[Armadillo World Headquarters] | The Dillo's hand-painted sign
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[Armadillo World Headquarters]
Armadillo World Headquarters sign. [Austin: ca. mid-1970s]
Hand-painted sign (overall 16 x 2'). Two equally sized pieces of pinewood (each 8 x 2'), recto painted in black, yellow, red, and green after Jim Franklin's lettering, verso with a piece wood at center for joining the two halves; paint worn from use, with some flaking and loss, but overall bright and intact.
The legendary venue that helped to make "Austin Weird"
Armadillo World Headquarters was founded in July 1970 after Eddie Wilson, out one night to see a band in South Austin, stumbled upon—whether by chance or fortune—an empty 16,000 square-foot building with a ready-made stage. It had originally been a National Guard armory and the rent was cheap. Wilson put together a small team, and just three and half weeks later, the Armadillo World Headquarters opened its doors—forever changing the Austin music scene.
The venue was named due to the local artist and founding Armadillo crewmember Jim Franklin's affinity for the animal. Franklin, who studied at the San Francisco Art Institute prior to returning to his native Texas, was known in Austin for his surrealistic paintings and poster art, which frequently and prominently featured armadillos. Franklin worked with musicians at the Vulcan Gas Company—another significant psychedelic club in Austin—before Wilson recruited him and other Vulcan veterans for his new undertaking. The present sign was executed by Don Cowley, an Armadillo crew member, and was based on Franklin's lettering in his promotional art—which itself mimicked the font on the packaging for Camel cigarettes—and hung above the entrance to the venue's beer garden, welcoming the crowds.
The venue was beloved for its community, sound, and environment—and known for its leniency around drug use, which attracted the psychedelic contingent in Austin. As a result, it brought together disparate groups of people in the area for the first time: hippies and country aficionados found themselves together at the same place to drink Lone Star and see live music. The venue was a hot-bed for touring artists, as it proudly featured a wide-range of genres. It became the essential stop in Texas for musicians on the road, and nearly every monumental band of the period performed on its stage; over the decade in which it operated, the Armadillo featured The Clash, James Brown, Elvis Costello, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Fats Domino, Talking Heads, New Riders of the Purple Sage, The Jerry Garcia Band, John Lee Hooker, Charles Mingus, Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, John Fahey, Bruce Springsteen, and The Ramones, to list but a few of its incredible roster. Further, the Armadillo was the epicenter for what came to be called "The Austin Sound"—a mixture of country and rock defined the city as an epicenter of live music.
One of the musicians most responsible for the development of that sound, and for the Armadillo's success as a cultural melting pot, was none other than Willie Nelson. After struggling in Nashville during his early career, Nelson retired from music in 1972 and moved down to Austin. There, he was revitalized by the burgeoning hippie scene centered around the Armadillo, and began to play music at small bars near Austin to local fans. He played his first night at the Armadillo in April 1973: "The Armadillo leaders and staff were uncertain how the concert would go. With clouds of marijuana smoke always pungent in the place ... hippies mingled with Willie's redneck fans. But any hostility between the two audiences evaporated as they were swept up in the spell of Willie's jazz-inflected singing and his playing of a battered Martin's guitar in a style he called Spanish" (Reid 79). Nelson began inviting his musician friends in Nashville down to Austin, contributing significantly to the country and rock convergence that came to be known as the "Armadillo" and "Austin" sound.
While the Armadillo was in some senses wildly successful—receiving national coverage in Rolling Stone, Time, and beloved by musicians—it financially struggled throughout the decade. The lot that the venue was on had been for sale for almost its entire career; in 1980, a buyer finally came forward, and the land was sold for $1.4 million dollars. The crew scrambled to find another location, but by that time Austin had already transformed, and they were unable to find another venue suitable to their needs that they could afford. Reconciled to closing its doors, "the Dillo went out with a bang. Devo and Roy Orbison played separate nights in August; Leon Redbone and Asleep at the Wheel in September; and James Cotton, Frank Zappa, and Doc and Merle Watson in October. Talking Heads played the week before Thanksgiving; Arlo Guthrie on Thanksgiving night; and on the last night of the month, Robert Shaw, the great Austin barrelhouse pianist, played a farewell boogie-woogie. John Hartford kicked off the first weekend of December, followed by Rockpile on Friday, and Taj Mahal and Townes Van Zandt on Saturday" (Wilson 383). Weeks of incredible shows continued until New Year's Eve—the venue's last night, with a sendoff show by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Asleep at the Wheel, and Maria Muldaur, attended by 1,500 Armadillo devotees. The building was demolished in January 1981, but its legacy forever changed the Texas music landscape. The venue was immortalized in Gary P. Nunn's "London Homesick Blues," the theme song to Austin City Limits from 1977 to 1999: "I wanna go home with the armadillo / Good country music from Amarillo and Abilene / The friendliest people and the prettiest women you've ever seen."
“One way to measure the good times at the Armadillo is in gallons of beer: only the Astrodome sold more draft Lone Star Beer than we did. That’s right, the famed 44,500-seat domed stadium, often referred to in those days as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World,’ was the only joint in the Lone Star State that moved more kegs of LSB than our 1,500-capacity hippie music emporium” (Wilson 5).
A singular piece of Austin music history
Photographs © Alan Pogue; Reid, Jann with Shawn Sahm. Texas Tornado. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010; Wilson, Eddie and Jesse Sublet Armadillo World Headquarters: A Memoir. Austin: TSSI Publishing & University of Texas Press, 2017
Condition as described in catalogue entry.
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