Brief History | Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic 1973 – 2018

A Brief History of Willie Nelson's 4th of July Picnic
Year by Year | 1973 - 2018

Since 1973 Willie Nelson has graced country music fans with his (sorta) annual 4th of July Picnic.  Since '73, Willie Nelson is to host his 45th annual 4th of July Picnic.  There were a few times when the music festival looked like it would not survive to see its 45th birthday.  For instance, in 1980, at the Perdenales Country Club, Willie Nelson had announced that this was going to be his last festival.  And for the next couple of years, he held his word until the return of the Picnic in 1983-84.

 

The festivals are listed in order by year and each date has a bit of history, picture of memorabilia or concert poster, and information regarding that certain year.

 

Scroll down to get a brief history of Willie's Picnic year by year. 

1973  -  Dripping Springs, TX 

Venue:  Hurlbt Ranch

The birth of an iconic festival happened in Dripping Springs on the year of 1973!  In 1972, Willie was on the lineup bill for the Dripping Springs Reunion, and fortunate for the Willie fans, the reunion did not meet expectations due to poor attendance.  Nelson was interested in this concept and in 1973, he decided to host the first annual Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic in the same place, only this time, Willie brought  over 40,000 hippies and rednecks.  The Picnic lost money, but launched a Texas tradition.

The lineup was:  Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall, Loretta Lynn, Hank Snow, Tex Ritter, Bill Monroe.

"It was miserable and it was great, one of the glorious heathen stomps between the Americas of J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy and Ronald Reagan. Many had come the evening before and spent the night passing stories and hits around campfires."  -  Billy Porterfield, Austin Statesman

Willie's Picnic 1973 | From: Austin360.com

1974  -  College Station, TX

Venue:  Texas World Speedway

Thought to be the car of Robert Earl Keen

Over the years, we've heard more about two specific Willie Picnics; 1976 in Gonzales, TX and the fiery 4th of July down in College Station, TX.  Some 25,000 concert goers enjoyed 3 days of Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, Kinky Friedman and Townes Van Zandt.  That might be the only time Jimmy Buffett has performed at Willie's Picnic.

Legend has it that Robert Earl Keen was attending the festival as a concert goer that year when his car caught fire in the parking lot.  He talks about it on his live album, "No. 2 Live Dinner" in the song, "The Road Goes On Forever (Intro)."  [view below]

Sounds like there could be a movie made out of this concert!  Who wouldn't want to see a young '70s, college student, Robert Keen.  Who would play REK?

1974 Picnic Quotes

Pointed out by Austin360, Texas Monthly's William Martin had these describing words:

"picking one's way through a crowd of 25,000 people, sitting or lying next to one another like stricken pilgrims at the Ganges, is a delicate maneuver at best"

"As they jiggled and swayed bare-breasted through several long numbers, the plight of the fifth girl became apparent and poignant.  Less abundantly blessed than her sisters ... she could not disrobe without revealing less than she cared to"

"By late afternoon the combination of sun, alcohol and drugs had taken a terrible toll ... hundreds slumped around in a red-eyed stupor as if the life had gone out of them"

"Waylon Jennings got a good reception with his hard-driving music about men that represent poor marital risks

 

Concert Poster 1974

1975  -  Liberty Hill, TX

The 3rd annual Willie's Picnic drew in the largest crowd of over 70,000 picnic fans.  What a shock that must have been for the rural town Liberty Hill, TX, as today, they only have a population of around 1,000.  The attendance record would be beaten the following year. 

Willie Nelson, Johnny Bush, Rita Coolidge and Pointer Sisters shared the stage on July 4th.

A quote from a Williamson County deputy sheriff, you can tell how great the festival must have been:

"If we had arrested all the naked and drunk people I saw, we'd have filled our jail and yours and all of the jails from here to Dallas,"

Legend has it that Willie was fined $1000 for violating the Texas Mass Gatherings Act.

 

Concert Poster 1975

 

1976  -  Gonzales, TX

The legend of '76 is one we will never fully know in detail!  If you were not there you have probably heard the stories of what took place and if you did attend, you probably can't repeat most of them.  

After being fined $1,000 for violating the Texas Mass Gatherings Act with 70,000 people in '75, he drew an even larger crowd of 80,000 in Gonzales in '76.  No indication of another ticket was issued!

I've heard that David Allan Coe pulled out his ole six-shooter and shot holes through the tarp that was protecting the stage from all the rain.  Some people remember seeing many people working on their "full body tan."

Concert Poster 1976

The town of Gonzales took more of a liberal approach according to deputy sheriff, Don Kincaid, "If an officer sees someone smoking a marijuana cigarette, he won't arrest him",  "But if someone is making a sale or has heroin, he or she will be taken in."  Liberal or they just didn't have the man power to arrest everyone.

Estimated attendance in the upwards of 80,000.

The rambunctious festival of '76 could have been in part from such a power packed lineup.  Willie, Waylon, Kristofferson, Ernest Tubb, Roger Miller, Jerry Jeff Walker, Leon Russell, Ray Wiley Hubbard, George Jones and more.

1977  -  Tulsa, Oklahoma

The festival was moved out of state to Tulsa, Oklahoma.  There was more than 50,000 concert goers.  

Fact:  Willie actually performed his picnic on July 3rd with guys like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Waylon, Jerry Jeff, Leon Russel and Asleep at the Wheel.

Willie's Picnic in Pictures (History)

View them all by clicking here

1978  -  Kansas City, Missouri

Venue:  Arrowhead Stadium

The 1978 festival was held on July 1st and featured artists like Grateful Dead, Jessie Colter, Jerry Jeff Walker and of course, Waylon Jennings.

According to Austin360.com, "The traditional Picnic was still cooling its heels when Willie suggested having one at the Opry House to manager Tim O'Connor, and it proved to be a welcome respite from the heat and lawsuits.  A few days earlier in Dallas, 25,000 didn't quite pack the Cotton Bowl ... and Willie admitted it just wasn't the same: "It's too controlled," he told the Washington Post. "I liked it better when it was out in the pasture."

 

Concert Poster 1978

1979  -  Austin, TX

Venue:  Pedernales Country Club

Willie's Picnic 1980 | stillisstillmoving.com

Withe the newest purchase of the "Briarcliff Yacht and Golf Club", or better known now as, "Pedernales Country Club", Willie Nelson hosted the Fourth of July Picnic back in the great state of Texas!  [Read more about Pedernales Club below]

Estimates of around 25,000 people attended the picnic that year.  Not to terrible for a hot, summer Wednesday in Texas.

Johnny Paycheck and Ernest Tubb joined Willie in Austin to throw a so-called "House Warming Party"  at the Pedernales Country Club!

 

1980  -  Austin, TX

Venue:  Pedernales Country Club

Willie's Picnic 1980 | stillisstillmoving.com

This year, Ray Price and Faron Young headlined the festival alongside Willie.  Held once again at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Country Club.

Willie would later run into legal troubles with the IRS.  Read how it was seized and re-purchased by Nelson below.

Head on over to our friends, StillIsStillMoving.com for more great Willie Nelson news, history and more.

Named today as Pedernales Cut-N-Putt

Pedernales Country Club History

Designed back in 1968 by Frank Howard, the once Briarcliff Yacht and Golf Club was a nine-hole golf course.  In 1977 Willie Nelson purchased the bankrupt course for $250,000.

In 1985, Willie Nelson designed a recording studio on the property and this is where Merle Haggard and Willie recorded the album, "Pancho and Lefty."

In 1991, the IRS and Willie were not seeing eye-to-eye and they seized up by the government.  After a year of troubles, Willie had once again bought back the Pedernales Country Club.  Only this time, it was for a whopping $470,000.  Willie still owns the property today.

1981  -  No Picnic Recorded

1982  - No Picnic Recorded

 

1983  -  Atlanta Georgia

Venue:  Atlanta International Raceway

 

1984  -  Austin, TX

Venue:  Southpark Meadows

After a 3-year stint out of Texas, Willie Nelson and friends like Johnny Rodriguez, Moe Bandy and Joe Ely played the 1984 picnic in Austin, Texas.

Legend has it, there was about 18,000 people that attended and unlike in Gonzales, nearly a decade ago, there were only 27 arrests, according to concert goers!

1985  -  Austin, TX

Venue:  Southpark Meadows

The number of arrests continued to fall as the number was reported to be under 12.  

From Austin360.com,  "Drive into South Austin today and pull into the Southpark Meadows shopping complex off Interstate 35. Park on the south side of Jason's Deli, facing west, and look toward the parking lot in front of the Hobby Lobby. If you had been here in 1985, you would have gazing up at the Highwaymen: Willie, Waylon, Kristofferson and Johnny Cash.

You also would have been very wet. Heavy rains made the concert venue a mud pit, closed the parking lot (cars had to park along I-35) and limited attendance to about 12,000 picnickers. It might have been the coolest Picnic – and not just because Cash made his first appearance: The high temperature in Austin hit 79 degrees.

 

Concert Poster 1985

 

1986  -  Manor, TX

Although the second annual "Farm Aid II" wasn't called "Willie's Picnic," he still gave his fans of Texas something to cheer for. 

The Farm Aid concert included acts like Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Beach Boys, Bon Jovi, Joe Walsh, Tom Petty, and much more.  90 total bands actually!

Farm Aid II was held at the Manor Downs Racetrack.  It is estimated that over 40,000 people attended!

Willie Nelson Performing at Farm Aid II

1987  -  Hillsboro, TX

Venue:  Carl's Corner

Sign in Carl's Corner, TX

Reports say that when Willie moved the Fourth of July festival to Hillsboro, he figured that he was making it easier on the folk of Dallas to attend.  The estimated attendance was underwhelming but still brought in nearly 10,000 people!

Jackie King and Roger Miller, Bruce Hornsby seranaded the small crowd alongside Willie!

 

Concert Poster 1987

 

 

1988  - No Picnic Recorded

1989  - No Picnic Recorded

1990  -  Austin, TX

Venue:  Zilker Park

After a hiatus, Willie returned to the city that had been so good to him for years, Austin.  This time, the Fourth Festival was seen more as a Family-Freindly Event that brought roughly, 15,000 people to Zilker Park.

The guys on stage:  Highwaymen: Willie, Waylon, Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, Shelby Lynne and Little Joe!

Zilker Metropolitan Park is a recreational area in south Austin, Texas at the juncture of Barton Creek and the Colorado River that comprises over 350 acres of publicly owned land.

 

Willie Nelson's Picnic Poster, 1990 in Zilker Park, Austin

1991  - No Picnic Recorded

1992  - No Picnic Recorded

1993  - No Picnic Recorded

1994  - No Picnic Recorded

1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999  -  The Years of Luckenbach

The legendary, Luckenbach, TX...  The once trading post that catered to Comanchi Indians and pioneer

Willie Nelson 1998 Picnic Poster

farmers and the same town that had once been placed in the local newspaper as "TOWN FOR SALE", was home to Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic through the years of 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999.

Luckenbach being small and desolute as it is, had it's share of country music legends come through its gates before Willie started celebrating July 4th.  In 1973, Jerry Jeff Walker went to Luckenbach and recorded an album, "Viva Terlingua."

Other notable songs that were produced under the 500 year oak trees were Gary P. Nunn’s, “London Homesick Blues”; Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother”; Guy Clark’s, “Desperadoes Waiting for A Train” and “Sangria Wine”.  And of course, the world-known hit by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, "Luckenbach Texas."

Notable Acts throughout the years in Luckenbach included:
Other notable songs that were produced under the 500 year oak trees were Gary P. Nunn’s, “London Homesick Blues”; Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother”; Guy Clark’s, “Desperadoes Waiting for A Train” and “Sangria Wine”.  And of course, the world-known hit by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, "Luckenbach Texas."

 

Notable Acts throughout the years in Luckenbach included:

1995:  Robert Earl Keen, T. Bingo
1996:  Asleep at the Wheel, Waylon Jennings, Souvenirs, Billy Joe Shaver
1997:  Dwight Yoakam, Joe Ely
1998:  Emmylou Harris, Toni Price, Derek O'Brien and Asleep at the Wheel
1999:  Larry Gatlin and Pat Green

Luckenbach History

From luckenbachtexas.com"The legendary Dancehall still hosts monthly dances by some of the best Texas musicians going, many of whom were toddlers when Viva Terlingua and “Luckenbach Texas” became hits.  Texas minstrels such as Pat Green, Gary P. Nunn, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Billy Joe Shaver and their audiences come to partake of the timeless ambiance, the cold beer, and the increasingly rare sense of being in the center of the known universe, a place where everybody is truly somebody.  Many of the Luckenbach faithful celebrate the music, magic & memories of times they’ve spent in Luckenbach by returning for special occasions."

Read the history of Luckenbach on luckenbachtexas.com

2000  -  Austin, TX

Venue:  Southpark Meadows

Estimated attendance:  11,000
 
 

2001  -  Luckenbach, TX  (Cancelled)

Willie was quoted saying this: "I've never been off on the Fourth, ever in my life".

What did it mean for the town of Luckenbach?  The mayor, VelAnne Howle, had this to say, "We're really bummed. But we've been here (153 years), and we'll still be here when Willie decides to throw another one."

The lineup was going to include Ray Price, Pat Green, Leon Russell, Cory Morrow and David Allen Coe.
 
 

2002  - No Picnic Recorded

 

2003  -  Spicewood, TX

Venue:  Two River Canyon Amphitheater

Pioneer Amphitheater

Other than the traffic jam problem,  more than 22,000 people came out to this two-day festival at the beautiful Two River Canyon Amphitheater just outside of Spicewood, TX.

The star-studded lineup included:  Toby Keith, Pat Green, Neil Young, Merle Haggard, Leon Russell, Patty Griffin and more.

When Tim O'Connor told the Statesman about the picnic, he had this to say:

"A woman called and said Willie told her that her band could play. This was less than two weeks before the Fourth. But I called Willie and he confirmed it, so she's on the bill. That's the Picnic for you,"

Concert Poster 2003

 

2004  -  Fort Worth, TX

Venue:  Billy Bob's Texas

Legend has it that 20,000 people was just too much to handle in the small outdoor venue behind Billy Bob's known as the North Forty.  As tempers rose due to the lack of being able to move around, not even the comedic geniuses of Larry the Cable Guy or Ron White could calm the crowd.

The lineup included acts like: Kris Kristofferson, Cross Canadian Ragweed and Clarence Brown.

A picnic goer had this to say,

"It was naked hippies last year. This is drunk rednecks,"

 

2005  -  Fort Worth, TX

Venue:  Billy Bob's Texas

Fort Worth Stock Yards

The festival returned to the North Forty and the Ft. Worth Stockyards once again that drew nearly 18,000 concert goers!  This year Bob Dylan was one of the main attractions for the festival!

The lineup included acts like:  Bob Dylan, Doobie Brothers, Lightnin' Willie & the Poorboys and Pauline Reese.

The once "outlaw" behavior seen in the past had looked played out as one Fort Worth police officer said, "There hadn't been a single arrest", he continued, "we haven't even escorted anyone out."

 

2006  -  Fort Worth, TX

Venue:  Billy Bob's Texas

Step aside legends, there are new guys in town!  This festival had a few new faces on the bill and most of them offspring of the legendary outlaws!  Paula Nelson and Folk Uke (Paula & Raeylnn Nelson), Noel Haggard (Merle's son), Shooter Jennings (son of Waylon) and even Lucas Hubbard (son of Ray Wylie Hubbard).

With the festival landing on a Tuesday, the crowds they had gotten in 2004 & 2005 were not the same in 2006.  Estimated that only 12,000 people showed up to the North Forty in Fort Worth!

The lineup included acts like:  Paula Nelson, Noel Haggard, Shooter Jennings, Lucas Hubbard, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Folk Uke.

 

Dance Floor Inside Billy Bob's Texas

2007  -  George, Washington

Venue:  Gorge Amphitheater

According to Austin360.com, David Letterman is to blame for driving Willie out of Texas this year.  Letterman invited Willie and some others to join them on his ranch in Montana for this festival!

The lineup included acts like:  Son Volt, Old 97s, Drive-By Truckers and 40 Points.

 

Gorge Amphitheater

2008  -  Selma, TX

Venue:  Sam Houston Race Park

The lineup included acts like:  Ray Price, Paula Nelson, David Allan Coe, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Los Lonely Boys and Del Castillo.

 

2009  - No Picnic Recorded

But we did find this concert poster!

Concert Poster 2009

2010  -  Bee Cave, TX

Venue:  The Backyard at Bee Cave 

The picnic returned after a year of absence and this time it was at the brand-new Backyard at Bee Cave, just outside of Austin.  With over 7,500 attendees, the picnic was another legendary one!  I can remember the Willie chants starting around 10pm and we packed it in around 11pm.  Rumor has it that Willie didn't come on stage until after midnight, leaving concert goers wondering what the man could have been doing on his tour bus!

The lineup included acts like:  Tim O'Connor, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Kris Kristofferson, The Reflectacles, Jamey Johnson and Jack Ingram.

 

Concert Poster 2010

2011  -  Fort Worth, TX

Venue:  Billy Bob's Texas

Willie's Picnic had once again returned to the Fort Worth area with an estimated crowd size of 6,000 people.

The lineup included acts like:  Country Throwdown, Billy Joe Shaver and David Allan Coe.

 

2012  -  Fort Worth, TX

Venue:  Billy Bob's Texas

The concert has seen diminishing numbers in attendance as this year, only around 4,000 people showed up for this festival!  The lineup probably did not help the cause as the usual "legends" were not listed!

The lineup included acts like:  Asleep at the Wheel, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Price and Johnny Bush.

 

2013  -  Fort Worth, TX

Venue:  Billy Bob's Texas

The 40th anniversary of Willie Nelson's 4th of July Picnic did not disappoint as more than 10,000 people packed Billy Bob's Texas and the fields of Fort Worth's North Forty.  This year, bringing a power-packed lineup as listed below.

The lineup included acts like:  Asleep at the Wheel, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Price, Johnny Bush, Leon Russell, Kris Kristofferson, David Allan Coe, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jamey Johnson and Paula Nelson.

 

2014  -  Fort Worth, TX

Venue:  Billy Bob's Texas

Another year, another festival!

The lineup included acts like:  Ryan Bingham, Dierks Bentley, Johnny Bush, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Josh Abbott Band and Willie's musical children!

Concert Poster 2011

Concert Poster 2012

Circuit of The Americas - Austin, TX | 2015-2018

Venue:  Circuit of The Americas

Years: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018

Willie Nelson seems to like the atmosphere at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, TX.  He has been holding his festival here for 4 years and counting.  

The Circuit of The Americas is primarily known for its world-class motorsport events like Formula 1 and MotoGP, the venue has also played home for other events such as, the X Games, Austin360 Amphitheater, RedFest and more.

The venue seems to be the perfect layout for a music festival as they already host several in the Austin360 Amphitheater that is beautifully designed with flawless sound.  For Willie's Picnic, they set up an extra stage about 300-400 yards away and the lineup is always staggered in a way that no one-band will play over the sound of another.  

Austin360 Amphitheater

The large and steady attendance during 2015, 2016 and 2017 years at The Circuit of The Americas could be in large part due to the powerful lineups they brought with them.  With legendary acts on the bill such as the official S.O.B. of Texas himself, David Allan Coe, and you better believe the other two outlaw bandits, Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard were there.  (Merle's last performance here was in 2015.)  The other usual suspects need no introduction, Mr. Billy Joe Shaver and Ray Wylie Hubbard.  And of course the family bands of Willie Nelson. 

Lukas, Willie & Raelynn Nelson

Nelson's Children's Bands

  • Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real
  • Folk Uke (Amy Nelson)
  • Paula Nelson Band
  • Raelynn Nelson Band
  • Insects vs. Robots (Micah Nelson)

[Check out 'The Bands of Willie's Kids"]  

But somebody realized the way to attract more people is to offer a younger lineup to the picnic.  Some of these acts were on the up-rise and some where just more mainstream at the time.  These folks include: Kacey Musgraves, Turnpike Troubadours, Hayes Carll, Sheryl Crow, Brantley Gilbert, Eric Church, Lee Ann Womack, Shakey Graves, Ryan Bingham, Jamey Johnson and more.

Lineups over the Year:

2015 Lineup included acts like:  Eric Church, Merle Haggard, Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell, Asleep at the Wheel, Sturgill Simpson, Leon Russell, Chris Stapleton, Billy Joe Shaver, Johnny Bush, Kris Kristofferson, David Allan Coe, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jamey Johnson, Paual Nelson, Raelyn Nelson, Folk Uke, and more.

2016 Lineup:  Brantley Gilbert, Jamey Johnson, Allison Krauss, Kris Kristofferson, Lee Ann Womack, Shakey Graves, Leon Russell, Cody Johnson, Margo Price, Jamestown Revival, Shaver, Hubbard, David Coe, Dallas Wayne and more.

In 2016, Jamey Johnson and Allison Krauss lit up the stage with wonderful performances and Krauss and Johnson memorized the crowd as the two sang "This Land is Our Land".

Also, the Outlaw DJ, Dallas Wayne strummed his guitar and played emcee for the hilarious folk music duo, Folk Uke. 

 

2017 Lineup included acts like:  Kacey Musgraves, Jamey Johnson, Steve Earle, Margo Price, Asleep at the Wheel, Turnpike Troubadours, Hayes Carll, Sheryl Crow, Willie's Family and more.

In our opionon, Lukas Nelson stole the show in 2017 when he sang a song during his set titled, "Forget About Georgia".  If you haven't heard him sing and cry over the guitar licks, do yourself a favor and listen to it here.  His guitar skills and vocals have nearly matched that of a younger Willie Nelson.  

Later in the night, after the fireworks,  Lukas joined his dad on stage and the two traded guitar rifts to Stevie Vaughan's, "Texas Flood" for what seemed to be hours.

 

2018 has all the potential to be one of the greatest as we come closer to the end of a legendary music festival.  2018 will mark the 45th anniversary of Willie's Picnic.  

2018 Lineup:  Sturgill Simpson, The Head and The Heart, Ryan Bingham, Edi Brickell & New Bohemians, Maro Price, Jamestown Revival, The Wild Feathers, Asleep at the Wheel, Ray Wylie Hubbard, David Allan Coe, Billy Joe Shaver and more.

2018 Picnic Poster & Lineup

2015 Concert Poster

2016 Concert Poster

2017 Concert Poster

Quotes & Information Credits

A special thanks to Austin360.com for their sources and continued great coverage of the legendary Willie Nelson.
Another thanks to StillIsStillMoving.com, another great Willie site that you should check out!
Check out our friends of the TSHA (Texas State Historical Association).  You can check out their new e-book titled, "Texas: A Musical Journey."  The e-book takes you down a path how Texas got her sound.  You can download it for free today!

Photo Credits

Written by:  Cody Box

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