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In 1973, a forty-year-old country musician named Willie Nelson, inspired by a failed music festival the year before, decided he was going to hold his own party. He would stage it in the same remote and rocky field where the previous festival had withered. And he’d do it in July: not the hottest part of the Central Texas summer, but “damn sure close enough,” according to music journalist Dave Dalton Thomas. As unlikely as it seemed in 1973, Willie kept the event going, minus a year off here and there, for half a century.

Thomas has attended nearly every Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic since 1995, finding joy in an event some music reporters have compared to “death marches and prison labor.” For the last 20 years, Thomas has researched the history of the Picnic, chronicling the brutal heat and the quirky and sometimes illegal antics of fans, musicians, and others. Thomas has watched the Picnic evolve over the decades, as Willie and his audience have evolved. He has interviewed participants, including artists, organizers, promoters, and even a few colorful hangers-on.

While reviewing ten of the Picnics in detail—each chosen for its significance in the overarching development of the event—Thomas also includes basic facts about each gathering, from the beginning to the present, with the addition of pertinent information about the “off years,” when the Picnic was on temporary hiatus for one reason or another.

In his introduction, Thomas quotes country musician Johnny Bush as he recalls trying to talk Nelson out of the notion of holding the first Picnic. “Willie, there ain’t no way in hell a bunch of cowboys are going to come out in the hundred-degree heat to watch us pick our guitars.” As Thomas records them, Bush’s next words were “he proved me wrong.”

DAVE DALTON THOMAS, formerly a journalist for the Austin American-Statesman, has obsessively researched the history of the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic for more than 20 years. With the American-Statesman from 2002 to 2019, Thomas’s reporting and writing have also appeared in the Daily Beast, CNN.comTexas Highways, the San Angelo Standard-Times, and other outlets.

Picnic: Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Tradition (Texas Music Series, Sponsored by the Center for Texas Music History, Texas State University) By Dave Dalton Thomas, Joe Nick Patoski (Foreword by) Cover Image
ISBN: 9781648431944
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Texas A&M University Press - April 15th, 2024