Once a week Janis and her friends would drive to Threadgill’s, a converted gas station on the northernmost edge of Austin, to play music with old-time bluegrass and country players. The bar’s owner, Kenneth Threadgill, had been a bootlegger during Prohibition and is said to have acquired the first beer license in Travis County after its repeal. He was also a Jimmie Rodgers enthusiast whose jukebox was stocked with old 78s – every last one a Jimmie Rodgers record.
Threadgill had purchased the gas station in the mid thirties, and by the mid forties he was selling soda pop and beer out of some old coolers while his friends played guitar and fiddle and sang hillbilly blues. By the mid fifties a group of local amateur musicians were showing up every week to play, and Threadgill would pay them with two rounds of free beer. There was no stage at Threadgill’s. Instead, the performers played right in the middle of the customers. “We all sat around a big oak table reserved for musicians,” recalls Tary Owens, “and there was a microphone and a little amp and someone would sing a song and then pass the mike to the next person.” Over time, though, as the bar became more crowded, “the musicians had to move to the back rooms to wait their turns at the mikes and sound system Threadgill had installed.”
Janis was the star attraction at Threadgill’s, the reason it was packed every Wednesday night. “Oh yeah, the Waller Creek Boys were the best,” recalls Pepi Plowman. “They were only a little acoustic trio, but Janis put on a big show. At the end of the night, she’d sing stuff like ‘Sal’s Got a Wooden Leg’ and jump around.” Jack Smith remembers the first time it hit Janis that people were driving out to Threadgill’s just to hear her. “She thought the world had come to an absolute end. There’s never been a wider grin or bigger eyes.” Stan Alexander, one of the original UT students who discovered the bar, remembers the excitement swirling around Janis, even though she had not yet developed her own style. She was still carrying around her autoharp and singing Joan Baez and Judy Collins songs, Alexander remembers. “Her range and power were just beginning to come into play with songs like Bessie Smith’s ‘Black Mountain Blues,’ and a piece or two she did in conscious imitation of Odetta.”
“That girl’s really good,” Threadgill said when he first heard Janis sing. Both he and his wife, Mildred, took a real shine to Janis. Jack Jackson thought it odd because Janis was indisputably the weirdest and wildest student of them all. “She was sad, dirty, and unwashed, with a bad complexion and matted hair. She looked as if she’d been wearing the same clothes for weeks, even sleeping in them. And she had these coonskin caps, ratty old things – God knows where she got them. It’s just bizarre that Threadgill would have done this daddy thing with her.” To most of the folkies, however, there was nothing mysterious about Threadgill’s fondness for her. “Of course he loved her,” says Stephanie Chernikowski. “Everybody adored her. She was very charismatic. And she could turn on the charm like all performers.”
“Yep,” Mr. Threadgill said softly. “She was jes’ like one of mah own kids. She drank! I know that, but she never took to no drugs. Only thing I c’n imagine is…recording is reeel hard.” He shook his head thoughtfully. “At the Newport Festival in sixty-eight there was a party and I sang and she took a sofa pilla and sat right down at mah feet. When she died I…” His voice trailed off. “I thought the world of that girl.” Mr. Threadgill removed his rimless glasses and poked at the inner corners of his eyes. Glancing down at his apron, he carefully smoothed it out. “I loved her,” he sighed.
Indeed, Janis loved Threadgill, too. “He surpassed them all,” Janis said later. “He was old, a great big man with a beer belly and white hair combed back on top of his head. He’d be dishin’ out Polish sausages and hard-boiled eggs and Grand Prizes and Lone Stars.” Every Wednesday night, after some coaxing, Mr. Threadgill, as the students called him, would sing Jimmie Rodger’s “T for Texas” or “Waitin’ for a Train.” “Someone would say, ‘Mr.Threadgill, Mr. Threadgill, come out and do us a tune,'” Janis remembered. “And he’d say, ‘No, I don’t think so,’ and they’d say, ‘Come on, come on,’ and he’d say, ‘All right.’ He’d close the bar down, and then he’d walk out front, and he’d lay his hands across his big fat belly, which was covered with a bar apron….He’d come out like that and lean his head back and sing, just like a bird….God was he fantastic!”
On July 10, 1970, Janis literally returned to her musical roots when she traveled to Austin to help her friends celebrate Threadgill’s birthday. She arrived, from Hawaii, after a solid month of touring, the highlight of which was the Festival Express, a five-day train trip across Canada. Once in Austin, Janis assumed a low profile, although she did sing a couple of songs for the crowd of eight thousand that turned out to honor Threadgill. “Gimme a git-tar. Whar’s mah git-tar? Help. Help. I cain’t tune it. Will someone tune this thing?” she said, adding she couldn’t tune “worth shit.” “I cain’t play any rock ‘n’ roll tune without mah band, and mah band is in Hawaii.” She then launched into two Kristofferson tunes, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (“Almost as bad as Tuesday morning coming down – or Thursday morning coming down,” she joked) and “Me and Bobby McGee.” After Threadgill expressed his heartfelt thanks to Janis for attending, she presented him with a gift. “Now, I was in Hawaii and I bought him one thing that I knew he’d like,” she said, smiling mischievously. As she placed a wreath of flowers around his neck, she explained: “A good lei!” He chuckled, “Now, that’s one thing I wouldn’t know what to do with.”