Willie Nelson and Redneck Hip

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Texas Monthly
November 1973
by Don Roth and Jan Reid

Austin’s number one, long-hair, honkey-tonk, Armadillo World Headquarters, always draws a crowd Saturday night. The Armadillo, an abandoned armory adjacent to a skating rink, has already atttracted its share of myth, mystique, and tall tales. Its concrete floors temper the urge to dance with the fear of shin splints, its walls bear some artwork of modest inspiration, and there is apparently no way to air condition the damn thing. However, the Armadillo has a license to sell beer, some pretty fair food for sale, suprisingly good acoustics, and for the heat-exhausted, an outdoor beer garden. And most important to the faithful who part with their money one Saturday night after another, Armadillo offers some of the best live music in the country.

Getting things started the night of April 7 was Whistler, Austin’s first country-rock band, together again for the first time in nearly two years. They got a nostalgic reception. Then came Man Mountain and the Green Slime Boys, four converted San Antonio rock & rollers who offer originallyrics in the Nashville mode but can still bring the house down with a revival of the 1957 Cadillacs hit, “Speedo.” The crowd got off to Man Mountain, bringing them back for an encore, a tribute which left the boys a little abashed, considering who was waiting in the wings.

Even before country music became fashionable, it was possible to appreciate the music of Willie Nelson: His lyrics seemed to grasp the problems associated with coming of age in Texas, even as his voice rubbed them in.

Ten years ago Willie Nelson wore business suits for his national television appearances; for the Armadillo audience he was a little looser: boots, beard, cowboy hat, and gold earring. Nelson may look different, but except for the addition of some rock licks and lyrical references to Rita Coolidge’s cleavage, his music hasn’t changed all that much. His old songs — “Hello, Walls,” “The Party’s Over,” “Yesterday’s Wine” — still evoke memories of beery nights and jukeboxes, but they blend nicely with the newer, more upbeat numbers. Onstage, Nelson accepts praise withan irresistible smile, yet never lets audience enthusiasm interfere with his standard act, a non-stop, carefully-rehearsed medley of his own tunes.

As remarkable as Nelson’s act that night, was his audience. While freaks in gingham gowns and cowboy boots sashayed like they invented country music, remnants of Wille’s old audiences had themselves a time, too. A prim little grandmother from Taylor sat at a table beaming with excitement. “Oh lord, hon,” she said. “I got ever’ one of Wille’s records, but I never got to see him before.” A booted, western dress beauty drove down from Waxahachie for the show, and she said, “I just love Willie Nelson and I’d drive anywhere to see him… but you know, he’s sure been doin’ some changin’ lately.” She looked around. “I have never seen so many hippies in all my life.”

The crowd kept pressing toward the stage, resulting in a bobbing, visually bizarre mix of beehive hairdos, naked midriffs and bare hippie feet. An aging man in a sportcoat and turtleneck stubbed out his cigar and dragged his wife into the madness, where she received a jolt she probably did not deserve: a marijuana cigarette passed in front of her face. A young girl, noticing the woman’s discomfort, looked the woman in the eye and took another hit.

But Nelson’s music relieved any cultural strain that developed beneath him. He played straight through for nearly two hours, singing all his recorded songs then starting over. They handed him beer, threw bluebonnets onstage, yelled, “We love you, Willie!” — a sentiment he returned when he finally called it quits: “I love you all. Good night.” A night that for many had been a sort of hillbilly heaven, though Tex Ritter would have undoubtedly taken issue with the form.

The April 7 Willie Nelson concert was not all that unusual. Nelson is merely the most established of a gang of performers who have distilled a blend of music that reflects the background, outlook and needs of a unique Austin audience. The audience is largely comprised of middle class youths who hail from Texas’ cities yet are rarely more than two or three genrations removed form them more rural times; they came to Austin becuase the feel of those rural times still lingers there. In a way, they are a new breed of conservative who despair over big-city hype and 20th century progress and romatanticizes “getting back to the land.”

However, they are inescapably children of the mid-20th century: they grew up with their fingers on radio dials and headsets clapedover their ears. Their need for music is insatiable. Living in Texas they grew up with country and western, which in its whining way has stressed themes bewildered displacement for years. The performers popular in Austin today also grew up with country music, and by sophisticating the lyrics and upbeating the tempo they have transformed country from a music of middle-class misery to one of down-home delight.

Austin musicians were nto the first to borrow form country music; indeeed, one of the Austin lyricists writes, “Them city-slicker pickers got a lot of slicker licks than you and me.” But Los Angeles country rock is slick rather than soulful: West Coast musicians are generally too citified to play country without a trace of put-down. In Austin the roots are real. the music rings tru and that ring could estabislh as Amera’s next curturla sub-capital

Austin’s easy-going mix of musical styles did not originate with Armadillo World Headquares, it dates back to 19933, when Kenneth Trheadgill purchased Travis County’s first beer license an turned a little filling station on North Lamar into a bar that reverberated one night a week with the liveliest music in Austin. The house band was straight hillbilly. Threadgill himself highlighted the jam sessions withhis Jimmie Rodgers yodeling, but he had an ear for almost any kind of music. The mike was open to anybody with the nerve to stand up and sing. Threadgill was also the first of Austin’s clubowners to realize there was gold in those university hills. Anybody interested in a good time was welcome in his place.

Musically, the most exciting days at Threadgills were the early sixties, when the little bar became a haven for folk purists who were reaching deep into America’s music heritage of white country, black blues and backwoods ballads. The most memorial of those performers was a young woman named Janis Joplin who wandered in one day carrying an autoharp. Janis of course went on to a meteoric career, but she never forgot the cherubic old man in the gas station music hall. Before she died she told a surfacing songwriter named Kris Kristofferson about her old patron. In 1972 zealous fire marshals forced Threadgill to close his bar, but the same year Kristofferson looked him up at a party in Austin, listened to his music, and in three weeks had Threadgill in Nashville recording his first album. Thsu things have come full circle for Austin’s kindly 63-year-old patriarch.

At Threadgill’s one heard just about any kind of music that fingers could make, but the little bar couldn’t contain all the music alexcitement that seized the country during the sixties: Rock ‘n Roll. The bands that sprang up in Austin were hard up for somewhere to play until 1967 when a group of friends secured a location on south Congress and built themselves a rock & roll joint, incurring the universal wrath of the Austin establishment. the Vulcan Gas Company never had a beer license, which meant the only revenue came from the gate, but Lockett booked the best of Texas’ black blues singers, carefully spaced between Austin rock bands that kept the place jumpting. Two of those house bands, Conqueroo and the Thirteenth Floor Elevator, attracted fanatical following who came out with ritualized regularity to watch their electric leaders perform. The stoned crowds of teeny boppers, hippies an servicemen bore little resemblance to the beer-drinkers at Threadgills, but rock & roll had come to Austin.

Unfortunately, the Vulcan scene soured. The club’s cult rockers quickly found the music business wasn’t all incense and acid: The Elevator was the victim of an unfortunate recording contract, and the Conqueroo found that San Francisco’s rock gurus had no use for bands from Texas. And at home, psychedelics had turned into speed and violence had spilled over into the Vulcan. Tired of the hassle, Lockett looked for someone to tak over the Vulcan, but none of the new manager worked out, and the club died in 1970.

The Vulcan was ill-fated because it sought to import a California scene that was itself short-lived, but its owners had set a precedent that would make things much easier for future rock music entrepreneurs. They had illustrated that a club could operate on a basis other than beer sales and broken down the Austin musician’s union opposition to freak pickers. Additionally, they had provided a training ground for the manager, publicists, technicians and graphic artists who are as necessary to a music industry as the musicians themselves.

Eddie Wilson, who’s Armadillo World Headquarter rose from the ashes of the extinct Vulcan, got into the music business in a roundabout manner. Wilson wound up at North Texas State in 1963, where he joined the campus folk music club. After the Vulcan closed Wilson started looking for a suitable site for a new club, found the abandoned armory in southAustin, and with his friends, he turned the building into the “the archetype of the ugly, cold, uncomfortable rock and roll emporium.”

Armadillo opened in August 1970 to the anguish of establishment spokesmen who thought the flea-bitten menacehad died with the Vulcan. Since then the Armadillo has grown, likes namesake, by rooting and foraging. First came the beer license, then a new stage, tables an d chairs, heating, an improved sound system, and most recently, the beer garden that offers a measure of economic security. But more important, word has spread among performser that Armadillo’s audiences are perhaps the most spontaneous and appreciative in the country. The bellowing, stomping, cowboy-hatted mobs can scare a tough-assed lady like Bette Midler, but more often they win the affection of a John Prine, a Waylon Jennings, a Gram Parson. As a result the national reputation makers have been very kind to Eddie Wilson and his Armadillo, and he is now booking acts that he once could barely afford to phone.

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