THROWBACK THURSDAY: Recalling the day Liberty Hill attracted 70,000 visitors

Willie Nelson greets concert-goers during his Fourth of July Picnic held back in 1975 on a ranch located just west of Liberty Hill. (Courtesy Photo)

Willie Nelson greets concert-goers during his Fourth of July Picnic held back in 1975 on a ranch located just west of Liberty Hill. (Courtesy Photo)


Here we are again…it’s time to celebrate Independence Day in Liberty Hill, and this year’s community event, set to be held Saturday, July 1, at Liberty Hill City Park features food, fun, music and of course, fireworks.

Providing the music this year is a group known as LC Rocks, who were featured in last week’s edition of The Independent.

Looking at a photo of this group of young musicians, I’m not sure any of the members of the group were alive back in 1975 when Willie Nelson held his third annual Fourth of July bash in a pasture just west of town.

That picnic, perhaps one of the most remembered of the many Willie has hosted over the years, drew a huge crowd to town — some estimate more than 70,000 flooded the community for the one-day event that featured such entertainers as Rita Coolidge (who at the time was married to Kris Kristofferson), Johnny Bush, Charlie Daniels and the Pointer Sisters.

I didn’t attend that picnic. I was still in high school at the time and my parents drew a line in the sand and any thoughts I might have had about venturing over to Liberty Hill that day were quickly dispelled by the stern looks on their faces. Perhaps their concerns were provoked by reading issues of the Williamson County Sun leading up to the picnic in which then Williamson County Pct. 2 Commissioner Wesley Foust left no doubt that he opposed the picnic, citing problems that had occurred in Nelson’s previous two picnics at College Station and Dripping Springs.

Lots of stories have been spun over the years regarding that Liberty Hill picnic, and I’m sure many of you have heard these yarns before.

Liberty Hill historian Gary Spivey was among those to attend the picnic, and tells of hooking up his tractor to the limousine the Pointer Sisters arrived in and pulling it though the mud to the backstage area. He recalls seeing a huge sack full of cash backstage and Nelson telling other musicians to pull whatever they needed out of it to cover their expenses.

Other locals were able to profit off the event as well, including James Mather and my brother-in-law Bud Lane, who hooked up trailers to their trucks and picked up those attempting to walk to the event from as far away as Seward Junction, charging a modest fee for the ride. I’ve even heard stories of some attempting to get a free ride being knocked off the trailers.

Wanda Lane had her cafe out on State Hwy. 29 at the time, and went in that day with no intention of opening her door to the public. But her mind soon was changed by a steady influx of hungry visitors appearing in her parking lot, and 24 hours later she and her exhausted crew finally closed. Her husband, Johnny, proved to be of little help that day as he chose to sit out front and greet concert-goers, often swapping a six-pack of beer for a hamburger.

Others reported finding those attending the picnic sleeping in folks’ front yards, and I’ve heard one lady found a visitor making himself at home in her living room. And while there were reports of trouble — former sheriff Jim Boutwell once remarked that if he’d arrested every person that was either drunk or high that day he could have filled every jail from here to Waco — there were also perhaps some more tender moments. Legend has it that at least one child was conceived that day, and that baby was named Liberty.

Nelson, only 42 at the time, escaped Liberty Hill unscathed, although he was fined $1,000 for violating the Texas Mass Gathering Act. A country music star at the time, he would soon achieve superstar status and hold many more picnics, although none in Williamson County.

Coolidge, now in her 70s, and Kristofferson, now in his 80s, were divorced a few years after their appearance in Liberty Hill. Both still perform, as do Charlie Daniels and Johnny Bush. Bush is perhaps the lone performer to ever have returned to Liberty Hill. He and his band were the headline act during a Liberty Hill festival held back in 1990.