If you had to pick a country music singer to throw a party every year on the 4th of July, Willie Nelson is a pretty safe choice.
You know Willie likes to have a good time, which is what has led to the success and longevity of his 4th of July Picnic. The first ever Independence Day event hosted by Nelson took place in 1973 at the Hurlbut Ranch in Dripping Springs, Texas.
A year prior, a country music festival by the name of the Dripping Springs Reunion took place at the same location, but commercially flopped due to the lack of funding and promotion. The lineup included the likes of Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson (to name a few) and was expected to be attended by upwards of 225,000 people.
The festival didn’t even get to 40,000 attendees, so the idea for that annual music fest was scrapped, though Nelson viewed it as a great spot for a music festival.
Whether it was brave or somewhat questionable, Willie brought his own event right back to the exact same spot, and considering the 4th of July picnic ran from 1973 all the way to 2019 (with some gaps here and there), I’d say it was a good decision.
The annual 4th of July celebration had some growing pains in the 1970’s with issues of security, pollution, arrests, and technical difficulties. That didn’t stop Willie Nelson (even though at one point he was sued by the ranch owner), and he and the event kept moving forward by trying out different locations in Texas.
The picnic really hit its stride in the 1980’s, and one of the highlights of the picnic’s lustrous history is the event that was held in 1985 in Austin, Texas. During that year’s celebration, the event brought together the first ever live performance by the Highwaymen, which featured Nelson, Johnny Cash, Jennings, and Kristofferson.
The lineup also featured the likes of Neil Young, Hank Snow, and June Carter Cash, and the updated and improved aspects of the picnic finally gained back the trust of country music fans and concert goers in Texas.
Though its tough to track down a video of The Highwaymen’s first live performance from the picnic, they continued to perform together in front of audiences pretty consistently after the fact. Later in the same year even, the four country music legends graced the stage at Farm Aid in 1985.
Their performance at the 4th of July Picnic probably looked a little something like this rendition of “Highwayman” from the same year: