Austin’s number one, long-hair, honky-tonk, Armadillo World Headquarters, always draws a crowd Saturday night. The Armadillo, an abandoned armory adjacent to a skating rink, has already attracted 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, surprisingly 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 original lyrics 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 with an 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 Willie’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 Willie’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 largly comprised of middle class youths who hail from Texas’ cities yet are rarely more than two or three generations removed from more rural times; they came to Austin because the feel of those rural times still lingers there. In a way, they are anew breed of conservative who despair over big-city hype and 20th-century progress and romanticizes “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 stereo headsets clamped over their ears. Their need for music is insatiable. Living in Texas, they grew up with country & western, which in its whining way has stressed themes of 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 not the first to borrow from country music; indeed, 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 true and that ring could establish Austin as America’s next cultural sub-capital.
Austin’s easy-going mix of musical styles did not originate with Armadillo World Headquarters it dates back to 1933, when Kenneth Threadgill purchased Travis County’s first beer license and turned a little filling station on North Lamar into a bar that reverberated one night a week with the liveliest music in Austin. The houseband was straight hillbilly. Threadgill himself highlighted the jam sessions with his 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