Austin has been the epicenter of Texas music for decades. Some have come to know such music through the nationally televised “Austin City Limits,” a television program, launched by Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) member television station KLRU, and broadcast on many PBS stations around the United States. The show was created in 1974 by Bill Arhos, who died in 2015 at the age of 80, but his program can still be viewed on PBS stations around the nation.
However, Austin had built a reputation as a center for Texas music long before ACL came along. Small musical venues dotted Austin’s sixth street, but establishments such as the Vulcan Gas Company and the Continental Club offered larger stages and bigger nightly incomes. But the Vulcan Gas Company closed in 1970, leaving a vacuum for a large musical venue in Austin. Then something special happened that same year: Armadillo World Headquarters opened in south Austin, an event that rocked the city’s musical world. Something of a musical miracle occurred as hippies and rednecks flocked to the same venue. When a beer garden was added later, the Dillo was definitely the place to go.
Launched in August 1970 in a converted National Guard building by Eddie Wilson and friends, the Dillo quickly became one the hottest joints around. “With an eventual capacity of 1,500, the hall featured a varied fare of blues, rock, jazz, folk and country music in an informal, open atmosphere. By being able to host such top touring acts as Frank Zappa, the Pointer Sisters, Bruce Springsteen, and members of the Grateful Dead, the Armadillo brought to Austin a variety of musical groups that smaller clubs or other local entities might never have booked. Since outstanding local or regional artists often opened these shows, the Armadillo also gave vital exposure to such future stars as Joe Ely, Marcia Ball, and Stevie Ray Vaughan,” explained Eddie in an interview.
Images of Texas blues stars as well as rock and country western singers adorned the walls of the cavernous establishment. “The Armadillo’s eclectic concert calendar brought together different, sometimes disparate, sectors of the community,” states the Texas State Historical Association. In a story from its September 9, 1974 edition, Time magazine wrote that the Armadillo was to the Austin music scene what the Fillmore had been to the emergence of rock music in the 1960s.
Other performers who played at the storied concert hall included Willie Nelson, Ry Cooder, Captain Beefheart, Taj Mahal, Dr. John the Night Tripper, Frank Zappa, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the New Riders of the Purple. Those halcyon days are long gone, however, as finances would prohibit a reopening of such a huge venue in Austin where downtown rents are skyrocketing. “I don’t think it would happen today, simply because of the rent. Cheap rent is what got the scene in Austin started,” wrote Wilson in the 2017 book The Armadillo World Headquarters: A Memoir he co-authored with Jesse Sublett.
The concert hall and beer garden at the old National Guard armory at the corner of South First Street and Barton Springs Road was also known for being tolerant toward marijuana and psychedelic drug use, which would not be tolerated these days. “I’m sorry there’s nothing in the book that’s television appropriate,” joked former owner Wilson during a recent interview on KXAN News.
Aging baby-boomers, particularly old hippies and nostalgic alumni from the University of Texas remember the legendary Dillo well. One ex-UT student, Bill Luttrell, said he bought the very last ticket to the final performance at the Dillo on December 31, 1980, which featured Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen and the country music group Asleep at the Wheel. Bill still has that ticket (pictured here), autographed by Cody on the back. He said he got the autograph by tracking the singer to his hotel, then boldly asked Cody to autograph the last ticket. Bill said Cody “happily complied.”