Taking Willie Nelson’s Picnic back, decade by decade

Fireworks explode above the audience at Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic in 2015 at Circuit of the Americas. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman

Fireworks explode above the audience at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic in 2015 at Circuit of the Americas. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman

In less than a week, the 2016 Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic will make its second appearance at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas, with Brantley Gilbert, Lee Ann Womack and Margo Price joining traditional performers such as Kris Kristofferson, Leon Russell and Jamey Johnson — the most recent regular.

If you’ve been keeping close track of your Picnic history, you’ll know that years ending in “6” have produced some unusual Picnics. If you haven’t been keeping close track, that’s what I’m here for. Let’s take it back …

2006: Fort Worth Stockyards

Willie Nelson plays with the band Harmonic Tribe at his Fourth of July Picnic on Tuesday, July 4, 2006 in Fort Worth. Photo by Jeffery Washington, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Willie Nelson plays with the band Harmonic Tribe at his Fourth of July Picnic on Tuesday, July 4, 2006 in Fort Worth. Photo by Jeffery Washington, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

With the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band proving to be less of draw than 2005’s Bob Dylan, this Tuesday Picnic drew fewer than 12,000. But that just made everything a lot more comfortable for those who showed up. There was a Nelson, a Haggard and a Jennings on the bill, but they were Paula Nelson, Noel Haggard and Shooter Jennings. Waylon’s son, making his Picnic debut a decade after his father’s final Picnic appearance, stole the show in the mid-afternoon. Another Outlaw offspring, Lucas Hubbard, son of Ray Wylie, stole the show right back that evening, playing blistering guitar for his dad. Yes, the Picnic has reached that age.

The day began with a stifling combination of heat and humidity, but an intense rain shower (that shut down both stages for at least half an hour) cleared that up, only to leave the North Forty a muddy mess.

1996: Luckenbach

Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic brought out thousands of heat-seeking country fans jamming the small rural town of Luckenbach, Texas. These fans were fortunate enough to have front row seats as Willie takes to the stage in the annual day long event. Photo by Tom Lankes, American-Statesman

Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic brought out thousands of heat-seeking country fans jamming the small rural town of Luckenbach, Texas. These fans were fortunate enough to have front row seats as Willie takes to the stage in the annual day long event. Photo by Tom Lankes, American-Statesman

At the tail end of one of the hottest Picnics in the last dozen years, Waylon Jennings finally showed up on stage. He wasn’t in the best shape and he only did a handful of songs, but – after what seemed to be a fair amount of negotiating with Willie – Waylon did perform “Luckenbach, Texas” in his one and only trip to the tiny town, and it was a magical moment.

A drought that year had turned the picnic site into a dustbowl and the heat was fierce. But 12,000 showed up anyway and drank enough water that by 5 p.m., concessionaires had run out. They didn’t slack on the beer either … by one count, more than 55,000 beers were sold.

1986: Farm Aid 2 at Manor Downs

After the success of the first Farm Aid, Willie made plans the next year to hold it at Memorial Stadium on the University of Texas campus, but organizers could not secure liability insurance for the stadium. (There was also a significant concern on the part of some would-be picnickers about the prohibition of beer consumption at the stadium.) The concert was moved in late June to Southpark Meadows and – after more insurance wrangling – a week later to the Manor Downs racetrack. Despite all that, Farm Aid II drew a crowd of 40,000, though only $1.3 million dollars were raised for family farmers.

More than 80 performers played over the course of 18 hours (starting at 7 a.m.), ranging from a song each for some of the local artists to a scheduled 21 minutes for Willie at the end of the show. Celebrities on hand included Don Johnson (at the height of his “Miami Vice” fame) and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

1976: Gonzales

Willie Nelson joins Doug Sahm on stage at Willie's 1976 Picnic. Photo by Ed Malcik, American-Statesman

Willie Nelson joins Doug Sahm on stage at Willie’s 1976 Picnic. Photo by Ed Malcik, American-Statesman

Willie, not letting the lingering disputes from the Liberty Hill fiasco get to him, planned another three-day Picnic. This one, July 2-4, would be held on the Sterling Kelley ranch about 7 miles east of Gonzales. That wasn’t far enough away for many of Gonzales’ residents. A group that non-ironically named itself CLOD – Citizens for Law, Order and Decency – quickly formed and by late May the county had denied a three-day permit and Willie had called off the Picnic. But a month before July 4, Willie changed his mind. By mid-June the county optimistically agreed to a one-day show and by late June, Willie said he was going to have a three-day show anyway, now starting on the afternoon of July 3.

Reports wavered between expected crowds of 100,000 and 200,000 but attendance only reached “more than 80,000” (still the largest Picnic). Early arrivals found the site to be perilously short on water outlets and bathroom facilities and the concert ended when a downpour on the morning of July 5 shorted out the PA system – before Waylon or Willie had performed their shows. In between, one person drowned and injuries ranged from stabbings to snake bites. More than 140 were arrested – four for kidnapping – and at least three rapes were reported. Willie would later be sued by two injured picnickers, the owner of the ambulance service and the owner of the ranch.

The Gonzales County authorities were concerned enough about drugs to pick their battles: “If an officer sees someone smoking a marijuana cigarette, he won’t arrest him,” deputy sheriff Don Kincaid told the Statesman before the picnic. “But if someone is making a sale or has heroin, he or she will be taken in.”

(Just in case you needed to see Willie Nelson sharing the stage with Vince Neil. I guess the rest of Motley Crue couldn’t make it …)


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