Willie Nelson gave fans in Austin, Texas, a double dose of entertainment during Independence Day week in 1980. On July 3rd, the entertainer, who made his big screen debut a year earlier in the Robert Redford-Jane Fonda film, The Electric Horseman, attended the world premiere of Honeysuckle Rose, which would mark his first appearance in a lead role. The following day, Nelson hosted his eighth annual Fourth of July Picnic on the 20-acre golf course of his Pedernales Country Club with a crowd of 60,000 braving the stifling heat for what Nelson had announced at the time would be his final July 4th picnic event. After a two-year hiatus, the picnic would return, taking place in Atlanta in 1983 before returning to Austin the following year.
The Honeysuckle Rose premiere at Austin’s Capital Plaza Cinema was attended by Nelson, accompanied by his then-wife, Connie, along with co-stars Dyan Cannon, Slim Pickens, director Jerry Schatzberg and the film’s producer, Sydney Pollack, who also directed Nelson in his previous film role. Others on hand for the auspicious event included actress (and Texan) Sissy Spacek, fresh from her role as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Nelson’s role in Honeysuckle Rose wasn’t exactly against type. The 47-year-old played country singer Buck Bonham, enmeshed in a love triangle with his wife (Cannon) and a young musician, played by 26-year-old Amy Irving, who was at the time romantically involved with director Steven Spielberg – and would, in fact, marry him five years later. Nelson and Irving began an on-set affair, as did Cannon and the film’s director. But for all the sparks behind the scenes, Honeysuckle Rose wasn’t exactly generating the same kind of electricity with film critics. Irving’s performance was especially singled out, earning the future Oscar nominee the first-ever Golden Raspberry (“Razzie”) award for Worst Supporting Actress.
The music-filled film, which also featured appearances from Emmylou Harris, legendary songwriter Hank Cochran and fiddle icon Johnny Gimble, would also get an Oscar nomination and today Honeysuckle Rose, in addition to providing the names for Nelson’s tour buses, is perhaps best remembered for the song that has become a true country-music classic. According to the Billboard Book of Number One Hits, “On the Road Again” was penned by Nelson on a plane flight with Schatzberg and Pollack, who told the songwriter they needed a tune about touring for the film. To their amazement, he proceeded to write out the lines for the chorus in mere minutes. The melody would come later – months later, in fact, on the day the song was recorded during filming.
Nelson had also tried to persuade the powers-that-be to title the film after the song, but that didn’t happen until the film was reissued on video later. The song, however, has since become one of his most popular, having been covered several times and used in commercials included a 2016 Volkswagen ad featuring the Red Headed Stranger himself. Since its 1980 debut, the song has popped up in everything from Dumb and Dumber To to the short-lived 2015-2016 series The Muppets and is now enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
In June 1983, one week after the second US Festival concerts took place in California, a country-themed day was added to the official event. The lineup featured Nelson and band as the closing act, along with appearances by Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Alabama, Hank Williams Jr. and Waylon Jennings. In the video above, Nelson and his fellow musicians, including Mickey Raphael on harmonica, tear through a lively version of “On the Road Again,” which by then had become a familiar staple of their concert repertoire.
Willie Nelson’s 44th annual Fourth of July Picnic will be broadcast live on Nelson’s SiriusXM channel, Willie’s Roadhouse, on Independence Day beginning at 3:00 p.m. ET. Among the performers scheduled to appear are Margo Price, Gene Watson, Johnny Bush, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, and Ryan Bingham, with Nelson and his Family band closing out the event.