The iconic Threadgill’s on North Lamar in Austin closed down for good a few weeks ago as it faced an uncertain future amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The restaurant and musical hotspot opened in December 1981 by Kenneth Threadgill, one of the people who created the world-famous Austin music scene. Formerly the site of an old gas station, he turned it into a venue that carried his name and was a second home for musicians who became famous.
Many people shaped that scene including Willie Nelson, Allen Damron and Rod Kennedy, DJ Joe Gracey, and of course the musicians themselves.
Right in the middle of it all was Kenneth Threadgill, known as the "father of Austin country music." He was born in tiny Peniel on September 12, 1909, the ninth of 11 children of the Rev. John Threadgill who ministered in Texas and New Mexico. Kenneth spent his early years in Peniel, which was annexed into Greenville in the 1950s, before his family moved to Beaumont where he met idol and future mentor Jimmie Rodgers backstage at the Tivoli Theater.
In 1923, the family moved to Austin where Kenneth worked at an old Gulf gas station on North Lamar Boulevard. The minister’s son quickly bought the place, naming it Threadgill’s Tavern. He and his wife, Mildred, sold gas and food and, after Prohibition ended, got the first beer license in Austin.
The tavern closed for a few years during World War II and Kenneth worked on his own music, singing and yodeling like his idol and once, when another icon, Hank Williams, was late for a show at Dessau Dance Hall, filling in by singing Hanks songs until Hank showed up.
The heavyset Kenneth – with long white hair and beard and horn-rimmed glasses – reopened the tiny Threadgill’s after the war, packing the 45 seats on weekends with his Hootenanny Hoots band. On Wednesday nights, locals of all kinds would gather to drink beer and listen to casually impromptu country music. The place was open 24 hours a day until Austin enacted a curfew in 1942 and Kenneth had to buy a lock for the front door.
One night, two local musicians brought in some young newcomers from Beaumont; one of the hippie newcomers – her name was Janis Joplin – got on stage and sang "Silver Threads and Golden Needles." She became a regular and a friend of Kenneth and Mildred’s, even if her voice wasn’t always at its best.
"One night, in jest, she got two free Lone Star beers from Kenneth for not singing," wrote Alan Lee Haworth. "She loved Threadgill’s Tavern and frequented the establishment. Kenneth always swore that Janis did not get her start at his tavern, but rather started herself."
In 1970, three months before she died, Janis canceled a $15,000 gig in Hawaii to come, instead, back to Austin and sing at Kenneth’s birthday picnic that attracted 8,000 people. Congressman J.J. Pickle entered the party into the Congressional Record.
Kenneth closed Threadgill’s after Mildred died in 1974, eventually selling it to Eddie Wilson, who owned Armadillo World Headquarters where Kenneth often performed. Wilson reopened Threadgill’s as a restaurant in 1981 and a second restaurant, Threadgill’s World Headquarters (TWH), in downtown Austin in 1996; both featured lots of Kenneth Threadgill and Austin memorabilia and hosted regular performances of roots music. TWH closed in 2018 due to the cost of rising rent.
Kenneth came onto the national scene himself in the early 1980s when Willie asked him to sing in the movie and on the soundtrack for "Honeysuckle Rose."
He sang "Coming Back to Texas" and "Singing the Yodeling Blues," picking up $3,000 for acting and $4,000 for the songs. Eventually, the soundtrack sold nearly two million copies.
Kenneth Threadgill and the Velvet Cowpasture released their first album, Long-Haired Daddy, in 1981.
He sang optimistically about social issues, World War II, his father, patriotism, and Texas, creating his own style from early influences including Jimmie Rodgers and Al Jolson. Some of his best-known songs were "Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," "There’s A Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere," "T for Texas, T for Tennessee," and "It Is No Secret What God Can Do."
Kenneth died of a pulmonary embolism on March 20, 1987, at Brackenridge Hospital in Austin.
His name continues to inspire young singer-songwriters. It’s still the name of the stage at the Kerrville Folk Festival that welcomes new talent each year and people in his birthplace keeps his spirit alive with the Kenneth Threadgill Concert series.
One of the founders of the Greenville series, Larry W. Green, Jr., said the name was serendipitous.
"An attorney I worked with in in Greenville, Joe Weis, went to the University of Texas in the early and mid 1970s, and was at a place called Shakey’s Pizza Parlor near the campus," Green said. "Kenneth Threadgill and his band were playing. During a break, he came over and asked Joe, ‘Where you boys from?’ Joe said Greenville, and Kenneth said he was from Greenville, too.
"Around that time, we were starting a series and we needed a name for it. We picked Kenneth’s because he was from Greenville and had such an impact on Texas music. The type of music we wanted to present was really the kind of music Kenneth Threadgill helped support. He was a patron of those artists, and gave them a place to play," Larry said.
"A lot of our headliners here knew him personally and could share anecdotes about him. Junior Brown dedicated a song to Kenneth Threadgill. Jerry Jeff Walker and Gary P. Nunn and Ray Wylie Hubbard all knew Kenneth Threadgill personally, and some have even mentioned him in their songs."
In Texas, getting your name mentioned in a song is similar to canonization. In Kenneth Threadgill’s case, it is an affirmation of his own love of music, his own bigger-than-life personality, and his legacy in the live music capitol of the world and his home town.
A March concert in Greenville was cancelled due to COVID-19. Plans are in the works for a concert during the Bob Wills Fiddle Festival and Contest held November 6-7 this year. To learn more about the Kenneth Threadgill Concert Series, visit www.greenville-texas.com/concert.htm.
Excerpts in this article were taken from the County Line Magazine archives.