Nelson family members discuss musical tradition behind Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July picnic

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Photo Credit: Rachel Tyler | Daily Texan Staff

A blazing Texas sun, blaring country music, a U.S. flag waving high and Willie Nelson taking the stage for his patriotic picnic have come to represent Fourth of July in Texas — a statewide, Nelson family tradition.

This year, Willie Nelson and family will come together for his 44th annual Fourth of July Picnic, held for the third consecutive year at the Circuit of the Americas. The event will feature a mixed lineup of artists, two stages and conclude with fireworks.

For Nelson family members, such as Amy Nelson, who was born two days after the first picnic in 1973, the event has become less of a Fourth of July concert and more a musical family reunion.

“I was in my mom’s womb for the first one about to come out in two days,” Amy Nelson said. “It is really special for me because I was at the first one, sort of.”

Amy Nelson said she hopes to continue to support the family event with her band, Folk Uke, in the best way she knows.

“I will just keep playing the event any chance I get,” Amy Nelson said. “That is probably the best thing to do on Fourth of July: Sit around and play music.”

Amy Nelson’s niece Raelyn Nelson, whose band will also take the stage, said seeing family members perform at the event over the years has encouraged her passion for music and dreams of one day participating.

“I got to see my aunt playing and of course my grandpa singing and playing, and I just wanted to be up there singing and playing too,” Raelyn Nelson said.

Dave Thomas, a longtime veteran and historian of the event, said he began attending in 1995.

“Not everyone has been involved every year. But, every year there is going to be some of Willie Nelson’s children for the better part of the last decade,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the picnic, which has been hosted at a wide variety of locations throughout its history, has customarily been large scale. In the early years, Thomas said the open environment allowed for less controlled events that led to lawsuits and protests.  

“If you go back to the 1970s, it was kind of a wild and crazy event with arrests and injuries and all sorts of crime, people were up in arms,” Thomas said.

But Thomas said the picnic has changed dynamic with each venue over the years and has stayed out of much trouble in recent years.  

“That is why it had to move around every year,” Thomas said. “Communities didn’t want to have it the next year because there were so many troubles. Every year it gets a little calmer and a little more civilized.”

This year, Micah Nelson, of the participating band Insects vs. Robots and son of Willie Nelson, said he looks forward to experiencing the picnic at COTA.

“People should never stop playing music, getting high, having fun and dancing,” Micah Nelson said. “That is part of being alive and it doesn’t happen enough. In whatever way we can keep that happening, we should do that.”

For Micah Nelson, who will be premiering songs from his Particle Kid album at the picnic, playing his unique sound is his way of honoring his family legacy of originality. He said Independence Day is the perfect opportunity to do so.

“My dad’s sound when he was my age was considered pretty different and not really established or normal either,” Micah Nelson said. “But, he just kept doing it anyway and eventually that became the established sound. Celebrating independence is even more reason to celebrate my independence and just be a fearless freak.”