A Legend Memorialized

By Kevin Tankersley

Dave Dalton Thomas highlights 10 memorable years of Willie Nelson’s famous Fourth of July Picnic

On March 31, 2007, Billy Joe Shaver shot Billy Bryant Coker in the face, inside Papa Joe’s Texas Tavern in Lorena. The men were standing right there where those two poles are wrapped in yellow and black tape, according to the bartender who was working one rainy night last month, the night that Dave Dalton Thomas was selling and signing copies of his new book just a few feet from those poles.

News reports from the time, however, say that the confrontation between Shaver and Coker took place on the bar’s back porch. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story, right?

Thomas may have had to separate truth from myth a time or two during the research and writing of “Picnic: Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Tradition,” which was published by Texas A&M University Press in April. There’s a legend around the picnic, he said, and some people want to keep that legend alive. Some of the folks he talked to while working on the book were getting up there in age. The picnic celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, after all. And some attendees at Willie’s picnics often drank a beer or two, and maybe smoked a little weed. Go figure.

Thomas became obsessed — “There’s not another way to describe it,” he said — with the picnic when he was in Luckenbach just after a deal had been brokered to hold the picnic there in 1995. Thomas was a young journalist, two years out of Texas A&M, working for the San Angelo Standard-Times newspaper, and the music writers there were more than happy to let him cover the picnic and deal with the heat in the middle of a Texas summer.

“I’d only seen Willie a couple of times at that point,” he said. “I had never been to a festival or anything like that. But I just thought it was an awesome idea.”

Thomas has now been to more of Willie’s picnics than he can count. He had the idea to write a definitive history of the picnic back in 2007, and started doing his research in earnest during COVID. He was a copy editor working nights at the Austin American-Statesman by that point, and he scoured the paper’s archives for articles on the picnic.

“By the time I decided to write the book, I realized I was already about 10 years too late because so many sources had died,” he said. “But I decided to write sequentially because the people involved with the ‘73 picnic were the oldest. So I had to get them before they passed on.”

One of the sources of information from that 1973 picnic, held in Dripping Springs, was Eddie Wilson, who owned the Armadillo World Headquarters, a music venue in Austin which is often described as the birthplace of redneck rock, where Willie brought together the cowboys and the hippies. (Wilson would later own the great Austin restaurant Threadgill’s, where Janis Joplin got her start in the music business.) Another source was Dahr Jamail, who at the time was an 18-year-old concert promoter in Austin. The stories they each told Thomas sometimes conflicted.

“There’s some disagreement over how much the Armadillo World Headquarters helped out on that first picnic,” Thomas said. “And I presented both sides, but it ultimately came down to one of the Armadillo guys who had this stack of paperwork this high with receipts and everything, showing all the stuff they’d done, and he’d kept it for 50 years.”

Thomas talked to 117 people while working on the book, some of them multiple times, and he estimates he conducted 150 or so interviews. There are additional folks he wishes he had talked to, including Johnny Bush, who wrote “Whiskey River.” That’s the song that Willie has used to open every concert since about 1974. Thomas had talked to Bush many times over the years, before beginning work on the book. Bush, who performed at 20 of the picnics, died on October 16, 2020.

“He was such old friends with Willie,” Thomas said. “Every time that I talked to Johnny Bush, and he’d bring up Willie. He said, ‘Oh, that little red-headed son of a bitch.’ People that I talked to about Willie seemed to get a little carried away. They would talk about him in spiritual or religious terms, and I would have liked to have Johnny Bush to counterbalance that.”

Thomas also did not get to interview Shaver for the book.

“I’m a huge Billy Joe Shaver fan. But he was too sick by that point,” Thomas said. “I had Ray Wylie Hubbard trying to help me get to him. But at that point, he just wasn’t taking any calls.”

Shaver, who was born in Corsicana and lived in Waco, played at 23 of Willie’s picnics. He died October. 28, 2020, just 12 days after Bush.
And Thomas wasn’t able to get to the man himself.

“I had interviewed Willie while covering the picnics over the years,” he said. “Since I started writing the book during COVID, for the first year I didn’t even try to get Willie, because you don’t want to be the guy who kills Willie. So I didn’t even try. But once he got his vaccine and I got my vaccine and he was doing some stuff, I reached out to Elaine Schock, who is his publicist who I had known for a long time.”

Thomas “finally bugged her enough” that she gave him the phone number of Mark Rothbaum, Willie’s manager.

“Of course, he never called me back, so I just moved on without him,” Thomas said. “I talked to a lot of people close to Willie including Connie Nelson (Willie’s wife from 1971 until 1988) and Willie’s daughters, people that work for him directly within the family. So I felt good about it.”

And, in 2020, Wilie was 87 years old.

“At Willie’s age there’s no telling what he remembers or what he’s willing to share,” Thomas said. “Willie definitely, as far as the picnic has gone, has encouraged the legend. And he’s not always been willing to own up to some of the things that went poorly.”

Thomas said that his favorite picnic took place in 1996, in Luckenbach. It marked the only time that Thomas saw Waylon Jennings in concert. And it was the only time that Jennings was in Luckenbach, even though he had recorded the song “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” in 1977. And Jennings nearly didn’t even sing that particular song.

Jennings played a few songs and then began walking off the stage. He was stopped by Poodie Locke, Willie’s longtime stage manager. Willie was standing nearby.

“Hey, aren’t you gonna do that song that made you about eight million dollars,” Willie asked Jennings. The two went back out on the stage and did a “quick and disjointed” version of the hit, Thomas wrote. “Ten thousand fans sang along. It wasn’t great, but it was historic.”

Thomas, who now works as a writer for the State of Texas, said he purposely chose the location of this book signing because of the role it played in Shaver’s life and country music lore. After the shooting on April 2, police in Lorena issued an arrest warrant for Shaver, who turned himself in at the McLennan County Jail the next day. He bonded out in about an hour and played a concert that night in Austin. Shaver later wrote a song about the shooting. It’s called “Wacko from Waco.”

“I just didn’t want to do them all in bookstores,” Thomas said of his signings. “I wanted to throw some honky tonk fun into it as well. And I thought about Papa Joe’s, of course.”

Thomas held a book release party in Luckenbach, and also made appearances at Poodie’s Hilltop Roadhouse in Spicewood; Rosa’s Cantina in El Paso; the Dixie Chicken in College Station; and at The House of Fifi DuBois, a music venue in downtown San Angelo.