay says. “And I remember, ‘Oh that’s funny ‘cause everyone else was wearing a cowboy hat.’ ”
There’s some disagreement about how many hippies, longhairs and youngsters were present, but there were enough to make an impression.
Lyle describes how then-Sheriff Bobby Kinser joked about it: “Up by the stage they had a headquarters building ... and I remember him looking out the window and saying how he felt sorry for all those poor people out there ’cause they was passing around the same cigarette.”
Law enforcement wasn’t too worried about marijuana, Lyle recalls, as long as fans “didn’t get nuts.”
“But every now and then somebody would strip off and run across the field and they’d capture them,” Lyle said. “They had all these old cowboys from around here riding horses. They roped a few hippies. They probably didn’t have that at Woodstock.”
Nonetheless, as Stimeling’s “Cosmic Cowboys and New Hicks” notes, the Reunion offered countercultural music fans a chance to listen to country music “in the familiar venue of the rock festival, a venue that was in many ways safer (for hippies) than the honky-tonks and dance halls.”
Backstage, the old country vs. progressive country rift was evident as well, but an abundance of civilizing comforts helped keep the peace. The stars “would all come down to the house,” James Hurlbut said. “We had huge kegs of beer, cold drinks ... we had a barbecue pit the size of a pickup truck.
“My wife and I actually drove my pickup in with a keg of beer and two lawn chairs and sat in the back of my truck and watched all this fabulous music for three days.”
The aftermath: Prequel to a Picnic
The Reunion was not the Austin area’s first music festival. The KHFI-FM Summer Music Festival, to name one, was created by Rod Kennedy (who would start the Kerrville Folk Festival later in 1972) and had a four-year run at Zilker Park, starting in 1964. The first night drew 5,000 to see Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
From the Vulcan Gas Company and the Armadillo World Headquarters to the Broken Spoke and Kenneth Threadgill, there is no question that Austin had a music scene that preceded the Reunion. Wilson, for one, knew that scene was bound for greatness.
“It was going to happen,” he says. “This is Austin and things, they just seemed to be following a destiny for 150 years, and it finally started coming to a head.”
It seems odd then, that a festival that failed financially would hold such a significant place in Central Texas’ music history. “I think it was incredibly important,” Finlay says. “It brought the attention of the music world to us.”
Stimeling has a different perspective: “The thing I would emphasize is that it’s a prequel to what comes after. If it hadn’t been for Willie picking this up as the Picnic, I don’t think we’d be talking about Dripping Springs today.”
No doubt, it was Willie Nelson’s inaugural Fourth of July Picnic, held at the same site in 1973, that was the watershed moment for progressive country in Austin.
The one-day event drew more than 40,000 and kicked off a summer tradition that has continued, intermittently, for 39 years.
But there’s also no doubt that the Picnic would never have happened without the Reunion. Patoski notes that Willie had never played any kind of outdoor festival before March 1972 and the idea quickly took hold of him.
Discovering, as Finlay says, that “hippies from Texas loved country music, too” — an idea reinforced by his debut at the Armadillo five months later — Willie knew he hit on something powerful.
It wasn’t until early in the summer of 1973, Patoski says, that Willie pulled the trigger on the Picnic, deciding on the same site because it was already equipped for a festival. “It was a spur-of-the-moment, last-minute, duct-tape kind of deal, which was keeping with how Willie did business then,” Patoski says.
But Lewis’ Rolling Stone article offers a clue that Willie didn’t take long at all to decide that it was a good idea. At the Reunion, Lewis asked Willie if he would return the next year if the Reunion became an annual event.
Willie pondered a minute, Lewis writes, then said “You mean if the same people was runnin’ it, or somebody else was?”