07/23/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
By Texas standards the day had dawned cool and breezy—a zesty 74 degrees. But by mid-morning the mercury was climbing, shirts were stripped off, bikinis appeared, and whiffs of marijuana mingled with the odor of coconut tanning oil. Still, for the 25,000 who gathered at the South Meadows Park outside the Austin city limits, the eventual 99 degree heat of the day (and $18-a-head tab) seemed easy to endure for the chance to get back together with Willie Nelson for his traditional Fourth of July country-rock picnic.
Nelson started the picnics 11 years ago, running the show at different sites in and around Austin, including his own sprawling property. But in 1981 neighbors and local authorities, fed up with the noise, traffic, crowds and general hassle, shut him down. Though Nelson took his picnic on the road, it never felt the same. So last month, when Willie learned he could get South Meadows, which is just over the city line, he grabbed it.
In three fast weeks he put together a show, having rounded up old pals Kris Kristofferson, David Allan Coe and Waylon Jennings. Although safely beyond reach of official Austin, the promoters barred beer brought from home. Instead, picnickers had to line up at concession stands to buy brew—at $2.50 per cup—an austerity measure that may have helped the crowd keep its cool.
Flanked onstage by the Texas and American flags, Nelson kicked off the day with a morning solo gig. Then he left the mike mainly to the others, reappearing from time to time during the 14-hour marathon concert for duets with Kristofferson and Jennings. Well after dark, a 15-minute fireworks display erupted. When it was over Willie came on one more time. But he seemed reluctant to put an end to the fun. In one song he kept urging his audience, "Why don't you stay a little longer?" Then he wrapped up the show as he began it—with a whomping version of Whiskey River. Offstage he smiled his satisfaction at playing again to the folks he knows best. "This is home," he said. "It's good to be back."