EDDIE WILSON, AUSTIN’S PLUPERFECT HUSTLER, has for thirty years sold beer, food, entertainment, and the cosmic cowboy phenomenon, but mostly he has sold Eddie Wilson. The 53-year-old founder of the old Armadillo World Headquarters and the current proprietor of the Threadgill’s restaurants has reinvented himself and the Austin mystique so many times that man and myth have become inseparable.
You see Eddie all over town these days, a human cannonball in chili pepperpatterned pants and an apron, making deals, promoting liberal causes, selling copies of Threadgill’s: The Cookbook, and collecting memorabilia for the restaurants, where an impressive part of Austin history is on display: the neon sign from the old Twin Oaks shopping center; a sign from the Nighthawk; a piano Fats Domino played; posters of Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen, Freddie King, Willie Nelson, and other greats who played at the Armadillo; a vintage poster of an unknown Farrah Fawcett touting Mexican beer; and artifacts from Willie’s first Fourth of July picnic, which Eddie claims to have helped launch. (According to Eddie, not much has happened in this town that he didn’t help launch.) You see Eddie, too, on local and national TV commercials flacking for Austin’s Zachary Scott Theatre, advising diners that when they come to Threadgill’s, they better bring their appetite for Southern cooking and their Visa card, and explaining to MTV viewers that “cheap pot and cold beer is what got the whole thing started.”
The thing, of course, is Austin. Eddie speaks with the authority of someone present at the creation, and he was, sort of. His Austin roots go back to 1949, when his family moved from Mississippi to a home in the Hyde Park neighborhood. That put him within walking distance of the legendary honky-tonk run by Kenneth Threadgill, the pioneering musician who was the owner of the first beer license issued in Travis County after the repeal of prohibition. Eddie says his heroes are Wavy Gravy, the acid-head Woodstock emcee, and ice-cream moguls Ben and Jerry”The first taught me to be a clown and the other two that no matter how shamelessly you self-promote, you can’t let up for a minute!”but Threadgill is really the person he has always idolized most. Back in 1959, when Eddie was still in high school, he started hanging out at Threadgill’s, and the old man more or less adopted him. He was in his element: He loved to listen to Threadgill and other old-timers telling folk tales of early Austin, the building of Tom Miller Dam, the arrival of artificial moonlight, the fabled whorehouses of Hattie and Miss Edna. Janis Joplin was also a Threadgill’s regular back then, and though she never acknowledged Eddie’s presence, he has not discouraged people from speculating that they were intimate.
Eddie’s break with obscurity came in 1970, when he galvanized musicians and other locals and founded the Armadillo. The soon-to-be-legendary Austin nightclub was a rebuke to downtown merchants who unsuccessfully colluded with a reactionary newspaper columnist to shut down Austin’s first hippie rock joint, the Vulcan Gas Company on Congress Avenue. To some, the name “Armadillo” was confusing, but Eddie reminded us: “If you don’t have people slightly confused, you don’t have their attention.” Jim Franklin’s enormous murals and posters added to the confusion, transforming the lowly armadillo from roadkill to a symbol of laid-back freedom, and the presence of renegade country stars like Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson fused the redneck and hippie scenes. (Even Kenneth Threadgill let his hair grow long after recording with Kristofferson.) The Armadillo was never a financial successit survived for only ten yearsbut it thrived as the cradle of Texas counterculture.
In 1976 Eddie opened the original Raw Deal, a greasy spoon near the downtown police station that foreshadowed the eccentric charm of Sixth Street. A sign near the front door warned: “Remember, you found the Raw Deal. The Raw Deal didn’t come looking for you!” Like the Armadillo and Scholz Garten before it, the Raw Deal became a hangout for writers, musicians, and Texas liberals. Ann Richards took the oath of office for county commissionerher first elected jobthere, an occasion Eddie will never allow us to forget. (“Eddie is still pissed that he never got credit for electing her governor,” a mutual friend told me.) After about a year Eddie sold his interest in the Raw Deal and began to restore Threadgill’s honky-tonk, which had gone out of business in 1976 soon after the old man’s wife died. On New Year’s Day 1981 Eddie reopened Threadgill’s with a menu of Southern recipes his momma used to fix. The restaurant almost went belly-up during the bust, but Eddie, ever the salesman, rescued himself by peddling a line of Threadgill’s frozen vegetables to grocery storesfirst in Austin and later all over Texas.
For the next decade Eddie contented himself with running the one restaurant. But late last year he realized his long-articulated desire to christen a second Threadgill’s just south of downtown, next door to the site of the old Armadillo. Leave it to Eddie to open the state’s flagship comfort-food joint at the exact time that Texans were deciding that a diet of tofu and roots wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. To no one’s surprise, the new restaurant has become a hangout for Austin liberals and a bastion for liberal causes; Jim Hightower does a midday radio show from the dining room. But Eddie is no longer a flag carrier for the counterculturehe’s part of the establishment. His two restaurants employ 218 people and have a combined payroll of about $2 million. His cookbook has nearly sold out its second printing. And his frozen-food empire now services four hundred groceries (though he says the operation will fold unless he raises $1 million to expand this fall).
Interestingly, the two Threadgill’s are exactly 10,000 meters apart, a traditional Austin stroll. Eddie hopes to spend his old age walking from the north location to the south location, through Hyde Park, down Speedway, across the University of Texas campus, through the Capitol grounds, down Congress Avenue, and across the Congress Avenue Bridge. One can safely predict the stroll will someday be named the Eddie Wilson Memorial Walkway.