7 of Willie Nelson’s Best Performances From His Legendary 1974 Fourth of July Picnic

It’s the Fourth of July today, and in honor of Willie Nelson‘s annual Fourth of July Picnic, we’ve gathered his best performances from the 1974 concert, which took place over the 4th, 5th, and 6th that year. The Picnic had its first showing in 1973, but the next year, Nelson and friends came together for a documentary film about the event. Here’s where we find ourselves, in College Station, Texas, in 1974, where a young Willie Nelson shared the stage with the likes of Leon Russell, B.W. Stevenson, Waylon Jennings, Doug Kershaw, and many more outlaw artists of the time.

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[RELATED: Willie Nelson Issues Message to Concerned Fans Ahead of Highly Anticipated 4th of July Return Performance]

Willie Nelson’s 1974 Fourth of July Picnic Performances

“Whiskey River”

Willie Nelson opened the Picnic with “Whiskey River,” which was released in 1973 on Shotgun Willie. Donning an all-denim look even in the Texas heat and wearing his signature hair loose at his shoulders, Nelson kicked the party off with a solid jam. In the documentary, the crowd was already rowdy right from the start, dancing, drinking, and singing along. Nelson sounded like he just stepped out of the studio, his even voice traveling across the crowd and spurring them into celebration.

“Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)”

Nelson continued with his version of “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer),” which was originally written and recorded by Bob Wills in 1945. Nelson’s rendition was released on Shotgun Willie. At the Picnic, Nelson moves easily from one song to the next, starting up the rowdy Western swing tune with a harmonica player taking lead. His trusty guitar Trigger was already looking a little worse for wear in 1974, but Willie Nelson knows how to make it sing.

“A Song For You”

The next day of the Picnic, B.W. Stevenson opened the show, with Willie Nelson taking the stage later to sing Leon Russell’s “A Song For You.” The crowd chimed in during the sweet ode with cheers and shouts, sharing their excitement. Nelson gave the song his signature vocal treatment, his natural Texas twang utilized for the simple, slower song.

“Jambalaya” with Leon Russell

Willie Nelson and Leon Russell next transitioned smoothly into “Jambalaya,” a rollicking tune heavy with fiddle. Russell, with his shirt unbuttoned, did a little jig during the fiddle break, while Nelson showed off some speedy fretwork. The song got the crowd going, and as a surprise, Waylon Jennings came out on stage to take the final verse.

“Funny How Time Slips Away”

Nelson took a bluesy turn for “Funny How Time Slips Away,” smoothing out his unique vocals for the song. The band was in fine form, with percussion in perfect time, the bass guitar groovy, and the harmonica jazzy and mournful. Once again, Nelson showcased his expert guitar playing, while the laidback nature of the Picnic allowed for Leon Russell to appear again and take a verse, as he hung out off stage with a drink in hand.


From “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Nelson moved smoothy into “Nightlife,” with Russell making small asides in response to the lyrics. The band kicked it into high gear but still kept that chill blues vibe, a task that may seem impossible, but if anyone knows how to do it it’s Willie Nelson. While the instrumentation got a little more complicated, it was still kept even and groovy, peppered with guitar solos.

“Goodnight Irene”

At the end of the last day, Willie Nelson took it into “Goodnight Irene,” with Russell contributing his little asides once again. It made for a unique experience for the crowd and a new take on the song, making it sound a little more off-the-cuff. Instead of a performance that sounds just like the studio version, Nelson and Russell provided fans with a one-of-a-kind riff of the original.

Before the song ended, Russell made an announcement that it was “a quarter to one, and I’m proud to be here,” adding that “I’m a dreamer and a drunk and a schemer and all the things that you think I am.” He then turned to Nelson and started the song again, with the two exchanging runs and riffs of the final line, “I’m gonna see you in my dreams.”

Featured Image by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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