‘That’s My Car, Man’: Robert Earl Keen’s Car Incinerates at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic in 1974

by Jim Casey
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When future Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen was 18 years old, his car was destroyed by a fire at Willie Nelson’s second annual Fourth of July Picnic in 1974. Of course, years later, REK memorialized the saga on both his 1996 live album, No. 2 Live Dinner, and his 1997 studio album, Picnic.

First, during the intro to “The Road Goes On Forever” on No. 2 Live Dinner, Robert Earl spun a five-minute yarn that connected the dots between his car burning up at Willie’s Picnic in 1974 … to The Highwaymen—Willie, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson—recording “The Road Goes on Forever” 21 years later as the title track to their third and final album in 1995.

Second, as if there was any doubt to the veracity of REK’s aforementioned yarn, he used a photo of his blazing car as the cover art to his appropriately titled 1997 album, Picnic.

Robert Earl Keen Brings It Home

Of course, Robert Earl Keen is currently in the midst of his farewell jaunt, I’m Comin’ Home Tour. The Lone Star State legend is hanging up his touring boots after 41 years on the road. While I’ll miss the stories REK routinely shares during his live performances, let’s relive his Fourth of July saga, in his own words, from Live No. 2 Dinner. The album’s first 14 tracks were recorded at John T. Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, Texas, on August 12, 1995. Incidentally, REK will perform his final show at John T. Floore’s on September 4.

“A few years ago, the great Joe Ely recorded this song that I wrote,” said Robert Earl Keen. “Then more recently, The Highwaymen: Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson. They recorded it and put it on their record. And I was so happy because, man, it was a nice thing. But I always felt Willie Nelson might help me out sometime. Because I went to his second Picnic, the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic. I went to the second one. I was living in Houston and I had a date. It was my first date ever.

“We got in my old car and we drove up there to Texas World Speedway just south of College Station . . . it was back in the days of free love and wonderful, happy, shiny people. Everything was fun. Nothing was scary or dangerous. And we went there and had a wonderful time in the Willie way. I had so much fun that in the afternoon I had to take a nap.”

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‘The Road Goes On Forever’

“And I woke up from my nap and there was a man speaking over the PA system,” said Robert Earl Keen. “He said that we’ve had a fire in the parking lot and about 40 cars have burned up. And everybody, you know, in . . . that wonderful time of free love and things, when they heard that, they went ‘Aah.’ 10,000 of them at one time, ‘Aah.’ And then he said. ‘We have some license plates of the cars, and the first winner is RHP-997.’ Now you might wonder why I remember that so well. And I woke up out of my haze and said, ‘That’s my car, man.’

“And in the time of free love and happiness, everyone said, ‘Wow, way to go.’ And they started clapping for me. I ran out there, and there was not enough of my car left to Carbon-14 date. And I sat down on the black, burnt dirt and grass, and I can admit this now, I wept. I cried big ol’ giant tears. And my girlfriend was laughing, my date, I mean. She was laughing and I said, ‘What are you laughing about? We don’t have a ride,’ and she says, ‘I do.’ And it was then that she introduced me to Tarzan and Adonis, who were terminally tan and they were wearing loincloths. And they said, ‘We’ll take care of her, man,’ and because it was that wonderful time, I said, ‘Thanks, dude.’ And they skipped gleefully away.

“And a man from the festival came up to me while I was still crying and he said, ‘Well, the least we could do is let you meet Willie.’ So they took me backstage to Willie’s bus and they opened the door and lo and behold Willie came out, pigtails and all. He shook my hand and said he would like to visit with me, but he had to go jam with Leon Russell. Then some 20 years later, ‘The Road Goes On Forever.'”

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