THROUGH THE LENS: Willie Nelson’s First Fourth of July Picnic
Willie Nelson Backstage - Willie Nelson's 4th of July Picnic 1973 - Photo by Mary Andrews
Willie Nelson’s first Fourth of July Picnic, in 1973, was inspired by the Dripping Springs Reunion held at the Hurlbut Ranch in Dripping Springs, Texas, the year before, where Nelson and other country music favorites performed. While its promotion and attendance were lackluster, Nelson recognized that the Reunion had sparked interest in both the Austin music scene and progressive country music in general.
The next year, under his guidance, his “reunion”-style Picnic at the same site became a phenomenon. Just two years later, the Texas Senate passed a resolution proclaiming July 4, 1975, as “Willie Nelson Day.” The event has remained so popular that it’s been held every year since, albeit at different locations.
Let’s go back in time and take a look at that legendary 1973 event with someone who was there: writer and photographer Mary Andrews. Not only was she there, she also knew some of the artists who performed that day. Here is Mary’s report, and her photos are featured in the gallery below.
The Move From Nashville to Austin
While Willie Nelson had achieved considerable success in Nashville as a songwriter with songs like “Crazy” and “Nightlife,” he had not gained the same caliber of success as a recording artist. After a fire destroyed his house in the outskirts of Nashville, returned to his home state of Texas in 1971.
That slick image that Nashville executives had tried to mold him into wasn’t Nelson. The difficult decision to leave Nashville was tempered by the comfort he found in Texas, and it fostered a new way of thinking that allowed him to channel his songwriting energy to new heights. Nelson also formed a band that consisted of his “family.”
During those two years in Texas, Nelson’s momentum and stature as an “outlaw” (before that term was coined) resulted in the May release of his landmark album Shotgun Willie, and two months later his first Fourth of July Picnic.
The turning point in Nelson’s career was a combination of leaving the Nashville scene, a new record label, and his laid-back outlaw lifestyle, including his festivals. Nelson’s career was on an unstoppable path.
The 1973 Picnic
On that July 1973 day, on the way to Hurlbut Ranch in Dripping Springs, traffic was backed up ten miles as the multigenerational throngs of country hippies and rednecks tried to gain access to the large field in front of the stage. It was a sweltering day in the hill country. However, those of us who had gotten there the day before were treated to a sunrise performance of Leon Russell singing “Amazing Grace” with Nelson. Russell was at the height of his career, and as anyone who saw him then can attest he was the most moving force in American music at that time.
Sammi Smith (who had a breakout hit with Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night”) brought me to the festival as her photographer. She knew it would be a monumental day. I was armed with my camera, 35mm and 120mm lenses, but only three rolls of film. I wish I had been better prepared, but that’s all I could afford. So, I had to be very selective with who and what I shot.
This was a different kind of country music fanbase. An announcer on stage read messages throughout the day. ”Stay away from the green acid.” “Some people have been eating mushrooms and getting sick.” “There’s some bad cocaine going around.” It was reported that a 14-year-old girl suffered from an accidental gunshot wound. Salt tablets were passed around after a dozen people were treated for heat-related illness. Rumors of partial nudity in the crowd were true.
Backstage With Willie and Friends: Kristofferson, Russell, Jennings, Prine, and More
With his friends Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Waylon Jennings, Sammi Smith, Doug Sahm, Charlie Rich, Tom T. Hall, Leon Russell, and John Prine, Nelson’s vision of a Woodstock experience materialized. Backstage, where Stevie Ray Vaughan was rumored to have been, things were calm. The mood was playful and light as the beer and the joints were passed around freely. Like the friends they were, the artists experienced each other’s sets with an apparent sense of camaraderie.
During the previous two years I had heard so much about Kristofferson that I was determined to meet him. When I spotted him squatting down next to a post as he smoked a cigarette he was even more handsome than in his publicity photos. I was hypnotized by his deep-set eyes the color of the Mediterranean Sea. I introduced myself and asked him if I could take a couple of pictures. In a deep voice, he intoned, “As long as I don’t have to look pretty.” His film career as well as his music was burgeoning by then.
In addition to the music, there was the wedding of Nelson’s drummer, Paul “The Devil” English, to Dianne Huddleston on stage in the middle of the festivities. The matron of honor was Smith, while Jennings was best man. Kristofferson, Hall, and Sahm were groomsmen. Coolidge, Connie Nelson, and Lana Nelson were bridesmaids. The ceremony took place in front of 40,000 inebriated fans who cheered relentlessly as the wedding commenced.
Now: 47 Years Later
Nelson’s family has remained largely intact, although living hard on the road has taken its toll: His lifelong friend and drummer, Paul English, passed away in February at the age of 87. Their adventures together were the subject of several Nelson songs, most famously, “Me and Paul.” Bassist Bee Spears and guitarist/vocalist Jody Payne both passed away in 2011.
The annual Willie Nelson Fourth of July picnics have rolled on for 47 continuous years. The locations of the festivals have changed, but Nelson’s vision of what country music should be was realized. He didn’t have great success until he defied Nashville. That defiance allowed him to make a huge contribution to the evolution of both country music and Texas music.