An older man smiling near a microphone while performing.
Willie Nelson performs at the 1980 Fourth of July Picnic at the Pedernales Country Club.

In the spring of 1995, Dave Dalton Thomas, a self-described “copy editor with a writing problem,” at the San Angelo Standard-Times got a call that would change his life. On the other end of the line was storied Texas empresario “Jalapeño Sam” Lewis delivering the news that Willie Nelson was bringing his annual Fourth of July Picnic to a town that Nelson and Waylon Jennings made famous: Luckenbach. This would be the first time the picnic, founded in Dripping Springs in 1973, would come to the hamlet 15 minutes southeast of Fredericksburg, and Lewis wanted Thomas to be the first to spread the news. Little did Thomas know at the time that not only would the Nelson’s picnic become a near-annual ritual for him, but that he would go on to author the event’s definitive history—from its early days through a half-century of triumphs and tribulations.

Published this spring, Picnic: Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Tradition digs into what has become an institution and the Outlaw Country era that birthed it. Here, Thomas chats about the event’s early days, its colorful characters, and the upcoming picnic in—wait for it—New Jersey.

TH: Why did Willie Nelson call it a “picnic” in the first place?
DDT: It’s a mystery! I asked everyone who might know, and they didn’t really know why Willie called it a picnic, or else they’d forgotten.

TH: Those early picnics were in Dripping Springs, Liberty Hill, and the Pedernales Country Club—none of them in a big city or off the interstate. In the age before GPS and Google Maps, how would folks find the event site?
With those early picnics, there wasn’t an actual address, but “turn here and follow the signs” [directions]. People would just abandon their cars and go to the show without any thought of how they would find their car later. [Musician] Robert Earl Keen talks about how his car caught on fire [when he attended the second picnic], but I hadn’t heard about how he got home. He told me that he hitchhiked from College Station to Houston. That’s unfathomable now.

TH: Those first picnics could get rowdy, didn’t they?
People told me that at the early picnics, people tore apart the fencing just to get in. There’d be what [early picnic promoter] Dahr Jamail called “the appearance of the fence.” After the crowds were done with it, it didn’t appear as much of a fence anymore.

TH: Although you didn’t manage to interview Willie, you still talked to more than a 100 people for the book, including musicians Marcia Ball and Ray Wylie Hubbard and Armadillo World Headquarters co-founder Eddie Wilson. Any memorable moments interviewing anyone for the book?
DDT: [The late] Kinky Friedman did an interview where he referred to himself in the third person. And I can’t explain what’s so cool about getting texts from Joe Ely.

TH: After canceling some shows recently, there was concern about Willie playing this year’s Fourth of July Picnic along with Bob Dylan in New Jersey. What are your expectations for this year?
DDT: The most recent thing I’ve heard from Willie’s publicist, Elaine Schock, is that Willie is “expected to be at the picnic.” That’s not a lot of information, but I’m not in the business of doubting Willie. The concert itself will be a fine event, but with little connection to what I grew up thinking was a picnic and further yet from the event’s wild youth. This isn’t necessarily new. The event was forced to reinvent itself in the ’80s to survive. It had to reinvent itself in the ’90s to make money and draw an audience. And lately it has had to reinvent its once-traditional lineup—because Willie has had the good fortune and bad luck of outliving many of his old friends. I do like that there are more female performers. The picnic has always been a “boy’s club.”

Catch Dave Dalton Thomas at an upcoming book signing in Austin at Better Half Coffee & Cocktails (406 Walsh St.) on July 3 at 5 p.m.

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