Willie at the Speedway


We all have memories of that “special” Fourth of July.
This one is mine.
Back in the mid-1980s word got out that Willie Nelson was going to do a big Independence Day bash at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
My buddy Brad heard the news and decided that he and I and our families and friends needed to go.
Brad had attended the University of Texas and was a fan of Willie long before any of the rest of us. He assured us that a good time would be had by all, so we signed on.
My teenage daughter was particularly excited because Willie brought along the rockabilly band “Stray Cats.”
I was excited because Linda Ronstadt would be there.
Also on the bill were David Allan Coe and Hank Jr.
Though the Speedway was located less than an hour south of where I lived at the time, I had never been there, so I was a little overwhelmed at the massive coliseum-like something-or-other rising out of a sea of parked cars.
Inside we herded into the infield (we had been told to bring lawn chairs and we did) and found a spot as close to the stage as we could get.
It was mid-morning and already in the 90s.
There we were, sitting on grassless red clay, no shade to be had, going through the contents of our coolers at a record clip and still an hour before the first act would come on.
That was when I decided to walk about a bit.
The infield was surrounded by the asphalt track, which seemed to absorb the sun’s rays and throw them back at us.  Around the track was the fence that kept us out of the grandstand, which sat there empty, blocking the breeze if there was any.  And in one corner of the crowd was a large hole fully of muddy water and in it sat two good old boys wearing UGA and Falcon caps and drinking beer.
They posed and I took a picture.
Next I encountered a bunch of bikers, David Allan Coe fans.  They didn’t look threatening. They looked old.
They were crowded close to the portable tattoo parlors, where “artists” were inking whoever came up with the money.  This was before tattooing became “respectable,” and as I watched I saw a young girl getting a picture put on a part of her anatomy that would not be visible to the naked eye – unless  more than the eye was naked.
I don’t think her Daddy would approve.
On the other hand, I doubt if her Daddy would ever see it.
Or at least, I hope not.
It was at this point I began to realize that I was among folks my Mama told me to avoid, so I scurried back to the safety of my own.
Meanwhile Uncle Bobby had also wandered off.
A word about Uncle Bobby.
Not really our uncle, but since he was the oldest of the group he got the honorary title. He was also the most worldly among us. Raised in Charleston on the wrong side of the river, he joined the Navy, served in the Korean War, came back and graduated from the Citadel, and was by then the leading salesman for a major trucking company.
His experiences could fill columns well into the future – like the time he attended New Year’s mass in Hong Kong with a white Russian hooker – but good taste and the censors will keep those stories out of print.
There I was, in shorts and a t-shirt, sweating.
There he was, in pressed khaki slacks, a sport shirt, and loafers, cool as a cucumber.
Back from his walkabout, Uncle Bobby asked “does anyone have a cigarette?”
It was an odd question because none of us smoked.
Then he explained.
“I want to give it to that group of kids over there” (he motioned toward the tattoo area).  “They only have one, as little short roll-your-own, and they are  passing it around.”
And he grinned.
That was when I concluded that if a bomb fell on the crowd assembled there that day, our group might represent the only loss to humanity.
Then the music cranked up.
Stray Cats met my daughter’s expectations.
Linda Ronstadt met mine.
The bikers crowded the stage when David Allan came on.
And finally Willie, at his best.
Hank Jr. didn’t make it.
Word spread that he was holed up in his trailer keeping company with Jack Daniels, but you know how word spreads when someone has something less than complimentary to say about someone else.
Could have been true. Or not.
Then fireworks closed out the show, and with our nation’s independence celebrated, we folded our chairs and fought the traffic home.
Looking back, it was an interesting day. But don’t ask me to do it again.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.


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