Most every musician has a special time in their career where they transform into their true artistic being. That pivotal moment and the place where it happens usually ends up in the history books and becomes part of music legend. No doubt, Austin has its share of legendary artists with undeniable talent and mystique, such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and his many performances at Antone’s and other iconic venues.
Some of Janis Joplin’s transformative years took place at the Austin landmark Threadgill’s bar. Janis sang at the little joint on the outskirts of Austin once a week with fellow students and old-school bluegrass and country musicians. Kenneth Threadgill, a bootlegger and Jimmie Rodgers fan, converted the former gas station into a beer joint in 1933. Threadgill’s blossomed in the 1960s with a wide range of patrons, including the new crop of folkies, beatniks, and hippies on the scene. It was an unlikely venue fostering musical community via a microphone and a mug of beer.
In 1962, Janis attended the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied art, gravitated toward other like-minded students, and was frequently seen carrying her autoharp around town. A pivotal time in her early career, she was just developing her voice already inspired by blues artists Big Mama Thornton, Odetta, Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, and Billie Holiday.
The future rock-blues artist performed on campus and at local “folksings,” which were casual musical gatherings (or open-mic nights), where anybody could sing. Threadgill’s was the perfect place, happily offering hillbilly blues and beer, and for Janis, she found her own version of home and a chance to push the boundaries of her vocals and society.
Janis and her pals would visit the unassuming bar on Austin’s north side once a week. Huddled around a wooden table, they would sing and enjoy a complimentary two rounds of beer for their efforts. As fate would have it, Janis soon became the star attraction at Threadgill’s with her unique voice and ultra-special charm.
Eventually, Kenneth Threadgill set up microphones and sound systems to accommodate the performances. During this time, Janis played with the Waller Creek Boys, a musical trio she befriended, and they packed the place every Wednesday night.
Janis comfortably sang her favorite blues numbers, which was not typical of the early ‘60s female artists of the day like Judy Collins, Peggy Lee, and Joan Baez. She would belt out tunes like “C.C. Rider,” “San Francisco Baby Blues,” and Bessie Smith’s “Black Mountain Blues”—her voice showing early signs of the powerhouse vocalist she would become. After moving to San Francisco and the Summer of Love scene, she fronted Big Brother and the Holding Company, had a historic performance at the Monterey Pop Festival alongside other musical greats, and later formed her Kozmic Blues Band.
Although her time in Austin wasn’t that long, it was a stepping-stone that impacted her transformation into one of the most unique and powerful American blues singers in history. Her first recorded song, “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do,” was put to tape in 1962, with help from one of her University of Texas friends.
She never did forget Threadgill’s. In 1970, she went back to Austin in style for Kenneth Threadgill’s big birthday celebration and performed for a crowd of eight thousand. She came into town after a long tour and sang a few songs, including “Me and Bobby McGee,” and presented her old friend with a gift.
Years later, a larger Threadgill’s Restaurant opened in Austin and was a huge success (the original site was also preserved). But as fate would have it, Threadgill’s sadly closed its doors for good in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Undoubtedly, its impact on Austin and American music history will never be forgotten—especially when a rough-around-the-edges young lady sang the blues in her own signature style.