Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Relive legendary '73 Willie Picnic on Friday (but with shade and cocktails)

Austin DJ Honky Tonk Amnesia will host party at Better Half honoring 45th anniversary of first Picnic

Dave Thomas
The Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic outside Dripping Springs in 1973.

Willie Nelson’s 1973 Fourth of July Picnic in Dripping Springs was an adventure. It was a disaster. It was brilliant. It was brutal. It was all of those things and it was also a moment in time — you can’t go back.

But if the magic was in the music, you can get a feel for that pioneering Picnic this Friday at Better Half Coffee & Cocktails406 Walsh St.

Austin DJ Will Furgeson — who spins records as Honky Tonk Amnesia — will be celebrating the 45th anniversary of the ‘73 Picnic with a party featuring music from performers who played that legendary show.

You’ll hear Willie and Waylon, of course. Kris Kristofferson and then-wife Rita Coolidge. Doug Sahm and Charlie Rich. Tom T. Hall and Billy Joe Shaver. And certainly Leon Russell, who is as responsible as anyone for making the Picnic a success.

RELATED: Dawn of the Picnic — Eddie Wilson got Willie fest off to steady start

If a new bar where you can get a granola bowl and a glass of Chateau Coutinel Fronton doesn’t strike you as the right setting for Waylon Jennings’ swaggering “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” Furgeson is not worried. During an interview at Better Half last week, he’s sipping a Pearl Beer on the back patio and nodding toward where he’ll set up his turntables: “There’s a big oak tree, and a train goes by every once in awhile, it’s a nice little vibe.”

Furgeson, 38, doesn’t DJ full time, but plays a party about once a month while building up to his now-annual pre-Picnic show. 

“Every show I like to come up with some little theme,” Furgeson said, “but the Picnic show is the one that I do research for and try to figure out who was there and try to come up with a cohesive theme for the evening.”

This is his third year putting on a Picnic-themed show — two years ago he celebrated the 1976 Picnic, last year it was the 1987 Picnic — and it’s a music nerd’s paradise.

“There’s nothing I’d rather do than sit around and look through my records and figure out what I want to play,” Furgeson said. “The challenge is figuring out who the heck was playing these things. You always know who the headliners were, but who was playing at noon, 1 p.m.?”

TIMELINE: The definitive history of Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic

So it’s not just picking songs, but digging up Picnic history online, in books and at the Austin History Center — it’s work he’s familiar with.

“I wrote my thesis at UT on the confluence of Willie Nelson arriving in Austin and him becoming a big star along with the progressive country / cosmic cowboy / outlaw guys and how that sort of boosted Austin’s profile and spurred it on to become the live music center that it is now,” Furgeson said.

Fueled by this passion for music, Furgeson has amassed a collection of ‘a few thousand’ country vinyl records. His focus on country music is natural — his DJ name, Honky Tonk Amnesia is taken from the title of a 1970s Moe Bandy song — but it’s also fueled by his day job in renewable energy.

“My career takes me to a lot of small towns and rural areas,” he said, “so if you’re collecting records and you’ve got some time after work one day and you’re stuck out at Plainview or rural Arkansas or the middle of nowhere, you’re probably not going to find a lot of funk and soul records.”

PHOTOS: 50 archive images from Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic

Furgeson is particularly excited about the 1973 Picnic, which brought about 40,000 cowboys and hippies to a sun-swept, rocky ranch outside Dripping Springs. Furgeson’s parents were at the daylong show and he has kept an original concert poster by Jim Franklin on display at home. But, he points out, as one of Texas’ biggest ongoing music traditions, the Picnic tells a tale throughout its history.

“Each of these Picnics is a little microcosm of not only what was going on in Austin and Texas at the time, but also what was going on in country music,” Furgeson said. “From ‘73 to ‘87 to now you can sort of track the various trends and the people” who have come and gone over the years.

2017 REVIEW: Willie Nelson remains timeless at mellow Fourth of July Picnic

Studying the Picnic offers a lot of history — but it’s a little short on community and beer. That’s where the pre-Picnic party comes in, Furgeson said:

“It just seemed like a neat way to take my historic interest in country music and put it in a form where people can come out and dance and listen to good music all night.”


When: 8 p.m. June 29

Where: Better Half Coffee & Cocktails, 406 Walsh St.

Cost: Free