(More Than) 30 Years Out: Willie Nelson Picnic, 1974
Willie Nelson’s first July 4 picnic was in 1973 in Dripping Springs, west of Austin, and it was a near-disaster. More than 50,000 fans jammed the rural roads leading to the concert site, and understaffed concert workers continuously treated heat exhaustion and fought with drunken fans.
So the next year, they just made it bigger. Somebody called it “The Great Willie Nelson Commando Hoo-Ha and Texas Brain Fry.” I can attest to that “fry” part – College Station, Texas, in early July is kinda like the surface of the sun and Willie’s picnic, a three-day event at the Texas World Speedway, was hotter than the devil’s digestive tract after a Tex-Mex meal at Las Manitas.
Of course, Willie opened the show. He kicked off with “Whiskey River” and “Stay All Night” and you know you’re certainly gonna do that. Now this all-day affair wasn’t country rock, it was stone country in some parts (Bobby Bare and Sammi Smith, look ‘em up). But guys like Waylon Jennings rocked pretty hard; I remember everyone going nuts for him. Jimmy Buffett was there, he hadn’t yet found the tropics so he sang “Let’s Get Drunk And Screw.” And the crowd replied, “OK.”
And that was just the first day. Leon Russell showed up to rock the joint, Michael (not yet Martin) Murphey did his “Cosmic Cowboy” anthem and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did their thing. Oh yeah, and there was John Sebastian. You know, the “Woodstock” hippie and former leader of the Lovin’ Spoonful. Ugh.
But the hero of the whole show (besides Willie) was Doug Sahm, playing his Sir Doug Quintet hits like “Mendocino” and “She’s About A Mover.” He, like Willie Nelson, was the true link between the Texas hippies and the goat-ropers. They called it “Outlaw Country.” Somewhere in all this mess, Willie and his band showed up again and that was the official sign it was about to end. Especially when they started rockin’ “Bloody Mary Morning,” while jamming with Leon.
They shot off a bunch of fireworks and a rocket landed in a parking lot of dry grass and the resulting fire burned up a bunch of cars. One of the burned autos, according to Texas legend, belonged to up-and-coming songwriter Robert Earl Keen.
This 1974 picnic was actually Willie’s second July 4 event. He’s had many more, and plans to have one this summer. Thanks, Willie, but one picnic was more than enough for me.