Kenneth Threadgill - Country Musician, Businessman and Bootlegger Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Kenneth Threadgill - Country Musician, Businessman and Bootlegger

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Austin is the capital city of Texas, and self-proclaimed 'Live Music Capital of the World'1. Kenneth Threadgill is generally regarded as the man who kick-started the thriving Austin music scene, and is called by some the Father of Austin Music. Apart from being a much-respected musician in his own right, his bar played host to some of Texas music's most well-known artists, and he mentored one particular singer whose star shone briefly but brightly during the 1960s.

Early Years and Influences

John Kenneth Threadgill was born on 12 September, 1909 in the small north-eastern Texas town of Peniel2, the ninth of eleven children. His father was a man of the cloth, and the young Kenneth showed a flair for music at an early age, singing in his father's church. The family subsequently moved south to Beaumont, and to Austin in 1923. Kenneth's idol was legendary country musician Jimmie Rodgers, and it was while back in Beaumont and working at the Tivoli Theatre that he got to meet the great man - Rodgers heard Kenneth imitating his yodelling style backstage and was impressed enough to compliment the young man. Kenneth subsequently incorporated yodelling into his act and it became one of his trademarks.

By 1933, Kenneth had married Mildred Greer and was back in Austin, working at a filling station just outside the (then) city limits on North Lamar Boulevard3 during the last days of Prohibition. After filling your petrol tank at the front of the building it was quite possible to drive around to the back and purchase a bottle of moonshine!

In December of that year, Prohibition was repealed, Kenneth Threadgill bought the business, named it Threadgill's, and as soon as the county was voted 'wet', he applied for (and was granted) Travis County beer licence number 01. This legitimacy didn't stop the young rogue from selling the occasional bottle of hooch, however.

Threadgill's Becomes a Music Joint

The business stayed open 24 hours a day and soon became a haunt for musicians who wanted to play on into the night instead of going home straight after their shows. Kenneth himself usually joined in, singing songs by his beloved Jimmie Rodgers. Although open for music and beer, dancing wasn't allowed since that would have required an extra (and more expensive) licence.

As the place became more popular the jam sessions became less informal. Kenneth decided to stop selling petrol and oil, and operate the business as a full-time bar. Musicians were paid in beer - usually two glasses a night, and the reputation of Threadgill's as a place to hear good music steadily grew. It wasn't until a curfew was enacted when the US entered World War Two in 1942, and the bar was forced to close, that Kenneth and Mildred had to get keys made so that they could lock the building - they had never done so before.

Kenneth was drafted into the army but although declared fit for duty, he worked as a welder for the Corps of Engineers and never saw active service.

The Music Begins Again

Threadgill's reopened after the war and continued to flourish throughout the remainder of the 1940s and the 1950s. As the times and the music changed, Kenneth welcomed all comers to the now well-established 'Wednesday Night Hootenannies', particularly students from the massive University of Texas campus in downtown Austin. It must have been an odd mixture - diehard country fans, rednecks, and beatniks, but Austin has long been known as a tolerant city.

Kenneth and Janis

On one occasion in the early 1960s, a young UT student stepped up to the microphone at Threadgill's and belted out a raucous rendition of a song called 'Silver Threads and Golden Needles', and thus was born the musical career of Janis Joplin. Although the performance was hardly a great one, Kenneth could see the potential of that voice. He took her under his wing and she became a lifelong friend of Kenneth and Mildred. News of this unkempt and dishevelled girl with an amazing voice got around, and soon she was the biggest act at Threadgill's, drawing huge crowds each and every Wednesday as she strummed on her autoharp and sang folk songs by Joan Baez and Judy Collins.

Janis eventually became more widely known, and her fame shot skywards following her performance of 'Ball and Chain' at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, but she retained a love for Austin, and especially for Kenneth and Mildred. In fact Janis and Kenneth bumped into each other at the Newport Festival in 1968, Janis sitting at his feet on a cushion while he sang. In 1970 she returned to Austin to attend a celebration in honour of his birthday, which was held in a local park and attracted around 8,000 people. She had been on tour and had to make a long journey in order to get to the party. After singing a couple of Kris Kristofferson songs and receiving Kenneth's heartfelt thanks for coming along, she presented him with a garland of flowers, adding (with a flash of that famous Janis Joplin grin) 'I was in Hawaii and I bought him one thing that I knew he'd like...a good lei.'

Winding Down

Janis's death just a few months after the event was a great sadness to Kenneth, but a much greater one four years later was the death of Mildred. Kenneth decided to retire from business, and Threadgill's was closed.

The building remained empty for two or three years and became something of an eyesore after being gutted by a fire. The city was on the verge of demolishing it when it was bought by local entrepreneur Eddie Wilson who had known Kenneth in earlier days and who had recently quit as one of the owners of The Armadillo World Headquarters. Threadgill's was reopened as a restaurant.

Only a year later it was once more almost destroyed by fire, and many priceless relics of Texas music history were lost. Only three months afterwards, however, the business was open again, serving good, old-fashioned homestyle southern cooking4, including, of course, that staple of Texas cuisine, chicken fried steak. The music didn't stop, however, and Kenneth was a regular Wednesday night performer until 1985.

On 20 March, 1987, Kenneth Threadgill suffered a pulmonary embolism and passed away in Austin's Brackenridge Hospital.

The Name Lives On

Threadgill's restaurant is now a firmly-established part of Austin's musical history. In 1996 a second Threadgill's was opened, in south Austin next to the former site of the Armadillo World Headquarters, where Kenneth Threadgill had often performed. The walls of this Threadgill's are festooned with dozens upon dozens of original Armadillo World HQ posters, and just like the Armadillo, there is a beer garden where bands and artists play during the long Texas summer. Both restaurants host regular performances, largely by musicians with a roots leaning - country, bluegrass, folk, etc - some famous and some hoping to be.

The audience these days at Threadgill's is more likely to be interested in their food than the music, but it can hardly hurt an artist's reputation to mention the name Threadgill's as one of the places they've been on stage at.

1This may or may not be true, but the city likes to think that it is.2Now a part of Greenville.3Known at the time as the Dallas Highway.4The comment next to macaroni and cheese in the 'vegetables' section of the menu notes a friendly rivalry between Texas and its neighbour to the north.

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