Austin music seeds sewn at hall loved by cowboys, hippies and performers

— Long after the last guitar note was strummed and the Armadillo World Headquarters closed down, the funky Austin music hall lives on in Texas lore.

"The Armadillo was like a Texas brag. It was just too big to be real. We took it so seriously that the local folks kind of poked a lot of fun at us," said founder Eddie Wilson.

The music hall, which opened on Aug. 7, 1970, evolved from an abandoned National Guard armory into what many regard as the birthplace of Austin's reputation as a live music hub.

For 10 years, it was the place where hippies and cowboys hung out together and musicians fed off the crowd's eclectic energy. Lineups ranged from country and rock to blues and Latin music.

"It wasn't like anything that was going on anywhere else in the country," Wilson said. "I'd describe it as a huge cultural petri dish out of control."

The Armadillo paved the way for more live music clubs and bands, said music writer Joe Nick Patoski, a senior editor at Texas Monthly magazine and author of biographies about Stevie Ray Vaughan and Selena.

"Nothing before it or since comes close to being as significant," he said. "It was also the wellspring of this very unique culture that somehow welded hippie and country music sensibilities."

One legendary show was Bruce Springsteen's performance in the early 1970s. The admission charge was a dollar.

Other performers included Frank Zappa, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Freddie King, the Clash, Taj Mahal, the Flatlanders and Commander Cody.

The hot spot

Those who lived it say the Armadillo was much more than a music venue. It also became known for its food and camaraderie. Its outdoor beer garden was a haven for artists and other creative folks.

"It seemed to some, lulled into optimism by cold beer and cheap pot, that it was going to go on forever; that once upon a time in Austin," Wilson, now 58 and owner of the popular Threadgill's restaurants in Austin, wrote on his Web site.

Wilson stumbled upon the building, just south of Town Lake, when he was the manager of psychedelic country blues group Shiva's Headband.

He'd stepped outside of the nearby Cactus Club because the restroom wasn't working. That's when he saw a row of old windows, then the empty cinder block building below them. He found his way inside the dark, empty structure and drove his car in before turning on the headlights to see what he'd discovered.

"My heart still beats fast when I talk about that moment. It was like I had found a cave, Carlsbad Caverns or something," he recalled. "The Armadillo was just obviously there to be had."

Soon bands were playing, and talk of the Armadillo spread nationwide.

"It was a place where every musician wanted to come and play," said pianist Floyd Domino, who appeared at the Armadillo numerous times with the band Asleep at the Wheel.

Asleep at the Wheel had a loyal following in Berkeley, Calif., but band members weren't sure what they would find in Texas. They were pleasantly surprised by the Armadillo.

"It was our first Texas gig. It was really an electric feeling," Domino said.

For 10 years the big place with no air conditioning thrived on dirt cheap month-to-month rent from landlord M.K. Hage and the good karma � and sometimes free labor � of patrons and performers.

Richard Mann, now a computer consultant, recalls working at the Armadillo emptying beer pitchers so he could hear the music free and have a place to sleep when he wasn't camping under a bridge.

"It was just a big family, and musicians loved playing for the crowd," he said.

Keeping the memory alive

In 1976, Wilson handed over operation of the Armadillo to Hank Alrich, a bluegrass performer who'd helped out earlier with a generous financial infusion.

After the New Year's Eve show of 1980, the place shut down. The family that owned the land had decided to sell it. Despite protests from some Dillo supporters, who warned against the "Manhattanization" of Austin, the Armadillo closed. Today a city office building sits in its place.

A Threadgill's restaurant next to the Armadillo site now serves as a sort of monument to its memory with Dillo memorabilia on display, including a piano played by Count Basie and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Wilson is working on a book about the Armadillo era with Patoski, and is also providing memorabilia for an exhibit, "Country Music From the Lone Star State," that opens Saturday at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum.

Other projects include a documentary film based on some of 100 hours of videotaped performances at the Dillo, an art book highlighting posters created for the Armadillo by Jim Franklin, and a box set CD collection of Armadillo performances that Wilson envisions as a fund-raiser for the Austin Musicians Clinic.

Though he acknowledges the Dillo days are over, Wilson says its legacy continues with the Austin Music Network, formed in 1994. It airs local music on a dedicated television channel.

Eventually, Wilson wants to change its name to the Armadillo Music Network.

"The memory is not going to fade away," he said.

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