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Meet the Woman Running Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic

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Go behind the scenes of Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic with event-producer Joetta Velasquez Bessenhoffer.

By Jordan Burnham, Photos by Jordan Burnham and Courtney Runn

She stood behind the entrance, dressed in her typical black skirt, black top, black leather booties and vivid red lipstick, tattoos of a dragon and a guitar decorating her arms, and skimmed the restless crowd. A voice crackled through her walkie talkie and coolly said, “Alright guys, that’s gates.” It was 11:10 a.m., and Willie Nelson’s 46th Fourth of July Picnic had just begun. 

A sea of stars and stripes flooded through the gates with bright yellow and green lawn chairs, some walking just quick enough to get ahead of the crowd but slow enough to avoid the curt voice of a security guard yelling, “Hey you, no running.” The Texas sun beat down on the concrete with a tumultuous fervor, almost as if it didn’t get the holiday memo. Country music began to resonate through the air as thousands poured in to enjoy the lineup of 16 different artists. While groups sang along with songs from each band and sipped cold beer, Joetta Velasquez Bessenhoffer and her team worked tirelessly behind the scenes to bring together the beloved Austin festival. 

Velasquez Bessenhoffer has worked hundreds of events in her lifetime and music has always played a crucial role in her career and life. She and her husband own a combined total of approximately 20,000 records and she says, “It’s one of those things that I followed my heart into something that I actually love to do and love to be a part of.”

Velasquez Bessenhoffer got her start at the Funhouse, a divey punk-rock club in the heart of Seattle. She then went on to help launch the Seattle Rat City Rollergirls before moving to Los Angeles to freelance. After moving to Oregon for an event-management job with the Portland Mercury, she moved to Austin where she worked in production for Bass Concert Hall and ACL Live at the Moody Theater before freelancing. Now, she is the events and projects manager for music and entertainment for the Austin 360 Amphitheater and Austin Bold FC. And if that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, she’s also getting certified as a pyrotechnician. 

The Circuit of the Americas has hosted Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic for the past five years, making this year the fifth time Velasquez Bessenhoffer has managed front-of-house operations for the festival, a role that involves a strategic blend of detail-oriented planning and the ability to swiftly adjust when those details go awry. For Velasquez Bessenhoffer, creating a seamless plan begins months in advance and continues until all amphitheater lights are out. 

ONE MONTH OUT

One month out from the picnic, much of the work is done through the creation of computer-aided design (CAD) drawings. By creating a map of the infrastructure of the venue, Velasquez Bessenhoffer is able to determine the location of stages, tents and vendors and plan staff assignments efficiently.  She says that for a larger concert such as Willie’s picnic, she is in charge of 500 to 600 individuals at any given moment.

“So, I pretty much manage all of the venue operations from the stage forward,” Velasquez Bessenhoffer says. “So, all of the staffing, all of the scheduling, the logistics…all of the moving pieces of the event of the concert from A to Z.”

ONE DAY OUT

With 24 hours before the event, staffing deployments, logistics and infrastructure are in place. All that’s left is the final infrastructure setup, which has to be complete before the bands arrive the following day Lightning briefly delayed the team during setup this year, but stages were successfully loaded. Velasquez Bessenhoffer was awake until midnight answering emails and preparing before she woke up at 5:30 a.m. to get ready for the big day. 

ONE HOUR OUT

Velasquez Bessenhoffer arrived at the Circuit of the Americas at 7 a.m. to begin prepping for the nearly 19-hour day. With an hour left before gates open, any final setup must be completed before guests are able to enter the venue. For Velasquez Bessenhoffer, this hour means deploying her team and running last-minute errands on her golf cart, which helps her navigate the acres of land on which the Austin 360 Amphitheatre is located. This year, in the hour preceding gate time, Velasquez Bessenhoffer and her team had to fix WiFi problems, make sure all vendors were in place, clear all cars from the front of house and send out last-minute emails. 

SHOW TIME

After gates open, Velasquez Bessenhoffer’s behind-the-scenes action begins. Throughout the day she answers questions from staff and ensures that venue operations continue to flow smoothly. When small crises in the amphitheater pop up, Velasquez Bessenhoffer remains calm, tapping into her meditation practice she first started two years ago. 

“…I try to incorporate that into show night by taking deep breaths,” Velasquez Bessenhoffer says. “Taking time away from everybody, just trying to remember not to react but to think through things.”

Small details, such as the size of each blanket allowed into the venue, can affect the success of the show drastically. If blankets are too large during a sold-out show, lawn space can fill up too quickly and prevent all guests from finding a space. 

“A lot of the times when guests come and they’re seeing the show they don’t know everything that goes on behind the scenes to make it work,” Velasquez Bessenhoffer says. 

Texas heat can cause many problems for an outdoor venue, but during this year’s festival Velasquez Bessenhoffer says more shade for guests allowed for a smoother show day. Not only was general admission able to access a shade tent, but the new Bold FC stadium provided additional shade for showgoers. 

After approximately 20 years in the entertainment industry, Velasquez Bessenhoffer says she can’t imagine working in any other field. 

“You have to work at what you love and it’s something that I’ve always been excited to be a part of,” Velasquez Bessenhoffer says. “And it’s interesting to see that it grew into a career because it was something that was fun for me and that was more so a lifestyle that somehow grew into a career.”

A few minutes before midnight, Willie Nelson invited the other performers on stage to finish the night with a group rendition of “I’ll Fly Away.” As the final notes floated over the arena, guests started the long trek back to their cars, sunburned and sweaty and happy. Velasquez Bessenhoffer had been awake for almost 19 hours and in 365 days, she’ll do it all over again

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