A Bicentennial 4th of July at Willie’s

Putting up our tent at Willie's Picnic (Click for larger image)

Putting up our tent at Willie’s Picnic

We’ve only spent one 4th in the States. It was Bicentennial year, 1976, and we spent four weeks driving around the South, with a final goal of Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic (the fourth or fifth, depending), held in Gonzalez that year.

(The photo above is one of only two I have left. Most of the others drowned in our cooler while driving)

We didn’t end up staying for the whole 24 hours… probably less than half of .it. It was hot (no surprise), crowded, and we were a long way from the stage. There were other issues.

An account in the Austin American-Statesman listed some “highlights”:

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.

Other things I remember:

  • Seeing our first armadillos. Pretty amazing creatures
  • A lot of people coming up to us saying “Happy Birthday”; I’d reply “It’s not mine.”, I don’t think they knew what I meant, but I was able to trade some of our Lone Star beer for smokeable items.
  • I don’t remember every performer we did see (well, we could see the stage, sort of), but the late, truly great George Jones was there. Those were his wild days; it was a small miracle he actually made this show. It was about a year after Tammy Wynette had left him, and I remember him changing the line in “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” to:

“I’m going to lay around the shack
Till Tammy comes back”

  • We also heard Asleep at the Wheel, Leon Russel, and Ray Wylie Hubbard & the Cowboy Twinkies (His shaggy dog story of how he wrote “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” on YouTube)

The account above also documented the local opposition to the Festival, led by the “Citizens for Law, Order and Decency” — yes, CLOD. The Rev. Jimmy Darnell wrote in a handbill, “To allow this invasion is to invite the anti-American, anti-Christian, hippie sub-culture right into our homes.”

The Picnic has had a lot of challenges over the years, but it was usually a bit smoother than that one. But although Willie has long been one of my favourite perfomers (Red Headed Stranger would be one of my desert island discs), I’ve still never seen him live.

I would have caught his most recent Toronto show at Massey Hall, except it was the night after we got back from a Ukraine-Istanbul trip, and I didn’t think I’d be ready for it. I did enjoyed though Brad Wheeler’s account in the Globe & Mail of the show and Willie’s entrance from his tour bus to the hall:

People waited for a sweet cloud of smoke to emerge from the touring vehicle, which would signal the imminent appearance of a kindly balladeer – the Pope of Puff. … The eyes of the new octogenarian twinkled, curiously showing no signs of glaucoma.

Long Live Willie; I expect he’ll always be glaucoma free.

And yes, we did put one of these bumper stickers on our car (a 1975 Nova).

Here’s Willie, band (and it’s mostly the same band he still plays with) along with Leon Russell (and drink) doing his classic, “Funny How Time Slips Away” at his 1974 Picnic.

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