A final song: What happened at Austin's iconic Threadgill's on its last night
Gary P. Nunn is leading a choir of young singers, old Austin artists, hippies, VIPs and honky-tonk lovers in the expected final singalong.
“I wanna go home with the armadillo, country music from Amarillo and Abilene. …”
Just as it was with the downtown Threadgill’s, “London Homesick Blues” — with its iconic chorus — is the obvious choice to close down the historic Threadgill’s Old No. 1.
The chorus is repeated. Voices and emotions swell, and then it’s over.
Well, not quite. Nunn has a couple more songs to do. Maybe he planned it this way. Maybe he’s had a sudden realization that he left out two songs he wanted to play. Either way, this built-in encore is entirely appropriate for a place that had one of the most famous encores in Austin history.
WE’RE ALL HERE TONIGHT because Threadgill’s will be gone next month. It’s not just an old-timer’s exasperated conjecture: The venerable building actually will be bulldozed and apartments really will be built right here. Perhaps a year from now, some kid from Kansas City will be obliviously living on top of where Janis Joplin started to stretch her wings.
But we’re here now because, in between the third and fourth Threadgill’s auctions, New Braunfels auctioneer Robb Burley seized the opportunity to take a trial run as a music promoter and organized the Threadgill’s Last Call Music Series.
With the restaurant already shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic, owner Eddie Wilson announced in April that Threadgill’s would not reopen. At the time, Wilson expressed relief that he wouldn’t have to supervise and survive the emotional ordeal of a big goodbye.
Burley’s series of shows, however, run with the blessing of Wilson and helped along by former Threadgill’s manager Danny Jones and his crew, proved to be a remarkable and cathartic farewell. Burley brought in artists ranging from Kevin Fowler to Kevin Russell. One notable show by Nunn on Oct. 24 was by any measure a wake for Jerry Jeff Walker, whose death was announced that morning.
The Nov. 1 finale is eight-plus hours of music and emotion in a former dining room that can barely hold it all. (If you started at the back and rushed the stage, you’d run for one first down, but not two.) There are 70 socially distanced guests and about as many historic Austin music posters on the walls. A pair of large photos nail the history here: On one wall, Janis Joplin points and laughs across the room at an image of a silver-haired man wearing a Colonel Sanders string tie and regarding a Lone Star Beer.
Let’s talk about that history.
OTHER AUSTIN SPOTS HAVE HELD MORE STARS — think of all the musicians who have stood in Zilker Park. Some venues have had louder legacies — you can’t spill a beer in this town without splashing someone who wants to tell you about the Armadillo World Headquarters. Yet there’s hardly a bit of real estate that has meant more to Austin’s music history than 6416 N. Lamar Boulevard.
At the end of 1933, a young Texan named Kenneth Threadgill bought a service station on what was then the Dallas Highway and opened Threadgill’s Tavern.
Maybe you know the story: He got the first beer license in Travis County after the end of Prohibition. He dabbled in moonshine. In the 1950s he welcomed Bill Neely, regarded by some as the first Austin singer-songwriter. In the 1960s he befriended a folk-singing UT student named Janis.
Along the way, Threadgill helped create a musical community in Austin — but it didn’t happen by chance.
“The key word that I’ve fallen back on when thinking about Kenneth and the old days was ‘tolerance,’” Wilson said just before the final show. “Kenneth was always just pretty damn tolerant.”
Long before Willie Nelson famously brought the hippies and the rednecks together, there was at least some shared space under Threadgill’s roof, where everyone was OK as long as they liked music.
BRINGING EVERYONE TOGETHER for the finale Nov. 1 has its own challenges. Singer Whitney Rose delicately hangs her face mask on the microphone stand before she starts to sing, while guitarist Rich Brotherton plays part of the set with his hanging from an ear. You can go home with the armadillo, but you can’t leave the pandemic behind.
The limited seats were sold by the table. Patrons are screened and wear fac emasks — most of the time. As the night continues, the crowd will grow less cautious.
Burley has brought Rose in as an opening act five times over the series and he says she was nervous for her first set, having not played anywhere in half a year. By this final show, she feels at home enough to get caught up in the emotion of the farewell.
“I just want to say what an honor it is. …” she says before she gets choked up. She pulls it together enough to weakly say, “I’ll try later.”
THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME Threadgill’s has closed. Or even the second or third. Threadgill shuttered the tavern for a while during World War II when business was slow. And then he walked away for good in 1973. His wife, Mildred, had died, and so had Joplin. Threadgill, who had long done a little singing and yodeling on the side, was going to pursue his music full time.
The encore came when Austin entrepreneur Eddie Wilson, having left the Armadillo World Headquarters behind, decided to open a restaurant in the abandoned tavern. Wilson bought the place in ’79, opened it on New Year’s Day 1981 and lost it all to a fire in 1982.
It was too big of a hit to give up. Wilson reopened within months.
People flocked to Threadgill’s and Wilson was there to greet them. Shake his hand and you’re two degrees of separation from a who’s who of Austin history — and probably three degrees from just about everyone in the music world.
“Come and see me when you’re hungry,” Wilson would say, and the food made it an easy sell — the chicken-fried steak was elevated from truck stop to steak house. This was a place where “eat your vegetables” was not an exercise in Spartan self-rigor. Soon there was recognition from publications nationwide.
WILLIAM BECKMANN’S SONGS ring off the golden oak floors and walnut-colored beadboard. The finale’s opener is a good songwriter, but his distinguishing feature is a powerful and wide-ranging voice. Though he looks younger than his 25 years, the mostly older crowd is charmed. It’s early in the day, and a case of beer would fill every right hand in the room.
Everyone here is finding their chance to ease the stresses of 2020 and taking it. Sunlight peeks through the black curtains, but the drinks are flowing.
“I don’t want to go back to the town where I belong,” Beckmann sings, and the feeling is mutual.
BECKMANN WASN’T YET BORN when the mid-’90s Visa commercial featuring Threadgill’s aired nationwide, ushering in a boom of business and making possible the second location downtown near the site of the old Armadillo World Headquarters.
“Threadgill’s was Austin’s first theme restaurant, and the theme was Austin,” longtime journalist John Morthland wrote for the Los Angeles Times. And Austin was in love with Austin. The locals competed with the tourists for table space every night.
“Everything I ever started I thought oughta last for at least 100 years,” Wilson said. And for a good while, it looked like Threadgill’s might.
The two locations were more than restaurants. They were Austin history museums and community gathering spaces. Political causes were celebrated, money was raised and lives were changed. Wilson presided over it all, philosophizing with writers and liars and politicians of all sorts.
However, in between the singing of “Gloria” for Liberty Lunch and the demolishing of Las Manitas, the cultural winds changed. Many locals still loved Threadgill’s, but nostalgia doesn’t pay the property taxes, at least not for long.
The downtown location lasted until late 2018. The original might have hung on past early 2020, if not for the pandemic.
Longtime Wilson friend Woody Roberts said if they were 20 years younger, Threadgill’s “would have survived this COVID thing.”
“I don't know how Eddie would have done it,” Roberts said. “But he would have figured out a way.”
Wilson, who says he’s done “too much ruminating” after the sudden departures of Walker and Billy Joe Shaver, is straightforward: “My age group has run out of shelf life.”
DALE WATSON IS ON STAGE finishing up “Carrying on This Way,” a sort of haggard morning twist on “Gentle on My Mind,” but he’s intent on lifting spirits at this wake. After all, “Honky-Tonkers Don’t Cry,” he sings to us. Instead, we’ve got to hold on to what we have.
“Poodies, the Continental Club, the Broken Spoke, they’ve got their place in Austin history, too,” Watson says. “Let’s keep them open.”
Between the pedal steel and a shoutout to Shaver and the night’s first singalong on “I Lie When I Drink,” this socially distanced listening show has become a party. A masked patron is in the bar area, two-stepping with a masked bartender. This would have seemed really weird a year ago.
Legendary Austin artists Danny Garrett and Jim Franklin are in the audience, and the Lone Star Beer-promoting Watson leads a round of applause for Franklin, who is sitting under five original paintings used for a Lone Star beer ad campaign in the 1970s. (Shortly before bids opened on them the next Saturday, all five of them were bought by an anonymous buyer for $175,000.)
Franklin appreciates the shoutout, but that Lone Star business only goes so far: He’s drinking a Dos Equis.
Most of the evening’s praise went to Eddie and Sandra Wilson, for carrying on the Threadgill’s tradition so long and for their longtime support of Austin’s artists and musicians.
Eddie Wilson isn’t there for the finale — or any of the shows — because his health is too fragile. After the show, he says the feedback he’s gotten from many people “who grew up there or whose parents grew up there” has been great.
“These are people making their last visit, and everything about it is just wonderful,” he said. “And I haven’t had to worry about any of it.”
For the final show, he was watching virtually, right? At least listening in?
He laughed. “I went to bed at 7:30.”
“It is a bittersweet occasion,” Gary P. Nunn tells the crowd as he kicks off the final two hours with “The Nights Never Get Lonely,” but Nunn focuses on the sweet. There are tributes galore, including plenty for Walker: “Charlie Dunn” and “Gettin’ By” among them.
Nunn tells stories about Walker and recording “Viva Terlingua!” in Luckenbach in 1973, and the stories sometimes wander astray before he brings it in with a song like “Think I’ll Go to Mexico” or “Friends for Life.”
Nunn and band finish the night with “Waiting for a Train” — not Guy Clark’s desperadoes, but a Jimmie Rodgers song in a long-overdue shoutout to Kenneth Threadgill — and “What I Like About Texas.”
Jamie Lin Wilson carries the middle of the show, in between the openers Beckman and Rose and the Austin legends Watson and Nunn. As Burley’s team serves guests barbecue and banana pudding, the sun sets on Threadgill’s as a music venue.
Jamie Lin Wilson “played this stage a lot, probably 15 years ago,” and she understands what it means to Austin. Songs like “The Being Gone” and “In a Wink” reflect the wistful mood. Every pandemic show should include a John Prine cover, and she lightens the evening with “Fish & Whistle.”
Kenneth Threadgill’s name glows gold on the sign behind her. Thirty-three years after his death, his name is still prominent: in red, yellow and neon inside. In big black letters behind the building and on the Austin map. Eddie Wilson has kept his important legacy alive.
So what happens when the building is torn down? Will we still remember Threadgill? And what about Eddie Wilson? The stories told in print, in pictures and in documentaries are vital, but their spirit is best preserved in bringing people together.
On the stage, Jamie Lin Wilson is singing “Oklahoma Stars.”
“The stars in Oklahoma, never seen a night so cool and clear. Shooting stars in Oklahoma, burn so bright, then disappear.”