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New book chronicles the history of Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic

 Willie Nelson and Family play at Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic at the Austin360 Amphitheater in 2016.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Willie Nelson and Family play at Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic at the Austin360 Amphitheater in 2016.

Anyone who’s spent a summer in Austin in the last 50 years or so has likely heard of Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic.

The annual concert is often associated with the Texas capital city, though in reality it’s been hosted in other places around Texas and the country. This year, Willie’s picnic will kick off in New Jersey over the holiday weekend.

These events have a long, storied — and sometimes chaotic — history, which Dave Dalton Thomas chronicles in his new book, “Picnic: Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Tradition.”

Courtesy of Dave Dalton Thomas

Thomas said the early days of the picnics in the 1970s were much less formal than what happens nowadays.

“Especially the first four years, those big picnics at the beginning of the 70s, they were absolutely wild and chaotic,” he said. “It started off with parking chaos in Dripping Springs and ended up with generalized chaos in Gonzales, with all sorts of drugs and nudity and poor behavior.”

At this point, Willie’s picnics are more like a traditional music festival.

“There’s not as many acts as there used to be,” Thomas said. “Willie used to not be able to say ‘no’ to any of his friends who wanted to play. And they didn’t have to be long-time friends. He’d meet somebody, and they’d say, ‘hey, can we play the picnic?’ And Willie would be like, ‘sure.’

But the experience right now is very scripted and very under control by the big companies that put them on now.”

Another difference in the modern rendition of the event is that guests can no longer bring their own food. In the early days, the event was a picnic in the traditional sense but no longer, Thomas said.

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Over the years, the picnic has hosted some pretty big artists — this year’s line up includes Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples. But Thomas said the influence of Leon Russell can’t be overstated.

“He became friends with Willie shortly before the first picnic, and he was really the person who made it not a country festival at the first picnic, but more of a countercultural draw,” Thomas said. “Him being out there, brought in a crowd that made it stand out from what else it could have been.”

Willie’s picnics were also a big part of the reputation Austin had for bringing together hippies and country folks, especially in the music scene.

The current renditions of Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic resemble more of a standard music festival.
Gabriel C. Pérez
The current renditions of Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic resemble more of a standard music festival.

“It’s been talked about so much that you can just think of it as a legend — the hippies and the rednecks coming together at Willie’s first concert at the Armadillo, which was about 11 months before the first picnic,” Thomas said. “I don’t think there’s as much of a divide musically these days. But Willie attracting people from across a wide variety and a large swath of people is really still a reality.”

Thomas said he has attended every picnic that has been hosted in Texas since 1995, minus the COVID-19 disruption a few years ago.

“I was a young journalist. I worked for the San Angelo Standard-Times, and I had Mondays and Tuesdays off,” he said. “San Angelo didn’t offer much on Monday and Tuesday. So I started hanging out and I was there when they announced that the picnic was coming to Luckenbach. And I got to break the story in the Standard-Times. And just from then on, I felt a personal involvement in it.”

A lot of folks, in Texas and beyond, feel that connection to Willie’s picnic and its history.

“People are invested in the picnic, because of the wild history,” Thomas said. “And even though it doesn’t have that anymore, people could still feel if they go and they sweat in the sun, you know, they can feel like they’re part of that.”

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Copyright 2024 KUT News. To see more, visit KUT News.

Sarah Asch