Armadillo World Headquarters Is Back from the Dead

An Austin FC collaboration is part of the famed venue's relaunch. The two entities have more in common than you might think, like counting Ray Benson as a fan.

Many great venues have risen and fallen in the live music capital of the world, but none have had the lasting impact of the Armadillo World Headquarters. Located at the corner of Baron Springs Road and South First Street, the concert hall was a ’70s mainstay where clean-cut congressmen in suits mingled with long-haired hippies, and country music felt at home alongside rock ‘n’ roll. The cast of artists who played its hallowed stage boggles the mind: Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, The Clash, George Strait, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Frank Zappa, to name a few.

This was the place that defined the capital city’s ethos—as not only a live music hot spot, but also a bastion of universal camaraderie between people from all walks of life. It’s where Austin first went weird. But it all came to an end on the final day of 1980, when Asleep at the Wheel played the venue’s last show, and the space was demolished to make room for an office building the following year.

Now, the beloved institution has returned—at least in spirit. Armadillo World has relaunched as a brand through a collaboration with Austin FC for the pro soccer club’s new jersey. Officially dubbed the “Armadillo Kit,” the cream and verde uni pays tribute to the since-departed music hall with subtle details like a small armadillo icon near the lower hem and the old address of the club stitched at the back of the neckline. Moreover, it’s the holistic marketing push around the jersey that links these entities together.

 

 

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Last night at ACL Live, Austin FC hosted a massive party unveiling the new kit, with performances by local rapper Blackchyl, rising country musician William Beckmann, and Texas legends Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel—the same act that played the closing of the Armadillo more than 40 years ago. With the words “The ’Dillo Lives” emblazoned on a verde display screen behind him, Benson and his crew lent an old-school authenticity to a some very new kids on the block. It was just the latest in a string of campaigns that evidence Austin FC’s savvy marketing acumen, as they’ve strategically tapped notable Austin personalities and businesses over the years (Willie Nelson, Black Joe Lewis, Hotel Vegas, Shakey Graves, Evan Voyles, Fort Lonesome, the list goes on).

For some, it might be a stretch to see a link between that fabled counterculture haven and a pro sports franchise. But look closer, and it’s clear that there are some notable similarities. “We started very humbly, and the comparisons between humble hippies and armadillos was easy for most people to understand,” says the music venue’s founder, Eddie Wilson. “Armadillos are underground creatures, and we were hidden at the Armadillo World Headquarters, kind of like a hole-in-the-wall gang.”

You might look at Austin FC’s $260 million stadium and celebrity investors like Matthew McConaughey and see it as the polar opposite of a rag tag gang of musicians and artists. But many Austinites who’ve followed the upstart soccer club might tell you that’s not far from the energy at City Hall in June 2018, when City Council voted to move forward on bringing an MLS franchise to town. Back then, it was still an unproved pipe dream with a handful of die-hard supporters who had gathered to await the news onsite. A good number of those present that day have gone on to be integral players in Austin FC’s supporters groups like Los Verdes and La Murga de Austin, the street band that keeps matches filled with a cacophony of percussion and brass. In other words, the capital city has always been aware that culture doesn’t just happen—it’s made by those invested in a mission.

In some ways, soccer remains an experiment in America, just as the Armadillo was once a trial balloon in Austin’s nascent music scene. Far less established than entrenched leagues like the NFL, NBA, and MLB, soccer is still courting a subset of the U.S. population. But our local team has at least one mega-fan that may surprise you—Ray Benson. “I think it’s amazing. I mean, it’s sold out every game,” the Asleep at the Wheel frontman says. “I’m a big soccer fan, and I watch Premier League. I played in high school,” he adds.

If Benson’s gushing affinity for the beautiful game catches you off guard, just wait until he launches into an analysis of the MLS’ burgeoning talent and what Austin needs to do to keep up. “Look, if Messi can go to Miami, there are going to be some defections from the Premier League and Champions League, and hopefully we’ll get some homegrown talent,” he offers.

Photo by Bryan C. Parker.

 

As for the future of Armadillo World, the collaboration on Austin FC’s new jersey is only the beginning. The relaunched organization plans to host concerts and create merchandise, but its initial push will be a documentary film with the use of hundreds of archival videos of classic Armadillo performances. A trailer for the film, which you can watch below, has been released in conjunction with this coordinated media blitz.

With all this buzz, does that mean it’s possible that the Armadillo could return to physical form in the future? Wilson has no plans for that, but says anything is on the table. “We don’t have to know ahead of time what all is going to be presented—we get to make it up,” the longtime Austinite says. “More than anything else, it’s a statement of determination.”

This story was created in collaboration with our sister publication Austin Monthly.