Remembering the Roots of Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic

Funny how time slips away.

By David BrownJuly 4, 2016 9:56 am|

On this Fourth of July, at one of the fanciest international racetracks in all the world, one of the most Texan of all Texas parties is underway.

The party’s at the Circuit of the Americas this year: Willie Nelson’s annual Fourth of July picnic.

You could call this a mega-concert. The lineup – in addition to Nelson himself, of course – includes Alison Krauss, Kris Kristofferson, Leon Russell, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lee Ann Womack and the list goes on. It’s quite an array of country music talent.

But this isn’t just about the music, this is about the good times – as Texans like to have them – and it’s about tradition.

For decades, the patron saint of Texas music and Nelson’s family have staged this Fourth of July picnic at different places all across Texas: College Station, Gonzales, Fort Worth, Spicewood, and a little place called Luckenbach. The party’s also on occasion traveled to places as far flung as Selma, Alabama and Kansas City, Missouri.

But it’s ultimately a Texas thing, y’all. So much so, in fact, that people come from far and wide and will move heaven and earth not to miss a single one. There are Texans who will swear up and down they were at its very inception, in Dripping Springs, in a crowded field in 1972.

But crowing on about this in Texas this could get you in trouble. The first of the Fourth of July picnics wasn’t crowded, and it wasn’t 1972. The history’s all messed up.

Sure, there was a festival. And Nelson was there, as well as the rest of those musicians who would stage this country music insurrection. But that thing in the field, in Dripping Springs, in 1972 was no picnic. It was history in the making, but it wasn’t July Fourth. It was on a weekend in March.

John Spong is a veteran journalist, now senior editor at Texas Monthly magazine. He’s written about this seminal event, billed as the Dripping Springs Reunion.

“It was supposed to be the country music Woodstock,” Spong says. “And of course there’d always been bluegrass festivals, but the thought was this was the first big three-day long-term country music festival.”

The lineup included the likes of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Tom T. Hall.

“The promoters were four guys from Dallas that hadn’t gotten involved in stuff like this before,” Spong says. “And they really put together a great lineup. … But it just didn’t work, they didn’t promote it locally. And so they were expecting 60,000 people a day, at $10 a day tickets, and it just didn’t happen. At the end of the first day they had maybe 800 people show up.”

So the chances that your uncle was really there… well, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. It was the 70s after all, and certain memories run together.

An old account from Rolling Stone described the scene as it was actually happening. It was reportedly one of mostly barebacked guys, rambling around a huge dusty field with Lone Stars in hand, looking like victims of some natural catastrophe.

“It just didn’t look like it was working,” Spong says.

But still, there were legends that came out of the festival. Spong says nobody knew who Billie Joe Shaver was. But Waylon Jennings heard him playing guitar backstage and knew he needed to record the song. Shaver was playing “Willie the Wandering Gypsy.”

That led to Jennings recording a full album of Shaver’s songs. It catapulted the mostly unknown self-described wacko from Waco into national celebrity status. And it helped the Arizona-born, Nashville-based Jennings establish his bonafides as a part of a nascent Texas outlaw music scene.

But you’ll notice we haven’t mentioned Willie Nelson in a while. The truth is, he wasn’t on the bill that day, unless you count that phrase on the flyer “and many more.” That was probably the last time in Nelson’s career that would happen.

“The really cool thing though is that Willie Nelson had a good time,” Spong says. “Being the shrewd guy that he is, he figured he could probably do it a little better. The next year they did it, they did it on the exact same site and they had 50,000 folks.”

Time does funny things to memory. So if you happened to have misremembered the origin story, no biggie. But what may be worth pointing out is that even more astonishing than history, is what happens in those unexpected moments when failure seems to be all around you.

We forget that were it not for that dusty field party in Dripping Springs, we might not be that familiar with a certain red-headed stranger or his picnic – the one we continue celebrate in Texas every Fourth of July.