The Way Back: Willie’s Picnic 

A crowd gathered for Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic concert, Austin, 1979.

Mention the Fourth of July in Texas, and one person immediately comes to mind: Willie Nelson. Held almost annually, Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic first officially occurred in 1973 in Dripping Springs, featuring Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Doug Sahm, Tom T. Hall—and 40,000 fans dancing in the dust and heat. “It was miserable, and it was great, one of the glorious heathen stomps between the Americas of J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, and Ronald Reagan,” journalist Billy Porterfield told the Austin American-Statesman later in a 20-year lookback.  

But it hasn’t always been music and good vibes at the yearly picnics. The first few renditions drew the ire of locals who resented drunk and oft-naked picnic-goers descending upon their towns to see the Red Headed Stranger. After the 1976 three-day picnic in Gonzales brought in 80,000 fans and resulted in sound issues, one drowning, injuries ranging from stabbings to snake bites, 140 arrests, and two lawsuits against Nelson from injured picnickers, he took a two-year break from the official Texas-based Fourth of July Picnic.   

But in 1979, Nelson once again hosted his celebration with Ernest Tubb and Johnny Paycheck, this time at his newly purchased Pedernales Country Club in Austin. Locals’ fears of chaos ended up not coming to fruition that year, thanks to far fewer picnic-goers, emergency helicopter flights to Brackenridge Hospital, and, according to the Statesman, “$40,000 worth of port-o-can” toilets. Nelson reportedly won over his new neighbors by the end of the night and went on to host the picnic at the Pedernales Country Club one more time.  

CREDIT: Ronald Cortes, UT Texas Student Publications Photographs, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin


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