It doesn't seem like it's been 32 years. On the other hand, it seems like a hundred years ago. And at this point in my life, when I've become a staid member of the establishment, I could almost be convinced that I was never stupid enough to pull some of the stunts I was guilty of that long ago. Almost.
I was between my freshman and sophomore years at Mary Hardin-Baylor College, a nice small Baptist college that had been co-ed only a couple of years in 1973. The wildest thing I did back in those days was to, uh, hmm. I don't think I did anything wild back in those days. I was a nice quiet, well-behaved child of 19.
But I was tempted that summer by an all-day concert that was to be held on July 4th out in the country just west of Dripping Springs. There was a new movement in country music by a group of singers that had been labeled as "outlaws" and their ringleader was Willie Nelson, who had recently moved his headquarters to Austin. He had decided to lend his name to a 4th of July picnic and concert, and a stellar list of country music legends had agreed to attend. This was not the first picnic/concert to be held in Dripping Springs, but it was the first to be associated with Willie Nelson. The list of performers was very tempting to a country music fan, but the thing that sold me on attending was the announcement that Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge were to perform. I had to go.
The men of the family weren't interested, but Mother agreed to go with me. Also on board for the adventure was a country music loving friend from Smiley, the mother of my brother's best friend. That morning, the three of us loaded our lawn chairs and cooler in the 1968 Ford Galaxie and headed out for Dripping Springs. We had not one idea what we were in for.
Our first clue was just after we turned off Highway 290 onto the narrow gravel road that would take us about 20 miles deep into the country to a ranch where the concert was to be held. It was bumper to bumper traffic and was moving at a snail's pace. If I remember right, it took us more than a hour to creep our way to the concert site. It was a miserably hot day and that old Galaxie started over-heating before we had gone very far, so we had to forego air-conditioning for the last part of the trip. After parking, we had to hike a ways to the stage area, carrying our gear.
When we got there, it was to find that the stage was set up in something of a natural bowl, with not a scrap of shade to be seen. Filling that bowl was a sea of sweating humanity. We found a spot for our lawn chairs and made ourselves as comfortable as possible, considering the lack of shade and breeze and the hot sun bearing down on us. But as we arrived, Charlie Rich started his set and we were re-energized with the thoughts of who else would be performing. I can't remember everyone who performed that afternoon, but I do remember Waylon Jennings, Sammie Smith, Billie Joe Shaver, and of course Willie. It was really an impressive lineup and we couldn't complain about getting our money's worth for the price of admission. Which, I believe, was $10.00.
It was late in the afternoon when I began to get nervous. There were a lot of normal folks like us around, but there was a whole lot of folks there with pretty rough edges. At one point in the afternoon an announcement was made that some bad heroin was being circulated and people were getting sick. It was quite a shock to three Baptist ladies to know that we were in the presence of illegal drugs. (It was along about the same point that we suddenly realized what that sickly sweet smell in the air was.) Between the drug users and the beer drinkers and the heat, the crowd was becoming increasingly woozy. The later it got, the wilder the crowd got, and the edgier I got.
And Kris and Rita had still not performed. It was almost dark when they finally took the stage. By that time, I was having a hard time enjoying the music. My thoughts were a constant spin of all the things that could go wrong - from the car failing to start to getting knocked over the head by a stoned out addict. We were definitely out of our element and at 9:30 we all decided we had had enough, even though Kris and Rita were still singing, and we started the hike back to the car.
The ride back to the highway was almost as bad as the ride in, since we weren't the only ones calling it quits for the day. People were exhausted and many had parked a considerable ways down the road. As we drove by, some would try to leap up on the hood for a ride back to their cars. I don't know what worried me more - that I would have these odd-balls hanging on to the car, or that they would fall under my wheels and get mashed. We finally made it out to the highway and headed back to Bastrop.
It was a weird experience, but in retrospect I'm glad we went. I would never attempt something like that now. Crowds bother me, heat bothers me, drunks bother me, and the idea of being that far out in the middle of nowhere with a flaky car and no communication to civilization is mind-boggling. I guess it's true that the Lord protects fools. He took care of at least three of them that day.
Who knew that Willie Nelson picnics would become a regular event? I'm glad I went to the first one. I'm glad I never went to another one. Not too long after that, we attended a Kris and Rita concert (with Willie crashing the party for a few songs) at Palmer Auditorium, and it was a much more satisfying experience. I decided that outdoor concerts were not for me.
These days I generally spend July 4th somewhere with air-conditioning. Every year at some point I think about that day out in the Hill Country, even all this time later. It may have been a fool hardy thing to do, but we had an unforgettable experience and I don't regret one moment of it.