50th anniversary of the Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic in College Station


It was fifty years ago this July 4, that Willie Nelson held his 4th of July Picnic in College Station at the Texas World Speedway. It was a different time; tickets to the 3-day event were $8.00, a cold beer was 60 cents, parking was free, and George Strait was certainly not a household name. While the picnic delivered on music, it also delivered on the more controversial aspects of “outlaw country”—drugs, public nudity, and other illegal activities. There was also a huge parking lot fire. To say the least, the local community was divided.

Since then, Willie Nelson has kept the event going, minus a year off here and there, for half a century.

Journalist Dave Dalton Thomas has attended nearly every Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic since 1995 and has researched the history of the Picnic, chronicling the brutal heat and the quirky and sometimes illegal antics of fans, musicians, and others. Thomas has watched the Picnic evolve over the decades, as Willie and his audience have evolved. He has interviewed participants, including artists, organizers, promoters, and even a few colorful hangers-on.

Dave Dalton Thomas is available for interviews

While reviewing ten of the Picnics in detail—each chosen for its significance in the overarching development of the event—Thomas also includes basic facts about each gathering, from the beginning to the present, with the addition of pertinent information about the “off years,” when the Picnic was on temporary hiatus for one reason or another.

In his introduction, Thomas quotes country musician Johnny Bush as he recalls trying to talk Nelson out of the notion of holding the first Picnic. “Willie, there ain’t no way in hell a bunch of cowboys are going to come out in the hundred-degree heat to watch us pick our guitars.” As Thomas records them, Bush’s next words were “he proved me wrong.”

DAVE DALTON THOMAS, formerly a journalist for the Austin American-Statesman, has obsessively researched the history of the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic for more than 20 years. With the American-Statesman from 2002 to 2019, Thomas’s reporting and writing have also appeared in the Daily Beast, CNN.comTexas Highways, the San Angelo Standard-Times, and other outlets.

“Dave has done an incredible job in documenting the many years of Willie’s picnics. Even though I appeared at most of them, the details of the inner workings of so many moving parts was enlightening. This book will serve to tell future generations what really went on in those bygone days.”—Ray Benson, singer and guitarist, Asleep at the Wheel

“Dave Dalton Thomas turns a seemingly narrow slice of Willie World into a highly specific telling of the wider Willie story: the uncompromising rise to stardom, the often-shady crew that made the ascent with him, the zenned-out willingness to fly by the seat of his pants, the 1980s’ emergence of Farm Aid as the picnics evolved, and the thirty-plus years spent as a living legend with zero interest in slowing down. But the real lesson is that the picnics were born as an excuse to hang out with friends. . . which may be the most Willie thing I’ve ever heard. Essential reading for fans of Willie and students of life.”—John Spong, senior editor at Texas Monthly and host of the podcast One by Willie

Courtesy of Texas A&M University Press