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THREADGILL, JOHN KENNETH

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THREADGILL, JOHN KENNETH (1909–1987). Kenneth Threadgill, country singer and tavern owner, was born John Kenneth Threadgill on September 12, 1909, in Peniel, Texas. He was the ninth of eleven children of Rev. John Threadgill. His father ministered between Hunt County and New Mexico. The family moved to Beaumont, and then in 1923 to Austin, where Kenneth attended Austin High School and subsequently met his future mentor and idol, Jimmie Rodgersqv. Threadgill worked at the Tivoli Theater in Beaumont and heard Rodgers sing. Backstage, Rodgers heard Threadgill imitating his yodeling and was impressed. Threadgill incorporated yodeling into his country singing act later in his life to make a unique style that fans loved.

In 1933 he moved to Austin and began working at an old service station on North Lamar Boulevard. By December, Threadgill had bought the establishment and changed it to Threadgill's Tavern, which still sold gas and food but operated with the first beer license in Austin after the repeal of Prohibition. At that time Threadgill did not allow dancing because he would have had to pay an extra tax on a dance hall that served beer. He and his wife, Mildred (Greer), ran the restaurant and tavern until World War II, when they closed for a few years. They had three daughters. Though Threadgill was classified I-A by the army, he worked as a welder for the war effort, and the enlistment officer deferred him in ninety-day stretches until the war ended. Meanwhile, the music did not completely stop. Hank Williams came through Austin and managed to fit in an extra show at the Dessau Dance Hall, northeast of Austin in Dessau. Hank was late, so Kenneth was asked to sing a few Hank Williams songs in the meantime. As Hank walked into the hall, Threadgill was singing "Lovesick Blues." Hank came onstage to finish the show, and the two laughed together afterward.

Threadgill's Tavern opened again after the war. Due to the small size of the establishment, which seated about forty-five, the place was packed on weekends when Kenneth Threadgill and his Hootenanny Hoots played. Wednesday nights consequently became the hot time for university students and local residents to congregate for beer, country music, yodeling, and the "Alabama Jubilee," the song that would usually get Kenneth to dance his patented shuffle. At midweek such disparate characters as goat ropers, university Greeks, hippies, and average Joes could relax together at the hootenanny.

On one occasion Julie and Chuck Joyce, two musicians from the Hootenanny Hoots, were driving around Austin and saw a small band, hippies with instruments, on the side of the road. They pulled over and invited them to come to Threadgill's. Since the show was usually in an impromptu, open-microphone style, Janis Joplin, one of the hippie musicians, shyly stepped on the stage before shouting "Silver Threads and Golden Needles." Her voice was a dull shriek that night, most reports say. Nonetheless, she became a close friend of Kenneth and Mildred. One night, in jest, she got two free Lone Star Beers from Kenneth for not singing. 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 a concert in the park near Oak Hill was held to celebrate Threadgill's birthday. His fans consumed bar-b-que, beans, and beer. Janis Joplin, who had been in Hawaii the day before, canceled a $15,000 show to fly to Austin. She and Threadgill sang and danced for the crowd. Three months later Janis died of a drug overdose after promising Kenneth that they would be seeing each other much more often in the future. Threadgill's birthday picnic was recorded in the Congressional Record when Congressman J. J. Pickle commended the "Father of Austin Country Music" as a legend.

Threadgill was a unifier of Austin's past and present. He was quiet on the national scene until his first movie soundtrack and album in the early 1980s, when he and Willie Nelson appeared together and sang in Honeysuckle Rose. For the soundtrack, Threadgill sang "Coming Back to Texas" and "Singing the Yodeling Blues." He received $3,000 for acting and $4,000 for the songs; he afterward sold almost two million copies of the soundtrack. In September 1981 he released Kenneth Threadgill and the Velvet Cowpasture's first album, Long-Haired Daddy. The title describes the man, who had long white hair, horn-rimmed glasses, huge sideburns, and a large rotund belly. Wearing a cowboy hat, he would stand onstage, lean back with his hands on his belly, and yodel like a bird. He had a baritone voice with a high falsetto. As for his lyrics, he sang about social stability with boundless optimism. Some of his topics were World War II, his hard-working father, patriotism, and Texas. His early influences were Jimmie Rodgers ballads and Al Jolson movies, which were apparent in his singing and dancing. 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)."

Mildred died in 1974 . After his wife's death, Kenneth Threadgill closed the club and eventually sold it to Eddie Wilson, who was owner of Armadillo World Headquarters. Wilson opened Threadgill's as a restaurant on December 31, 1981. A second restaurant, Threadgill's World Headquarters, opened in 1996. Threadgill died of a pulmonary embolism on March 20, 1987, at Brackenridge Hospital in Austin. The city of Greenville (which annexed Threadgill's hometown of Peniel in 1957) hosts the Kenneth Threadgill Concert Series in his honor. He was inducted into the Austin Music Memorial in 2010.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Austin Music Memorial (http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/music/memorial.htm), accessed April 27, 2010. Threadgill's Home Cookin' (http://www.threadgills.com/), accessed February 3, 2009. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

Alan Lee Haworth

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Alan Lee Haworth, "THREADGILL, JOHN KENNETH," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fth58), accessed September 02, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on October 29, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.