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Willie's 4th of July Picnic: How the 'Hillbilly Woodstock' Became a Cultural Phenomenon

Willie Nelson performs one song during Merle Haggard?s set at the 1983 Willie Nelson July 4th Picnic in the infield of Atlanta International Raceway in Hampton, Ga, July 4, 1983. Nelson was scheduled for a complete set at the conclusion of the all-day event. This was the first year the annual event was not held in Texas. (AP Photo/Ric Feld)

July 4th in Texas is practically synonymous with Willie Nelson's 4th of July Picnic. The event has been a part of Texas culture - on and off - for over 40 years. But beyond being a great party with some of country music's greatest icons, the picnic helped give birth to the outlaw country movement that changed Texas and country music forever.

And while this year's concert celebration will be held online, it's sure to be a great time. In honor of the 47th edition of the famous picnic, take a look back at Texas' biggest party and how it all came together.

The Family Reunion

In 1972, Willie Nelson was fresh from Nashville. He had been spending time in his home state after his Tennessee home was destroyed in a fire. He had grown tired of Nashville suits overproducing his records and was eager to start over far from Music City. Then he heard about a gig in Dripping Springs.

The site was Hurlbut Ranch, an unassuming plot of land along Hwy. 290 just west of Dripping Springs. Dallas promoters had their heart set on creating a "Hillbilly Woodstock," investing $250,000 into the event. It was called the Dripping Springs Reunion.

While the reunion is now remembered for its gathering of hippies and rednecks converged in the Texas Hill Country to see Waylon, Willie and the rest of the redneck rock brigade, the actual lineup was far more conservative. The reunion assembled country legends like Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Tex Ritter and Roy Acuff.

Missing from the list of names on the much touted lineup? Willie Nelson. Even though he was one of the most sought after songwriters in Nashville, Nelson hadn't earned top billing just yet (at least in the eyes of the promoters). The long-haired Red Headed Stranger we now know and love was still sporting short hair and a golf cap.

'Hillbilly Woodstock'

Both the promoters and national media expected the Dripping Springs Reunion to have a massive turnout. (Rolling Stone even sent Annie Leibovitz to snap photos of the event.) But in terms of attendance, the reunion was kind of a bust. Organizers expected 60,000 people a day. Between 7,000 and 10,000 showed up at the reunion, which ran from March 17 through the 19th.

But the Dripping Springs Reunion is remembered because of what it inspired. It further proved that country music wasn't as straitlaced as Music Row assumed. It showed that there was a hunger for country songs that Nashville wasn't offering.

One of those songs was by a young songwriter named Billy Joe Shaver. When Waylon Jennings heard Shaver sing "Willie the Wandering Gyspy and Me" backstage at the reunion, he knew on the spot that he'd record the song.

And when clean cut Willie was hanging out backstage with his friends, watching guitars being passed around and listening to songs sung, he realized he didn't need to be in Nashville to make the music he wanted to make. In fact, he needed Texas.

The Inaugural Picnic

In the months following the reunion, Willie Nelson's star continued to grow in Texas and beyond. Gigs at progressive country hubs like the Armadillo World Headquarters had made him the face of Austin's growing music scene. He was free to do whatever he wanted. And what Willie wanted was to throw a massive 4th of July celebration in the Texas Hill Country with all of his closest friends.

Nelson decided the same Dripping Springs ranch should be the site for the inaugural 4th of July Picnic. Inspiration struck Willie in early summer of 1973, which only left a weeks to organize the massive event. Incredibly, Willie's crew pulled it off and 40,000 people attended the one-day event.

The lineup included Waylon Jennings, John Prine, Tom T. Hall, Doug Sahm and Kris Kristofferson.

A Brief History of the Traveling Picnic

Despite being a Texas tradition, Willie's picnic hasn't really stayed in one spot for long. Here's a rundown of some of the notable venues that have hosted the celebration.

College Station, 1974

In 1974, the picnic moved to College Station at the Texas World Speedway. The event is especially notable for the parking lot fire that broke out, destroying a young Robert Earl Keen's car. (The car going up in flames is on the album cover for Keen's album Picnic.)

Liberty Hill, 1975

The picnic was held in Liberty Hill in 1975. Apparently, several attendees messed with Texas, leaving litter scattered across the grounds. Willie was fined $1,000 for violating the Texas Mass Gatherings Act.

Gonzales, 1976

The 1976 picnic in Gonzales is one of the largest in history, with more than 80,000 people in attendance. Unfortunately, the three-day festival was racked with controversy. More than 140 people were arrested and several assaults were reported. Willie was even sued by a couple of the injured attendees. Perhaps due to the Gonzales fiasco, Willie moved the picnic outside of Texas for the next couple of years.

Willie Nelson performs at his annual Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic in the infield of Atlanta International Raceway in Hampton, Georgia, Monday, July 5, 1983. It was the first time that the event was staged outside of Texas and it drew faithful by the thousands. (AP Photo/Ric Feld)

Luckenbach, 1995 - 1999

After the picnic bounced around sites from Tulsa to Kansas City to Willie's own Pedernales Country Club, the event found a new home in Luckenbach from 1995 through 1999. In '96, Waylon Jennings made his only trip to the small town he helped make famous.

Spicewood, 2003

In 2003, the picnic was held at Two River Canyon outside Spicewood, Texas. The event was a success, but a massive traffic jam on Texas 71 caused by concert goers was a deal breaker for several would-be attendants.

Billy Bob's Texas, 2004

In 2004, Willie moved the party to to the Fort Worth Stockyards behind Billy Bob's Texas. Finally, there was real air conditioning just a few feet away-- a novelty for the picnic. The large condensed crowd was a challenge for downtown Fort Worth but the picnic came back to the Stockyards for two more years.

Austin 360 Amphitheater

For the last few years, the 360 Amphitheater has been the home of Willie's 4th of July Picnic.

The 2019 lineup featured Willie Nelson and Family, Luke Combs, Jamey Johnson, Steve Earle and the Dukes, Hayes Carll, Alison Krauss, Colter Wall, Ray Wylie Hubbard and more.

This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 4th of July picnic will be held online with a livestream concert and archival footage of memorable moments throughout the history of the Picnic. Sheryl Crow, Ziggy Marley, Margo Price, Steve Earle and Kurt Vile, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Particle Kid and, of course, Willie Nelson and Family are all set to perform.

Like always, they're all renegade artists who play by their own rules. No matter where the picnic is held, the independent spirit will always live on.

Tickets for the 2020 virtual Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic are on sale here.

This article was originally published in 2017. It was updated on June 26, 2020. 

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Willie's 4th of July Picnic: How the 'Hillbilly Woodstock' Became a Cultural Phenomenon