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Archive: Exploring the mystery at Willie's 1997 Picnic

Chris Riemenschneider

There has never really been a decent explanation.

It's the hottest month of the year, in one of the hottest states of the country. The singer, as grand as he is, can usually be seen one, two or more times a year in any given state.

And yet they come.

Year after year, Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic is among Texas' most popular gatherings on Independence Day, despite the heat, the drive and the crowds that everyone has to endure.

Willie's fans come shirtless. They come wearing tight jeans and worn cowboy boots. They come with their sons, daughters, fraternity brothers, biker buddies and even, like Hal Addison of San Antonio, with members of their church congregation.

"It's a religious experience in some ways, '' Addison explained.

They come from out of state, out of town or, in the case of Luckenbach's three residents, out their back door.

Friday's picnic, held for the third straight year in this near-mythical town 90 minutes west of Austin, was no exception. Some 9,000 fans turned out to see Willie and his regular posse of performers, including Waylon Jennings, Ray Price, Leon Russell, David Allan Coe, Little Joe y la Familia and more.

And, as in previous years, they suffered temperatures nearing 100 degrees. So the most obvious question of the day -- other than "When's Willie comin' on?'' -- remains "Why?''

"It's the Texas-ness of it, '' said Angie Peters, 44, a former Austinite now living in Phoenix, who flew in for her eighth or ninth picnic. "You've got Willie, the music, the heat, the rednecks, the Shiner beer. Texas just seems to come together here.''

The picnic's emcee, Bob Cole of KASE 101 radio in Austin, said it's more than just a Texas event.

"There's nothing more American than Willie Nelson on the Fourth of July, and yet the U.S. government didn't want him to have his picnics, '' Cole said, referring to the early '90s, when Nelson's trouble with the IRS put the annual event on hold.

Those days are over, and Nelson seems content putting the event on each year in Luckenbach, a hodgepodge of beat-up, wooden buildings that was immortalized in his 1977 hit with Jennings, "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).''

"It's always nice coming back here, '' Nelson noted from the stage, where he spent most of his day introducing performers, occasionally joining them. But whenever he could, he sat back and listened to the music, which started with Ava Mason's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner'' a little after 10 a.m.

The day's biggest music surprise came when Dwight Yoakum joined Joe Ely on stage for two Buddy Holly numbers, "Oh Boy!'' and "Not Fade Away.'' Yoakum has been in San Antonio for the filming of "The Newton Boys.''

Less surprising was that heat began taking its toll on concertgoers by late afternoon. One fan had to be taken by ambulance to a hospital, and about a dozen others were treated at the concert for heat exhaustion. However, David Fry, a registered nurse from Kerrville, said the number of cases was down from the previous two years.

"I think people are more aware of how serious the heat can be this year, and they're drinking more water, '' Fry said. "Unfortunately, they're not drinking less alcohol. I got here at 7 (a.m.) and there were already people drinking.''

Mel Gideon, a senior deputy with the Gillespie County sheriff's department, said several arrests were made for public intoxication, as well as for disorderly conduct and possession of marijuana.

Gideon said some area residents don't approve of the Willie's often-rowdy picnic being held nearby, "but it's just for the inconvenience. Generally, there's no violence and everything runs smoothly. This year is no exception.''

Kit Patterson, whose late grandfather Hondo Crouch owned Luckenbach's property and helped make it a legend, said a lot of the town's regulars make other plans for the holiday.

"They help us prepare, and then they tell us, 'We'll see you on the fifth, ''' Patterson said.

Why, then, does Luckenbach keep putting up with the picnics?

"They're an institution, like Luckenbach, '' Patterson said.