My appreciation for Willie Nelson came almost as an accident.
In the early 70s, I was very much a disciple of Leon Russell, the gravelly voiced pianist and singer-songwriter who played with just about everyone on the planet, from Joe Cocker to George Harrison to Ray Charles.
I bought Leons albums, went to his concerts and wore his T-shirts. I watched him on film during the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and the Concert for Bangladesh. For me, Leon was the music man.
So when I heard, in the summer of 1973, that he might be playing in a field near Austin with Willie Nelson, I just had to find my way to Dripping Springs. I knew a little about Willie, the old guy who played Whiskey River to hippies, but more importantly, Id seen the Woodstock movie. And I didnt want to miss that communal music experience right here in Texas.
First, Id have to sell my mom on the idea. Some of my friends went to the first Kerrville Music Festival in 1972, but she wouldnt let me go. Im not sure what changed in a year, but somehow I persuaded her that this July 4, 1973, trip was the most important opportunity in my young life.
And so at age 15, there I was, walking in a dusty field toward a stage where Id see Willie Nelson play live for the first time. Little did I know it would be the beginning of a four-decade long relationship with the American musical icon and his picnic, which would become a Texas-soaked soundtrack for the Fourth of July.
That first show in Dripping Springs was hot and crowded. Leon was there; so was Kris Kristofferson. Willie was having a blast, and it was contagious. Id seen my share of concerts, but never like this with so many folks having so much fun outdoors!
I decided right then and there that if this happened again, I would be there.
And it did happen again. In 1974, Willie hosted the Fourth of July Picnic, a three-day celebration in College Station at the Texas World Speedway, where Richard Petty had won a race the previous summer. We parked in a field of grass dried by the Texas heat and walked through a tunnel under the track. When we emerged, we saw a massive stage with Willies name and picture painted on the background. This year, I was going to record a little of the fun with photos and a Super 8 movie camera.
My hero, Leon, strolled the stage between sets and acted as emcee, ushering onstage Augie Meyers, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Steve Fromholz, Rusty Wier, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jerry Jeff Walker, Waylon Jennings, Michael (before he was Martin) Murphey, Jimmy Buffett and, of course, Willie.
NBC was filming a Midnight Special, so there were occasional breaks for camera movement and Wolfman Jack segments.
A fire started in the field of cars where wed parked. I broke out the Super 8 and began my career as a journalist. I filmed the volunteer firefighters working alongside shirtless hippies trying to extinguish a Chevy station. The fire spread, but luckily, there didnt seem to be any injuries.
In 1975, the picnic moved north a piece to Liberty Hill in Williamson County. Kristofferson reappeared with his wife, Rita Coolidge; Charlie Daniels fiddled his way into our hearts; and a Fort Worth favorite, Delbert McClinton, joined the fun. The Pointer Sisters were there, too, although Im not sure why. We hurried to buy $5.50 advance tickets, which included overnight camping. (We didnt want to have to pay $7.50 at the gate.)
As 1976 rolled around, Willie took his roadshow to Gonzales, the site of the first battle of the Texas Revolution. Its also where I got my first taste of Shiner, which I later learned was made right down the highway.
The crowd was huge that year, and of course, it rained. It was muddy. Maybe Woodstock wasnt so much fun after all. Soaked and discouraged, we got a motel room and watched the bicentennial events on TV fireworks bursting above the newly refurbished Statue of Liberty and tall ships going by those two giant World Trade Center towers. Not bad at all.
It would be a few years before Id make it back to the picnic, but in 1984, Willie rolled into South Park Meadows, right outside Austin. I applied for credentials to shoot photos and was granted a pass, plus one. I couldnt find anyone to make the trip, so, more than a decade after Id begged my mother to let me go to Dripping Springs, I invited her to see Willie for herself.
She was entranced by the crowd, the spectacle and, yes, the aromas. Ill wager she was the only woman there in a knee-length denim skirt. Do you have a photo of your mom with 15,000 hipsters?
During the next few years, I saw Willie many times, but never on July Fourth. I made trips to Vegas to see him at Caesars and the Orleans. I watched him perform at rodeo grounds and fairs. I saw him in intimate clubs and great halls.
But I missed the old picnic days, camping out with my pals, never knowing or caring what was about to happen.
When I jumped back on the Fourth of July Picnic train at in the Fort Worth Stockyards in 2004, there was a different crowd. Hippies looked like grandfathers. Silver-haired ladies danced in tie-dyed moo moos. People werent smoking anything. A longneck cost more than my admission to the first four picnics. Some of the old reliables were there, like Leon and Kristofferson, but a new generation of entertainers were pleasing a new crop of Willie fans. Los Lonely Boys rocked the place and Larry the Cable Guy was testifying. Things had changed, but the party continued.
In 2005, Bob Dylan joined Willie for the Picnic in the Stockyards. So did the Doobie Brothers and a much slower Leon Russell. Corporate sponsorship had changed the old renegade feeling of the picnic, but the music lived on.
In 2010, the Bringing It Back Home Fourth of July Picnic came to The Backyard in Bee Cave, near Austin. I knew I should be there, too. Leon was back in the saddle after having brain surgery earlier in the year. Kristofferson sang the classics and Asleep at the Wheel choo choo chboogied. The torch has been passed to youngsters like Randy Rogers and Jamey Johnson to carry the Willie message to a new generation of young country listeners.
During the last couple of picnics in the Stockyards, Willie has really made it a family affair his sons and daughters are part of the entertainment. Paula Nelson, Folk Uke with Amy Nelson, Micah Nelson and Lukas Nelson all showed their stuff.
Its funny to reflect on your life in Willie increments, but thats what the picnic has meant for me.
Its like stepping into a time machine and traveling back to the land of no responsibilities the days when you could grab an ice chest, a blanket, hop in the back of a pickup and leave the world behind. Ive seen Willie with someone I would later marry and divorce. I attended a picnic with someone I wished I had married. And, sadly, some of my picnic cronies are no longer with us.
But Willie is THE survivor.
His band has changed a bit in recent years, his signature braids and beard are a little whiter these days, but he continues to provide the soundtrack for the Fourth of July.
As the 2013 picnic nears, I am grateful to have been in the congregation that gathered in the Hill Country for a few days in July 40 years ago. I last saw Willie in Arlington in November. For a few minutes, I closed my eyes and could almost taste the dust.