AUSTIN, Texas – Regarded as an “on again, occasionally off again” American custom from the 1970s that has packed football stadiums and sun-baked Texas ranches, the Fourth of July Picnic features one regular, absolutely necessary ingredient: country music living legend, Willie Nelson.
Nelson’s first jam-packed picnic in 1973 had been a mix of Woodstock hippy love and cowboy hoedown for around 40,000 folks in Dripping Springs, just outside of Austin. This picnic provoked the ire of the police, who received complaints about noise, nudity and dazed folks roaming around.
As Nelson got older, this big event has mellowed out. Around 10,000 folks were anticipated at this year’s picnic. Twenty acts were highlighted, including some Texas troubadours who participated in the first picnic, and the event was held at a race track in Austin, which is actually the only U.S. stop for global Formula One racing.
Nelson stated that he got the idea for the picnics from the 1969 Woodstock music festival and wished to bring that experience to the Hill Country west of Austin.
“I was looking at (Woodstock) and was realizing the same thing might happen in Texas if it were promoted right and had the right talent,” Nelson said in an interview with Reuters.
“It is a national holiday for national independence and I felt like a lot of people would like to get together and celebrate. It was a no-brainer,” shared Nelson, 83.
The previous events were crazy events, attracting crowds of more than 80,000. They oftentimes continued for days, frequently at areas ill-equipped for the surge.
“If we had arrested all the naked and drunk people I saw, we’d have filled our jail and yours and all of the jails from here to Dallas,” a deputy in Williamson County, north of Austin, said to the Austin American-Statesman following the 1975 celebration, which had drawn around 70,000 people.
The 1976 picnic in Gonzales, Texas, was marred by reports of rapes, stabbings, widespread drug use and also snake bites.
Following a number of problems, Nelson relocated the picnic in 1979 to his country club in the Texas Hill Country, much to the frustration of his neighbors, who reported the noise and blocked roads.
Ever since that, he took the picnic on the road, with stops in New York and Atlanta, and also a truck stop town around Dallas and Austin. The picnic relocated to the Circuit of the Americas race track in Austin this past year.
The facility, with ice-cooled “water monster” hydrating stations, covered mist rooms, around two dozen diner and bar choices, and numerous functioning toilets, is a long way away from the past, where the closest bush had usually been the nearest thing to a restroom.
The acts this year listed a line-up picnic-frequents, such as long-time country music notables Ray Wylie Hubbard, Johnny Bush and Billy Joe Shaver. Some of the newer superstars who performed up the stage were Margo Price and Shakey Graves.
Nelson, boasting a six-decade career with numerous awards and honors on his side, such as the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in 2015, remembers the Fourth of July as a less “complicated” event when he was growing up in rural Texas.
“It meant a day off when I didn’t have to pick cotton. Like all the other holidays, it was a day I didn’t have to do anything,” he stated.
“I would just hang out and do nothing. That is still my favorite thing to do.”