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Perspective | Taylor Bruce

Editor + Co-Founder, Wildsam

Last October, I published the first book in a new American travel series called Wildsam. Wildsam is a hybrid of sorts, part almanac, part memoir, part road-trip journaling. And we call them “field guides” mostly because cities are more untamed things than they are the urbane hubs I usually see in modern travel guides. Wildsam is more about a city’s soul. It’s the “wild” part of our name—exploring those rough edges to the place, the gritty and even broken parts. The magnificient and the mundane.

Back in December, I made my first research trip to Austin for Wildsam, and for six months after, the Texas capital was pretty much a constant carousel of thoughts. I read about Willie Nelson’s guitar, Trigger. I toured the city’s taco stands. I soaked up stories about Texas Rangers and UT football. I watched old episodes of Austin City Limits, heard passed-down stories about SXSW and imagined the earliest meetings of the Saengerrunde singing club.

When in town, I woke early to tropical grackle cries at the Hotel San José and saw purple sunsets from Mount Bonnell. I experienced the powerful glow produced by a moontower. Discovered that barbecue opinions are like a fire that never burns out. And learned that there’s such a thing as chicken shit bingo at Ginny’s Little Longhorn.

By the end of my research—a circuitous web of hey-you-should-talk-to-this-guy rabbit trails—my thoughts (and my apartment) were thoroughly littered in Austin past and present. And it was here, even though I knew the aim an impossible one, that I began looking for a red thread to Austin—it’s core element, the quiddity, the locally coiled “thingness” from which everything since 1839 (or even earlier, really) springs forth.

That’s the explore part of Wildsam, for me. Asking that simple, if impossible, question: What’s Austin all about? For me, the closest I came to finding this fountain of truth was when I met lifelong Austinite Eddie Wilson, owner of Threadgill’s. I first noticed his voice; it was like a rusty barrel, scratchy from 40 years of late nights, still strong enough to clear a room. He was sitting at the legendary music tavern, famous for giving Janis Joplin her start, and he was rattling off stories with ease. The one about meeting Janis and her flipping him the bird. The one about Austin’s first black disc jockey, Lavada Durst, aka Dr. Hepcat—“I wanted to be him so bad,” he said—and how Lavada played Elvis before anyone else did. Stories from his old club, the Armadillo World Headquarters, like the time Frank Zappa mopped up the floors, or how Van Morrison loved the shrimp enchiladas.

Eddie is a master storyteller. His anecdotes flow into one another in an underground aquifer kind of way. His memories are fluid and bottomless. But, as he continued at a relentless pace, one story seems to swirl in a deeper pool than the rest. It was about the Grateful Dead doing an impromptu show on a stormy Thanksgiving afternoon in 1972, and Doug Sahm leading the band, and how 1,500 people showed up, all whispering as they entered the hollow armory. Eddie lingered in that story.

“It started coming down pretty hard, so Doug and Jerry just played a full set of rain songs,” Eddie said, his voice lilting upwards, as if still amazed. “That show was what inoculated the Armadillo from ever having to make sense.”

Here it was, I thought. Here was that “thingness,” if there was such a discovery to dig up. It was the offbeat, the wide-open, the frontier disregard for boundaries. Way beyond weird. It’s a sense of possibility, cut into the limestone strata long before the clichéd tagline. It’s topographical, political, cultural—where east meets west, the blue dot in a blood-red state, barefoot and boots together. And the Armadillo World Headquarters was that stuff at 100 proof—joyfully hellbent and unafraid of not making sense.

All the hours in the city archives, all the conversations over Veracruz tacos, all the listening and watching and soaking in of Austin—it all seemed related to what Eddie mentioned in passing. And later I’d learn from Texas Monthly senior editor John Spong that Doug Sahm himself had his own name for this search for “thingness.” Doug just called it the Groove.

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Credits

Photography by LeAnn Mueller

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