The History of Willie's Picnic

A look back at the history of Willie's Picnic

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include attribution and references to articles in the Austin American-Statesman and Austin 360 as well as the Texas State Historical Association.

Long before Bonaroo, Lollapalooza and Ozz Fest, there was Willie’s Picnic -- an outdoor music festival that began in a small Texas town that would continue for decades.

The event has changed much in its nearly four decades, culminating into this year's event, the 39th -- an all-day concert outside of Billy Bob’s Texas with a fan base spanning several generations.

The Wild Years

At its start in 1973, the hippie movement was well under way when a 40-year-old Willie Nelson decided to hold a music festival in a field in Dripping Springs. Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Tom T. Hall headlined the festival that brought over 40,000 people to the inaugural run of what would become a Texas tradition.

Sanitation and electricity were hard to come by, fans suffered from heat exhaustion, and understaffed security tried to keep the stage clear of intoxicated listeners. But good music was played and a good time was had (by most).

Nelson threw another picnic in 1974 in the form of a three-day outdoor festival at Texas World Speedway in College Station.  Waylon Jennings, Jimmy Buffett and Jerry Jeff Walker were the leading acts. In just it's second year, this was the year Willie's picnic established itself as an "annual" event, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

In 1975, just a few days before Willie's third annual picnic, the Texas Senate honored Willie by declaring July 4, 1975, as “Willie Nelson Day in Texas.” An estimated 70,000 people made the journey to Liberty Hill (a small town about 45 minutes north of Austin in Williamson County). Neither the picnic promoters nor the small town was prepared for the wave of fans flocking to the picnic.

Fans solved the problem of the lack of toilets by using people's front yards and bushes. Traffic was impossible throughout the weekend and trash remained for days after the picnic packed up and left. Picnic-goers took over the town while residents complained of "moral pollution," according to Dave Thomas, a reporter with the Austin American-Statesman, who recalled the chronology of the picnic in a 2010 article.

Ironically, the same Texas legislature that had given Willie his own day enacted the Texas Mass Gathering Act in response to the problems created by such a picnic, in particular the overcrowding, the TSHA reported. It set a limit on the number of hours an event could last and number of people who could attend without the event having a permit.

In typical Willie style, he kept right on with the picnics and in 1976 had another three-day concert (despite being denied a permit) in Gonzales.  Of the fourth picnic, Thomas wrote:

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.

If nothing else had shaken Willie's resolve, this was it. After the 1976 picnic he swore them off, vowing this would be his last, according to Thomas.

But, we all know that the 1976 picnic was not the last. Far from it actually.

Transforming the Picnic

In 1977 Nelson's love for the annual events got the best of him. He wanted to have a picnic, just not in Texas. For one year, Willie moved the party to Tulsa, Okla., and was joined by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Jerry Jeff Walker. After 1977, he returned the event to Texas.

In May of 1980, Willie announced once again this picnic would be the last. This time he was serious -- it was even printed on the tickets, Thomas reported.

If it really had been the last one, it would have gone out with a bang. Performers were flown in by helicopter; journalists were brought in by boat and picnic fans sat in traffic for hours, Thomas reported.  Merle Haggard, Asleep at the Wheel, Ray Price and Johnny Paycheck took the stage at Willie's newly purchased Pedernales Country Club.

The picnic didn’t stop, but the 80’s did mark transformation.

According to Thomas' chronology, the picnic of 1984 drew only 18,000 attendees, there were hardly any reports of drugs and everyone remained fully clothed. By all accounts (for Willie's Picnic), it was tame, Thomas wrote. The security of this picnic, and all picnics to come, was amped-up and prepared. By the end of the '80s, the picnic had transformed from outdoor fields, no rules, and wild fans, to fenced-in, supervised, and tame. But with the transformation, the picnic maintained its credibility, Thomas wrote.

In 1990 Nelson kicked off the new decade with big names and a modest audience. 15,000 fans came to Austin to see Willie, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings. Between 1995-1999, the picnic would take place in the Hill Country town of Luckenbach, according to the TSHA.

In the early years of the new millennium, Willie’s Picnic drifted around various Texas towns. Despite Fort Worth being one of Nelson's home towns, the closest the picnic had ever come to DFW was about an hour away in Carl’s Corner, Texas.

Bringing it to Fort Worth

So it was a big deal when Nelson announced at a press conference in the Fort Worth Stockyards that he was bringing his picnic home in 2004. The announcement made the front page of the Dallas Morning News and the mayor of Fort Worth gave Nelson a key to the city.

The picnic that year was held at Billy Bob’s Texas. It was outdoors in the North Forty behind Billy Bob’s with the brilliant addition of two stages so audiences didn’t have to wait for the stage to be stripped and set back up between each set, according to Thomas.

The 2012 picnic marks he picnic’s fifth return to the Stockyards. 

Though there’s a lineup listed every year and specific times allotted for each performer, the picnic’s format has always been free flowing enough so acts can be free to play together or more than one set if they choose.

Nelson is still involved in deciding the lineup, choosing his old friends, his family and new acts that catch his eye.

Acts like Billy Joe Shaver, Asleep at The Wheel and Johnny Bush have been playing Willie’s Picnics for decades and will play again this year alongside picnic newcomers like Corey Smith, Stoney LaRue and Whiskey Myers.

“It’s great exposure. With all those other people on the bill it opens our music up to people who may have not heard it before," said Cody Cannon, the lead singer for Whiskey Myers.

“It gives them a chance to be a fan, to learn how to run with the big dogs and to really watch a major machine in action,“ said Pam Minick, the marketing director of Billy Bob’s Texas. “It gives them an association with an artist that’s been in the business for over 60 years.”

Minick said many of the new artists will finish their set then go watch the other performers in the crowd like everyone else.

"I’m excited. The thing is legendary,” Cannon said. “My dad went to that when he was younger than me, so it's cool I get to play it finally. It's a big deal." 

How does one artist maintain a fan base of nearly three generations?

“He’s ageless,” Minick said. “When you look at Willie, you don’t think 79. He has not let age be a number. There’s a coolness factor about being Willie that transcends generations. Yes, you will see a lot of grey hair here but you’ll also see some young people with their babies in strollers.”

The show's longevity can be attributed to the one thing about the picnic that has remained constant -- Nelson's unabated passion for his music.

“Some artists like to perform, but when they’re done they’re done. They’re contracted to play 60 minutes and they’ll play that and no more. Sometimes we have to turn the lights off to get Willie off the stage,” Minick said.

Next year will be the picnic’s 40th anniversary. Billy Bob’s is hoping the picnic will return to the Stockyards.

"I think its got the potential to be huge," Minick said.

It all depends on Nelson.

"He’s smart. He doesn’t take for granted that if you build it they will come. There’s always got to have energy around it and there’s always got to have the right mix of artists, even though the picnic is legendary,” Minick said.

Tickets for the Picnic are $35 in advance to $45 at the door. Under 17 must have a parent or guardian to attend. The venue asks attendees to not bring chairs, coolers, umbrellas, or pets.

Willie's Picnic
Billy Bob's Texas
Fort Worth Stockyards
July 4, 2012

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