Wil­lie, to the 10th fac­tor

A look back at Nel­son’s pic­nics in 1980, 1990 and 2000

Austin American-Statesman - - MUSIC - By Dave Thomas Amer­i­can-States­man Staff

How old is Wil­lie Nel­son’s Fourth of July Pic­nic?

Its se­nior mem­ber, Ray Price, was once room­mates with Hank Wil­liams. No, don’t even think ‘Ju­nior.’

Jimmy Buf­fett played it in 1974, back when any­one call­ing them­selves a ‘Par­rot­head’ would’ve been taken to the med­i­cal tent for closer scru­tiny.

When Wil­lie comes out to greet the crowd at the Back­yard at noon on Sun­day, the Pic­nic will be 37 years old. In fes­ti­val years, it could be Bon­na­roo’s great­grand­fa­ther. Oz­zfest calls it ‘sir.’

When the Pic­nic be­gan, in 1973, ‘Hagar the Hor­ri­ble’ was a fresh, new comic strip; ‘Du­el­ing Ban­jos’ was a ra­dio hit; and the New York Knicks were NBA cham­pi­ons.

That’s pretty old, even for a some-what-but-never-quite-an­nual fes­ti­val.

I must dis­close that — with a grow­ing col­lec­tion of mem­o­ra­bilia, hours upon hours of re­search and per­sonal files la­beled by year and site — I am a hope­less Pic­nic fa­natic.

But when faced with such se­nior­ity, even a

Wil­lie Nel­son’s 4th of July Pic­nic

When: Doors at 11 a.m. Sun­day, mu­sic starts at noon Where: The Back­yard at Bee Cave, 13472 Bee Cave Park­way (off RM 620) Cost: $55 In­for­ma­tion: www.the­back­yard.net fa­natic must sub­mit to the nat­u­ral ten­dency (Wil­lie, Fam­ily and fans for­give me) and ask, ‘How much longer can it last?’

For­tu­nately, all that re­search of­fers an an­swer: Don’t bet against the Pic­nic.

Don’t be­lieve me? Given that 2010 is such a nice round num­ber, let’s take a look at the past three decades.

30 years ago: I Just Can’t Let You Say Good­bye

Ped­er­nales Coun­try Club At­ten­dance: 60,000 Ticket prices: $15 No­table per­form­ers: Faron Young, Ernest Tubb, Merle Hag­gard

The 1980 Pic­nic was def­i­nitely go­ing to be the last one.

Sure, Wil­lie had said this be­fore. Af­ter the 1976 Pic­nic ended in chaos, he swore them off, and even as late as 1978, he was telling Coun­try Song Roundup that ‘I’m en­joy­ing not do­ing it.’ Never mind that when that in­ter­view hit the news­stands, Wil­lie was sched­uled for shows billed as Pic­nics in Kansas City (July 1) and Dal­las (July 2) and at the Austin Opry House (July 4, 5).

No, in 1980 he meant it. And in 1980, that was big news.

The New York Times sent a re­porter who filed a smug re­port say­ing that the Hill Coun­try was ‘one of the few places in Texas that has ever been ac­cused of hav­ing nat­u­ral beauty.’ And Charles Mur­phy, like so many other re­porters since, could hardly re­mark on much

more than the heat dur­ing a quick men­tion of the Pic­nic on ABC World News Tonight.

The last one? Ab­so­lutely. It was even printed on the ticket.

It must have seemed be­liev­able at the time. The night be­fore the Pic­nic, Wil­lie had the world pre­miere for his movie ‘Honey­suckle Rose’ right here in Austin, red car­pet and all. Jour­nal­ists and fans were say­ing Wil­lie didn’t need the Pic­nic any­more, he was a big star now. He even had his own brand of jeans. Re­ally.

And truth be told, the 1980 Pic­nic was the last of its breed. Per­form­ers were flown in by heli­copter, re­porters brought in by boat (and pic­nic-bound fans sat in traf­fic for hours). Wil­lie sang on­stage with Ernest Tubb, Slim Pick­ens and Dyan Can­non.

There was wild be­hav­ior: Po­lice ar­rested more than 60 peo­ple and medics treated more than 300. Fights broke out. A jus­tice of the peace even set up shop a cou­ple miles away. And the crowds … the Pic­nic would not see num­bers like that again.

But the end lasted only a cou­ple years. In 1983, Wil­lie took a prac­tice run of three pic­nics on the East Coast on July 2-4. By 1984, he was right back in Cen­tral Texas with a show at South­park Mead­ows.

The Pic­nic was now smaller and tamer, but it had out­lasted its own demise.

20 years ago: Un­cloudy Day

1990: Zilker Park At­ten­dance: 15,000 Ticket prices: $7-$9 No­table per­form­ers: The High­way­men, Lit­tle Joe y la Fa­milia

A July 4 con­cert at Zilker Park three years ear­lier by the Beach Boys had drawn a crowd of 50,000, and Pic­nic or­ga­niz­ers were ex­pect­ing up to 35,000, so there must have dis­ap­point­ment some­where when fewer than 15,000 showed up for coun­try mu­sic’s most awe­some four­some: Wil­lie, Way­lon Jen­nings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristof­fer­son.

But States­man re­views of the show don’t re­veal any hard feel­ings, just a sense of re­lief over the smooth­ness of an ef­fi­ciently run, city-em­braced, well-be­haved Pic­nic. ‘The smoothest Pic­nic ever,’ Wil­lie told the States­man. And who could ar­gue with 30 shut­tle buses, free drink­ing wa­ter and en­ter­tain­ment for the kids?

There were only about a half-dozen ar­rests and, de­spite the 101-de­gree tem­per­a­ture, an EMS tech­ni­cian said the prob­lems with heat ex­haus­tion were min­i­mal, not­ing that ‘the crowd had good sense and wore light cloth­ing and drank a lot of wa­ter.’

Thom Stein­beck, son of author John Stein­beck, said of the Pic­nic: ‘These are good, gen­tle peo­ple.’ The ar­ti­cle doesn’t say that he was swirling a snifter of brandy as he said it, but that’s kinda what I pic­ture in my head.

The out­law im­age (and some­times ug­li­ness) that had ruled the early Pic­nics had been dis­ap­pear­ing through­out the 1980s. Now it was thor­oughly gone. And yet, the Pic­nic hadn’t lost any cred­i­bil­ity in the trans­for­ma­tion.

No, the High­way­men would erase any doubts about the au­then­tic­ity of the evening. It might have been Wil­lie’s Pic­nic, but it was Cash’s show. The Man in Black got roars for ‘Fol­som Prison Blues’ and ‘A Boy Named Sue’ and pa­tri­otic ap­proval for his spo­ken-word ‘Ragged Old Flag.’

The High­way­men turned in a 19-song set, end­ing with ‘Luck­en­bach Texas’ and ‘On the Road Again.’ If you wanted to rank Pic­nics on a dol­lars-to-awe­some­ness ra­tio, this would seem like a good place to start.

The Pic­nic was smaller and tamer still. But it had out­lasted the out­law era.

10 years ago: Funny How Time Slips Away

2000: South­park Mead­ows At­ten­dance: 11,000 Ticket prices: $27.50 No­table per­form­ers: Joe Ely, Rusty Wier, Pat Green

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. A decade ago, you would have been look­ing at the South­park Mead­ows stage as the venue pre­pared for a House of Blues makeover.

You prob­a­bly wouldn’t have guessed that South­park Mead­ows would never host an­other con­cert af­ter the Pic­nic. You def­i­nitely wouldn’t have guessed that in just over half a decade, it would be on its way to be­com­ing Austin’s biggest shop­ping cen­ter.

No, you would have been mar­veling at how the Year of the Woman at Wil­lie’s Pic­nic brought a lit­tle beauty to that boys’ club. They weren’t quite as ethe­re­ally en­chant­ing as Em­my­lou Har­ris at Luck­en­bach in 1998, but Toni Price fit right in, Su­san Tedeschi jammed fan­tas­ti­cally with Wil­lie and Shelby Lynne … well, a man can only stare at David Al­lan Coe so long.

Wil­lie would re­lease his ‘Milk Cow Blues’ al­bum a few months later, so it’s no sur­prise that the Pic­nic had a bluesy feel. Wil­lie jammed early, of­ten and late with other per­form­ers, throw­ing the sched­ule into chaos. (Wil­lie and Hawai­ian gui­tarist Wil­lie K prac­ti­cally put on their own con­cert.)

As it turns out, the third Pic­nic to be held at South­park Mead­ows was kind of an ac­ci­dent. Wil­lie was go­ing to re­turn to Drip­ping Springs in 2000, but a re­vised state law was dis­cov­ered a bit too late.

To be brief: Texas had al­lowed mass gath­er­ings of 12 hours or less to be held with­out county per­mits. In 1999, that law was changed to re­quire any event last­ing 5 hours or more to re­ceive a county per­mit. Coun­ties would prove hes­i­tant to is­sue such a per­mit, at least with­out oner­ous re­stric­tions.

That re­vised law would for­ever change the Pic­nic, steer­ing it to­ward es­tab­lished venues al­ready zoned for such events and, in the process, giv­ing it a more cor­po­rate vibe. (Af­ter five years in Luck­en­bach, South­park Mead­ows did seem like a pretty soul­less place for a Pic­nic, but there was some­thing to be said for the venue’s ac­ces-ac­ces sibil­ity and park­ing.)

Wil­lie, as usual, was un­rat­tled. ‘I’ve al­ways felt no mat­ter where we had (the Pic­nic), no mat­ter what kind of mu­sic we have, as long as we have a good mix of things, peo­ple will keep com­ing,’ he told the States­man in 2000. ‘And they have.’

The Pic­nic, smaller and tamer yet, has out­lasted both state leg­is­la­tion and South Austin land­marks.

This year: Stay a Lit­tle Longer

2010: The (new) Back­yard Ca­pac­ity: 7,500 Ticket prices: $55 No­table per­form­ers: Kris Kristof­fer­son, Jamey John­son

There’s no rock star — no Bob Dylan, no Neil Young, no Doo­bie Broth-Broth ers — rid­ing shot­gun this year: Is it a sign of the Pic­nic’s fad­ing power? More than likely, it’s just the re­al­ity of the 7,500-per­son-ca­pac­ity of the new Back­yard. Even if the Pic­nic is packed from stage to gate, it’ll still be one of the small­est-ever Pic­nics.

(Though, even if it’s just a hun­dred hip­pies and me, it’ll prob­a­bly still have 10 times as much groove as the numb­ingly generic Pic­nic at the dy­ing Ver­i­zon Wire­less Am­phithe­ater in

Jerry Blun­dell and his cat, Pre­cious, try to hitch a ride to the 1980 pic­nic.

Nel­son’s 2000 Pic­nic was the last con­cert held at South­park Mead­ows.

The High­way­men, with Wil­lie Nel­son, left, and Johnny Cash, head­lined the 1990 pic­nic.

Larry Kolvo­ord

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