Eddie Wilson keeps the music alive in Austin
The tolerant spirit Wilson found at Threadgill’s Tavern helped foster the atmosphere of open-minded social change that gave birth to the Armadillo.
By Gene Fowler
Eddie Wilson, proprietor of the famous Threadgill’s restaurants in Austin, may be the only person in American history to ever take off his trousers as he introduced a state governor to an assembled throng. That scandalous event, which was actually quite G-rated, occurred at an Armadillo World Headquarters reunion concert in the Capital City circa 1994.
“I wanted to show off my armadillo boxer shorts,” explains Wilson, co-founder of the legendary live music venue named for the prehistoric-looking roadside mammal.
Governor Ann Richards took it all in stride, gently ribbing the assemblage of aging hippies: “You people don’t look any better than you did 20 years ago.”
Along with legions of other music lovers, the governor had been there as the “Dillo” blazed a trail across social and cultural frontiers, from its opening in August 1970 to its final concert on New Year’s Eve in 1980. Without Armadillo World Headquarters, Austin might not have evolved into the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World.”
Long before the Armadillo, however, there was a lively scene at a place called Threadgill’s Tavern on the old Dallas Highway, now known as North Lamar Boulevard. Operated from 1933 to 1974 as a combination gas station/tavern by Jimmie Rodgers-style yodeler Kenneth Threadgill, the tavern provided an artistic blueprint for the eclectic Armadillo. At some point, Thread-gill quit selling gas to focus on music and beer. According to legend, he filled the underground gas tanks with moonshine. Kenneth Threadgill and his Hootenanny Hoots served as a kind of house band for an open-mic format that featured rootsy performances of hillbilly and folk music. A not-yet-famous Janis Joplin unleashed her wild vocals at the tavern in the early 1960s.
Eddie Wilson, born in Mississippi in 1943, attended Threadgill’s hootenannies while growing up in Austin’s Hyde Park, where his mother ran a nursery school. “I met Mr. Threadgill when I was 15 years old and bird-dogging his daughter Dottie,” says Wilson. “He was the first old man who remembered my name who wasn’t a teacher.” The tolerant, freewheeling spirit Wilson found at the tavern helped foster the atmosphere of open-minded social change that gave birth to the Armadillo.
“Somehow, in the late ’60s, I woke up one day to find that I had become the manager of Shiva’s Headband,” Wilson recalls, when asked about the Headquarters’ founding. “I think it was because I owned a suit.”
At the time, Austin had some classic country dance halls and honky-tonks but few outlets for counterculture groups like Shiva’s, which played a tribal, psychedelic folk-rock accompanied by mind-altering light shows. “The Cactus Club at Barton Springs and South First started hiring hippie bands once a week, but we were looking for more places for Shiva’s to play, maybe even a place of our own,” Wilson continues. “I stepped out back at the Cactus one night, and moonlight illuminated a massive old cinderblock building with a row of broken windows.” When 27-year-old Eddie sneaked into the former National Guard Armory to look around, strobe lights flashed in his imagination.
Shiva’s fiddle player Spencer Perskin put up $3,000 to launch the venue, and novelist Edwin “Bud” Shrake kicked in $1,000. Inspiration for the name came from artist Jim Franklin, who made a career of painting surreal scenes of the nine-banded, armored insectivore.
Wilson says that pragmatism influenced the Armadillo’s all-inclusive booking policy. “We started booking everything because the place was so big,” he explains. (At first, the Dillo held 750, but with expansion and a beer garden, soon accommodated 1,500.) The multi-genre performances also fit well with the era’s flair for cross-cultural experimentation. Audiences might see acts like Bruce Springsteen or the Kinks one night; Asleep at the Wheel or Charlie Daniels the next; Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, or Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen the next; and Count Basie, Freddie King, or the Pointer Sisters the next. As historian Jason Dean Mellard put it in a story for Texas State University’s Journal of Tex-as Music History, the venue hosted “an astoundingly diverse array of musical styles, including gospel, honky-tonk, Western swing, conjunto, Tejano, zydeco, Cajun, blues, R&B, rock and roll, and others.”
Add jazz and folk, and you’ve just about got it. Ravi Shankar’s sitar enlightened the Armadillo audience, and monthly Austin Ballet Theatre performances gave the joint some highbrow gloss. “We didn’t call it a joint, though,” Wilson adds. “We called it a cultural arts laboratory.”
The musical phenomenon that most defined the laboratory in the national consciousness was the hybrid form of “progressive country,” exemplified most visibly by the Armadillo performances of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and other artists who previously had been pigeonholed as traditional country. The genre forged common ground between rednecks and hippies and made Nashville and the rest of the country take notice of the “cosmic cowboy” sound and style.
Despite that rainbow of artistic glory, Wilson describes the Armadillo as a personal economic failure. He fared better after turning the World Headquarters over to Hank Alrich in 1976 and opening the Raw Deal restaurant in downtown Austin. The Raw Deal’s clientele of local culturati included such luminaries as humorist John Henry Faulk, photographer Russell Lee, author Billy Lee Brammer, and up-and-coming politicos like Bob Bullock and Ann Richards.
Wilson sold the Raw Deal in 1979 and bought Kenneth Threadgill’s former gas station/tavern on North Lamar, boarded up since 1974, with “Janis Sang Here” graffiti scrawled on an outside wall. Eddie lovingly restored the old tavern, opening the restaurant named for the white-haired yodeler on January 1, 1981.
The second restaurant, Threadgill’s World Headquarters, or Threadgill’s South, followed in 1996, within yodeling distance of the hallowed ground where the Armadillo once stood on Barton Springs Road. Decorated with photos of artists who played the venues and works-of-art posters for their shows and other Texas culture memorabilia, both Threadgill’s locations offer live music and down-home Southern “comfort” food. The menu includes steaks, chicken, seafood, burgers, plus heaping helpings of vegetables and such items as “Our World Famous Chicken Fried Sirloin” and chicken and veggie versions of stuffed tortillas called “Cheese-a-Dillos.”
A large piece of commercial sculpture, the sci-fi-cartoony-looking Terminix bug, which rotated for eons in front of a termite extermination company west of downtown, greets diners at Threadgill’s South. The bug exemplifies Wilson’s passion for preserving a lost Austin. As longtime Wilson friend and writer Joe Nick Patoski puts it, Wilson’s “insatiable quest for learning about Austin’s deep past” makes a good case for his being “Austin’s unofficial historian. ... Nobody understands why the city is the way it is and how it got to be that way better than Eddie. If Austin has retained a sense of place, Eddie is a major reason why.” Pausing a beat, Patoski teases his old amigo: “And he’ll never let the rest of us forget it.”
From the September 2011 issue.