Since the 1970s the Fourth of July and Texas music have been synonymous with Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic. The country music extravaganza began in 1973 and was inspired by a country music festival that took place outdoors on a ranch near Dripping Springs, Hays County, in March 1972. Willie Nelson, one of the performers, and some of his business associates decided to organize a one-day event for July 4, 1973. Eddie Wilson, owner of Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, promoted the concert, which was held at the same ranch in Dripping Springs. Musicians in addition to Nelson included Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Charlie Rich, Waylon Jennings, and Tom T. Hall. Organizers soon realized that their plans were incomplete: the lack of sanitation, electricity, and parking space became obvious as an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 fans jammed two caliche backroads to the site. As understaffed health-care volunteers treated cases of heat exhaustion, security personnel tried to keep the stage clear and contended with intoxicated fans.
In spite of the first picnic's shortfalls, Nelson and promoters made plans to stage a bigger and improved Independence Day concert for the next year. In 1974 the picnic was actually a three-day festival that took place outdoors at the Texas World Speedway in College Station. Waylon Jennings, Jimmy Buffett, Leon Russell, Michael Martin Murphey, and Jerry Jeff Walker were among the lineup of musicians that attended. From this time on, Willie's picnic established itself as an annual event.
In 1975, 90,000 people descended upon the hamlet of Liberty Hill in Williamson County to hear Nelson and the Charlie Daniels Band, Delbert McClinton, the Pointer Sisters, and Kris Kristofferson. The Texas Senate proclaimed July 4 "Willie Nelson Day." Ironically, the overcrowding problems of the previous picnics had also prompted the Texas legislature to pass the Texas Mass Gathering Act, and Williamson County officials charged Nelson with violating that law. Throughout the 1970s however, the picnics continued at various sites—Gonzales, the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, the Austin Opry House, and the Pedernales Country Club. Musicians included Doug Sahm, Emmylou Harris, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Ernest Tubb, and other semi-regulars such as Leon Russell and Kris Kristofferson.
After 1980 and a successful concert at which over 90,000 fans heard Merle Haggard, Asleep at the Wheel, Ray Price, Johnny Paycheck, and others at Nelson's Pedernales Country Club, Nelson and his organizers announced the discontinuation of the event, though an event of sorts took place as a series of shows at Syracuse, New York, Giants Stadium in New Jersey, and Atlanta International Raceway in 1983. In 1984, however, the picnic began anew and in the succeeding years was held at various venues around Austin. The 1986 concert also doubled as Farm Aid, which Nelson orchestrated in the mid-1980s to raise money for America's farmers. John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Ely, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds were among the musical acts that played Nelson's picnics.
By the 1990s the on again–off again picnic had become more subdued. A modest crowd of 15,000 cheered on performers at Zilker Park, Austin, in 1990. The Highwaymen, which featured Nelson, Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings, headlined the concert. Nelson's next festival—in 1993—was a scaled-down affair at the Backyard in Austin, with about 3,000 people in attendance.
From 1995 to 1999 Willie's Fourth of July Picnic took place in the Hill Country town of Luckenbach. Logistical and county permit problems kept the concert from taking place there in the early twenty-first century. The 2000 event occurred at Southpark Meadows in Austin. Even though organizers cancelled the picnic, planned for Luckenbach, in 2001 and 2002, residents of that town sought to host future Fourth of July Picnics.
The picnic resumed in 2003 and was held at Two Rivers Canyon Amphitheater in Spicewood near Austin. In addition to old favorites like Neil Young and Merle Haggard, the event also featured newcomers Los Lonely Boys, Pat Green, and Cross Canadian Ragweed. Fort Worth hosted Willie's Picnic from 2004 through 2006, before he took the event out of Texas to the state of Washington in 2007. Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic returned to the Lone Star State in 2008 and was held at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater near San Antonio. In 2009 he incorporated the celebration into his concert tour with Bob Dylan, and they performed in South Bend, Indiana, on July 4.
Nelson’s picnic returned to Austin in 2010 to the new Backyard venue and featured a full lineup of performers, including Asleep at the Wheel, Billy Joe Shaver, Leon Russell, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Bush, and the Randy Rogers Band. On July 4, 2011, the picnic was held at Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth for more than 6,000 attendees, and the playbill included Ray Price, David Allan Coe, Jack Ingram, Jamey Johnson, Nelson’s son Lukas, and others. For 2012, Nelson planned to host the picnic on the celebrity cruise ship, Excesia, bound for Northern Europe, but instead the event returned to Billy Bob’s where a lineup that included his son Lukas, Johnny Bush, and Stoney LaRue played to less than 4,000 people.
The year 2013 marked the fortieth anniversary of the picnic which took place again at Billy Bob’s and brought out more than 10,000 attendees. A crowd of 12,000 came out to Billy Bob’s for the Fourth of July celebration in 2014. Performers included Johnny Bush, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Charley Pride, and Dierks Bentley, however the death of Ray Price, a mainstay at some of the earlier picnics, led to subdued festivities. In 2015 Willie’s Picnic returned to Austin with Leon Russell, Billy Joe Shaver, David Allan Coe, Merle Haggard, Kacey Musgraves, Asleep at the Wheel, and others. The show took place at the amphitheater at Circuit of the Americas. The picnic returned to that venue in 2016 and 2017 and was scheduled there for 2018. Performers included mainstays such as Johnny Bush, Ray Wylie Hubbard, David Allan Coe, and Nelson’s son Lukas, as well as many others, including Margo Price, Turnpike Troubadours, and Hayes Carll.