So Long to Threadgill’s – A Rich Vein of Austin History
by Daryl Slusher
Both Threadgill’s and Magnolia Cafe on W. 6th closed permanently in recent days i.e. announced they would not reopen after the Covid crisis. The Magnolia will continue on at its South Congress location. It’s the end of the line though for Threadgill’s which closed its second location, Threadgill’s World Headquarters, at Riverside and Barton Springs Road last year.
Like thousands of Austinites, I have fond memories of both Magnolia locations, and both Threadgill’s locations. For me though Threadgill’s — American Food, Southern Style — was a really big part of my life. The restaurant also embodies a particularly rich vein of Austin history. So I want to take a note of personal privilege to expand on all that a bit.
First, though I want to thank the incredible staff at both places and wish them well in these very trying times. As I noted above, the place I frequented the most was Threadgill’s so I especially want to thank them. They are an incredible group and many worked there for years. Thank you so much.
I started going to Threadgill’s soon after Eddie Wilson opened it on New Years Eve 1981. As noted on Threadgill’s website, the location (of Threadgill’s Old Number 1), 6416 North Lamar, was the site of Kenneth Threadgill’s gas station and “beer joint,” which began selling beer in 1933. The story goes back further than that though. As Wilson writes in his book Armadillo World Headquarters with Jesse Sublett, Kenneth Threadgill was, in 1933, “a twenty-two-year-old country music lover, a bootlegger, and the operator of a Gulf filling station on North Lamar, then known as the Dallas Highway.”
Threadgill, Wilson and Sublett continue, was already “selling booze illegally” out of the gas station, but when Prohibition ended and “Travis County voted to go ‘wet,’ he stood in line all night long waiting to obtain the first post Prohibition beer license in Austin.” That was 1933. Soon, “Every Wednesday night, Threadgill’s gas station was a hopping place and not just for for gas and beer sales. The place was renowned among musicians and night owls as an after-hours joint where working musicians hung out, jammed, and gambled.” Threadgill, a yodeler, was one of the performers.
Eddie Wilson, born in 1943, grew up within walking distance of Threadgill’s gas station and by the time he was an adolescent became impressed with Kenneth Threadgill’s reputation. So he walked over and introduced himself, the first of many conversations. Once he got older Wilson went to a few Wednesday night gatherings.
By the ‘60s, report Wilson and Sublett, the Vice Squad cracked down on the gambling aspect of Threadgill’s operation. As the restaurant website explains though, Kenneth Threadgill “changed with the social climate of the era by inviting the folkies, hippies and beatniks to his Wednesday night singing sessions with open arms. Threadgill’s love for people and music smoothed out the conflicts that usually occurred when longhairs crossed paths with rednecks, and because of this, a new culture of tolerance emanated from the tavern, which had a profound effect upon its patrons and the music that came from it.”
Among those who showed up and sang was Janis Joplin, who made her way to Austin after growing up in the harsh Golden Triangle industrial town of Port Arthur. At Threadgill’s, continues the restaurant website, “Janis Joplin developed her brassy style that would propel her to become the first female rock and roll superstar.” Threadgill’s, run by Kenneth Threadgill, stayed open until 1974.
By that time, his admirer Eddie Wilson had founded a new place in town that also featured cammeraderie between rednecks and hippies, the Armadillo World Headquarters. Wilson traces the founding of the Armadillo to one night in July 1970 when he stepped out of a show at the Cactus Club in South Austin to urinate against a wall in the parking lot. While doing so he saw a nearby building which sparked a “fantastic vision, one that compared with the best chemically enhanced hallucinations I’ve ever experienced — and I’ve had some doosies, skull epics that would compete with the best of Steven Spielberg or Cecli B. DeMille.” What Wilson saw was an abandoned building that had formerly served as both a National Guard Armory and a skating rink. What he envisioned was a music club to replace the fairly recently closed Vulcan Gas Company, widely credited as the original hippie music venue in Austin. With the help of a “cadre” of friends and allies Wilson was able to rent the building and start the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters. It opened on August 7, 1970.
Like Threadgill’s, the Armadillo was known as a place where hippies and rednecks drank and enjoyed music together — a rarity of the era up to then. This largely coincided with the return of Willie Nelson to Texas from Nashville. As Wilson explains, “We shook hands, and booked a show.” Then, “Rednecks and hippies met under the arched roof of the Armadillo at his first gig on August 12, 1972, and struck up a lifelong relationship.” Wilson goes on to explain how the Armadillo helped launch the “many named movement: cosmic cowboy, progressive country, and redneck rock.” In addition virtually every other form of music was played at the Armadillo. Wilson also notes that he didn’t like the term “progressive country” because “we were trying to encourage rednecks to mix with hippies, and for rednecks throughout the South, marketing something as ‘progressive’ is a good way to start a fight.”
Wilson served as manager of the Armadillo for the first five years and turned the reins over to Hank Alrich. The Armadillo closed its doors on New Years Day 1981. Then on New Years Eve 1981 Wilson opened Threadgill’s on North Lamar as a restaurant, seeking to build from the popularity of the kitchen at the Armadillo. Wilson brought back the Wednesday night jam sessions, dubbed Sitting and Singing for Supper. Kenneth Threadgill often played guitar and yodeled at those Wednesday sessions.
Threadgill’s and Me
For my part, I didn’t actually meet Eddie until Daryl Janes and I started the Daryl Herald in 1985. I went to the Armadillo a bunch of times though, beginning on my third night in town in 1976. I saw Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys with Salaman opening. I gradually learned who Eddie was. Also, almost every Sunday night in the late ‘70s and very early ‘80s I went to the Back Room at Riverside and Pleasant Valley where Kenneth Threadgill sat in with Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys. Threadgill would always sing the last number, “It Is No Secret What God Can Do,” with a bit of irony perhaps, it being Sunday night in a bar.
So, being one of the many Austinites who mourned the passing of the Armadillo, I became an early customer of Threadgill’s. I also liked the food a lot, especially the wide vegetable selection — always an important thing with Eddie. Like I said earlier, I met Eddie in 1985. Eddie really liked the Daryl Herald. He invited Daryl and me to the restaurant and gave us these laminated Threadgill’s business cards on which he wrote, “Please feed Daryl so he can get out there again chasing black hats.” Called a “hard card,” this served as instructions to the staff to comp the check. He said to use it about once a week. The only thing Eddie asked was that we give a generous tip.
Eddie never talked about it, but I know he fed a lot of people for free, people who he thought were doing some good for Austin and its culture. I would often run into different folks like that when I went there to eat — although none of us ever talked about it either.
Adela Mancias and I went to Threadgill’s on our first date in January 1989 — the only Threadgill’s then. After we had dinner Eddie gave us a tour of the Upstairs Store, with all the antiques. It really won a lot of points for me with Adela. The next year we had our wedding reception there, in the Upstairs Store. Every January 15 since we have celebrated the anniversary of our first date with dinner at Threadgill’s. Adela and I have to find a new place next year. That same year on New Years Eve 1990 we attended Eddie and Sandra’s wedding at Threadgill’s.
I also had campaign fundraisers there. There were some victory parties as well. My parents enjoyed going to Threadgill’s too. My Mom loved the glazed ham and jezebel sauce and my Dad usually got the fried catfish. Both always looked forward to conversations with Sandra and Eddie.
In 1994 when our kid Oli was born, Eddie and Sandra became godparents.
I used the hard card roughly once a week until I got elected to the City Council in 1996 and knew I had to turn it in. I kept eating at Threadgill’s all the time though, and also drinking margaritas and holding meetings. After the South store, Threadgill’s World Headquarters, opened in 1996, I became a regular. In fact at least one person said I was like Norm (of Cheers) there.
I also kept going to Threadgill’s Old Number 1, although like many South Austin folks I went to the South Austin location more often. In recent years I would meet my good friend Charles Miles at Old Number 1 about once a month. Among many other things, Charles Miles was a member of the first black undergrad class at UT in 1956. He was involved in Civil Rights issues from the moment he arrived in town from Hearne, Texas. It was from Charles that I learned something about Eddie’s history that is not as well known as his being the founder of the Armadillo and proprietor of Threadgill’s. Charles said that during the Civil Rights Movement, Eddie was well known to people in the local part of the Movement, as a strong supporter. Charles said Eddie was also known as someone who would help get them bailed out of jail if they were arrested during protests. Eddie still downplays this part of his legacy, but Charles Miles made sure I knew about it.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Charles and I had our last dinner at Threadgill’s Old Number 1 on January 6. Charles passed away on February 25.
I know there are thousands of other Austinites with fond memories of Threadgill’s. With that in mind I want to close by quoting a long-time Austinite who used to represent all Austinites as Mayor (1985-88). I’m talking about Frank Cooksey, who wrote on Facebook: “The Magnolia Cafe on Lake Austin Blvd. and Threadgill’s closing in the same week. Needless to say, these are Austin institutions that are more than just places to eat. They embody the essence of the ‘old Austin,’ conveying the spirit of Austin’s laid back, affordable, and neighborly scene. Eddie Wilson gave us so much through the Armadillo World Headquarters, and his classic Southern cooking at Threadgill’s, offering fine music along with the chicken fried steak and veggies. My heart is hurting, knowing that I will never again be able to take visitors to the Janis Joplin room and greet Eddie at the bar, Congeniality is losing, Austin. Thank you , Kent and Eddie, for all the good times and good food.”
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