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Willie's 4th of July Picnic

How the 'Hillbilly Woodstock' Became a Cultural Phenomenon

By Bobbie Jean Sawyer with images from Sam Burns

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July 4th in Texas is practically synonymous with Willie Nelson's 4th of July Picnic. The event has been a part of the culture of the Lone Star State- 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 the state and country music forever.

Willie Nelson's 4th of July Picnic Tuesday July 4, 2023 2:00 pm CT See Details Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic returns to Q2 Stadium on July 4! The event will feature Willie Nelson & Family, Tyler Childers, Dwight Yoakam, Shakey Graves, Shane Smith & the Saints, Sierra Ferrell, Asleep at the Wheel, and Particle Kid.

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 straight-laced 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 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 Lone Star State tradition, Willie's picnic hasn't really stayed in one spot for long.

Read the whole history at Wide Open Country.

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

--Wide Open country

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