Texas book review: Armadillo World Headquarters by Eddie Wilson

Jan Reid’s book, “The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock” was my introduction to the 1970s Austin music scene — it was ground zero for something I previously knew nothing about.

Joe Nick Patoski’s book “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” was a capstone in 15 years of learning and reading about Austin music’s king — it confirmed and clarified things I knew a lot about.

“Armadillo World Headquarters” by Eddie Wilson with Jesse Sublett fits somewhere in between, filling in the gaps of tales I love on one page then telling a story I’ve never heard on the next.

I didn’t know there was a Holy Trinity of Austin Books for Dave Thomas, but Wilson’s memoir now fits comfortably among the great three in my library.

And what would I have given to have been able to read this book in 1995? So much Austin history, all of it so effortlessly explained. From the Vulcan Gas Company to the Raw Deal and the AWHQ in between, pieces of an Austin puzzle I had scattered about in my head are now assembled — not with the (sometimes hazy) surety of someone who lived it, of course, but with a historian’s confidence.

***

Because I know that nobody reads these book reviews, we’re going to pause here for a confession. Back in 2013, just before the 40th anniversary of the first Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic, I went to Eddie Wilson’s house to interview him.

Eddie had been instrumental in making the first Picnic a success, before he and the AWHQ ultimately had a falling-out with Willie. He was a gracious host and I talked to him at length. After the story came out he contacted me to let me know how pleased he was that I had every detail right — one of the prouder moments of my career.

In the story (https://atxne.ws/2Eg8LmH), I had described Eddie’s house as the sort of place a Texas memorabilia collector would go when he died (it was awesome, you couldn’t look in any direction without seeing something you’d kill someone to have). So I was clearly interested a couple years later when I found out he was having a huge auction of his stuff at Burley Auction House in New Braunfels.

I went, correctly guessing that almost everything would be out of my league (I did come away with a small light-up Pearl Beer sign). And while I was there, I ran into him for a moment. I stuck out my hand and said … “Hi! Mr. Threadgill …”

The enormity of my slip about crushed me as soon as it was out of my mouth. I had been planning on asking him if the sign I had purchased had been on display at the original Threadgill’s restaurant. I stammered as he smiled wearily with the resignation of someone who gets mis-named a lot. He said, “No, I’m Eddie Wilson … “ and he moved along with the good-natured tolerance some folks have for idiots.

I didn’t expect him to remember me, of course. But what I did expect was for me to not fuck up. I knew who Eddie Wilson was. I knew who Kenneth Threadgill was. I HAD WRITTEN ABOUT BOTH OF THEM.

I guess it was just one of those things. But if there’s a more embarrassing moment in my career, I must’ve blocked it out. Shit. Back to the review …

***

Perhaps the only thing weird or uncomfortable about the book is the preface in which Wilson lets Ann Richards, Dave Richards and Cecile Richards brag about him and the AWHQ. I think one Richards would clearly have been enough.

Early on, Wilson sets the scene, explaining South Austin as “the domain of people who needed cheap rent and enterprises that needed to be a respectable distance from courthouses, churches, and schools.” He details the history of the AWHQ building as a skating palace, National Guard armory and “Sportcenter” — which hosted wrestling matches, fights and the occasional music act, including Elvis Presley as part of a touring Louisiana Hayride show.

The birth of the Armadillo World Headquarters (it would have been the Armadillo National Headquarters if not for the intervention of Bud Shrake, who urged Wilson to think bigger) is spectacularly documented. Certainly there were struggles in the early years. In a bit of karma for the decade of Geezinslaws performances I had to suffer through at Willie’s Picnics, Wilson mentions the only check the Armadillo ever bounced was $150 to Sammy Allred.

One of the better stories was how Dallas Cowboy quarterback Don Meredith, lounging backstage during a Freddie King show, saved the Armadillo from a TABC bust, signing autographs for the agents and giving a new sheen of respectability to the hippies who were running the joint and rolling the joints.

The Armadillo Art Squad — including my favorite, Jim Franklin — is introduced and their work is celebrated throughout, including a display of scores of posters at the end of the book.

One of the most celebrated nights in AWHQ history is detailed: Willie Nelson’s first performance in August 1972. In case you were wondering if attributing a convergence of the longhairs and the rednecks to that show is something that was a symbolic gesture settled on later, Wilson takes pains to share immediate reviews of the show that point out the cultural shift as it was happening.

It’s not all praise, though. Wilson takes aim at Jerry Jeff Walker (“Eventually, even the most foul-smelling fart leaves the room) and shares no love for Rod Kennedy, founder of the Kerrville Folk Festival. He also wouldn’t much care for how I opened this review … he did not like “The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock.”

***

I’ve got another dozen places earmarked in the book, but no interest in making this the longest review ever. Wilson details the Armadillo through his departure and up until its inevitable closure at the end of 1980 with a journalist’s clarity and not a touch of poetry here and there. He goes on to describe his mini-restaurant The Raw Deal and then his bigger challenge: reopening Threadgill’s.

It’s a fantastic read and perhaps one of the best possible entry points for learning about the history of Austin music. I was genuinely sad to come to the end. Like the others in my Austin Music Holy Trinity, I will read it again.

Overall rating: 9 out of 10.

Author’s language skills: 7 out of 10

What I learned that will most likely stick with me: A ton of Austin music history. This book is awesome.

Will it make the bookshelf? It will make the display shelf.