A good long while back, during the more, well, improvisational years of Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnics, someone asked him if he was considering holding another brain-frying outdoor extravaganza the following year. Nelson just smiled and shrugged. “I guess so,” he replied, “I’d hate to put 400 thieves out of work.”
Ah, Nelson’s Picnics… Not so long after Woodstock, but figurative eons before Coachella, Lollapalooza, and the Austin City Limits Music Festival, Nelson’s holiday blowouts not only reflected the host’s eclectic tastes (everyone from Ernest Tubb to Bob Dylan), but also his judgment-free embrace of everyone—no matter the length of their hair or place on the political spectrum— who wanted to stand out in a cotton field, drink Pearl beer and/or smoke dope, get as sunburnt as a college student on spring break, and sing along to songs about cowboys, whiskey, lost loves, and redheaded strangers.
The event had its origins in a 1972 festival called the Dripping Springs Reunion—a financial sinkhole, but a cultural revelation in the ways hippies and rednecks could find common ground with a Texas-centric fusion of country and rock music. Nelson liked what he saw and appropriated the concept to begin a 40-odd-year run of festivals of his own. At least two were at Nelson’s golf course out in Spicewood, where Scott Newton took this photo in 1979. Newton, who has shot Nelson for most of his professional life, both as a freelancer and as official photographer for KLRU’s Austin City Limits, was typically offhanded about this unusual perspective. “He looked like he was glad to see me,” Newton recalls, “so I shot the image to remember the moment.”
All the Picnic essentials are present in Newton’s candid image: the braids, the shades, the impish grin, the adoring throngs basting in the hot Texas sunshine, and the can of Lone Star beer atop the amplifier. It’s the Fourth of July in Texas, y’all.
And the whole phenomenon shows no signs of stopping. Ask Nelson about retirement, and he’s apt to reply with a question of his own: “All I do is play music and golf; which one am I supposed to give up?” July 4 starting at 12 pm, tickets $35-$75, with VIP packages available, Austin360 Amphitheater