By Jillian Oliver
Of all the platforms for the country's guitar pickers and ballad belters, Austin City Limits reigns supreme as musical gold–and the longest-running music series in television history.
Featured on public television for the first time in 1974, the program showcased some top names from the get-go, notably Willie Nelson, who was the show's first performer. But soon the show would host every big name from Loretta Lynn to Ray Charles.
Although we take music television for granted after VH1 and MTV, back in the 70s, it wasn't as easy to find your favorite artists giving a raw performance on live TV.
With monumental taste, funk, and depth, Austin City Limits offers a performance, where space, art, and people intersect to give music a new level of depth.
Willie Nelson was the first to perform
ACL started as a platform for progressive country
Gave rise to festivals in New Zealand and Australia
B.W. Stevenson almost became the first ACL performance
In the years leading up to 1974, a music scene budded in Austin around the clubs of live musicians and influence from the local student population at the University of Texas.
Because of the commercial success of Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Michael Martin Murphey, the scene in Austin resembled a country/rock hybrid sometimes called
redneck rock or
The new scene had other names, too. Steve Fromholz, a singer-songwriter, suggested his own term for the long-haired, cowboyesque crowd–
hickies or people who are redneck, but a little quirkier.
Another name coined was the
cosmic cowboy movement, which came from the title and first cut of a 1973 album by Michael Martin Murphey.
If the scene was lacking anything it wasn't creative names to describe it!
Members of the scene self-consciously—at times rebelliously—associated themselves with a type of Texas identity.
One of Murphey’s songs is a prime example as he starts one verse with a reference to a Texas beer:
Lone Star sippin’ and skinny dippin’ and steel guitars and stars, Just as good as Hollywood. . .
The song was nostalgic and decried modernity. It drew on a tradition of musical romanticism that dates back at least to 1910 in Texas when John Lomax published his collection Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.
Lomax wanted authenticity in the music he collected—a sense that these songs constituted a valuable treasure from the past, a rare find in a rapidly changing society. Like Appalachia, Texas enjoys a symbolic history as a kind of alternative to all things modern.
The inspiration for Austin City Limits came from this budding local scene. At the time, the station KLRU, which was KLRN at the time, was on the lookout for innovative programming.
They had a strong budget and a three-building complex on 26th St. and Guadelupe. Among their staff was Bill Arhos, who would bring the innovation KLRU-TV was looking for.
Arhos started working with the station in 1961 as a graduate intern and he shot up the ranks quickly, holding titles such as producer, program manager, and ultimately president of the company by 1986.
He took the station's predominantly youth-oriented programming and introduced a new concept: a live music program for adults that would only cost the station $13,000 for the first two episodes.
It was the deal of the century.
The pilot of Austin City Limits featured the one and only Willie Nelson, even though the night before, B.W. Stevenson was taped first but the recording was deemed unusable. Tough luck for old Stevenson.
Nelson's stellar performance took place before a live audience that was seated all around the band.
Some people chilled on the floor, others sat in chairs, and others preferred to move and dance while the band played, like they would in a nightclub.
Folks were free to grab a Lone Star beer without charge–a constant at all Austin City Limits performances. Lucky them!
When Willie began the second verse of
Good Hearted Woman the whole crowd paid attention and when a key change in double time drove the song to an end, applause erupted.
Austin City Limits was an instant hit.
Multicultural Music to Our Ears
The great city of Austin is more multicultural than some might give it credit for. It lies at a crossroads of Hispanic, German, African American, Anglo, and Cajun cultures.
The conflict and coexistence of its multitude of settlers shaped local culture and music. People of all ethnicities came together and created art that wouldn't have existed otherwise.
That history made for a distinct culture in central Texas, and a distinct musical vibe.
The lineup for Austin City Limits Season one displayed some of this culture to a national audience for the first time. It connected music, symbols, and ideas that were unique to Austin and launched them out on one of only four major TV outlets.
During Season one, only Willie Nelson saw widespread recognition–not to mention a shower of accolades, but not everyone was quite as illustrious.
Almost all the other performers were a bit more obscure to the nation. But this was a good thing because Austin City Limits became the first effective stage for showing Austin’s fingerprint to a wide audience.
One of the ways Austin City Limits projected the city's scene–and scenery–came through its introductory segment each week. During the first season, producer Paul Bosner used audio from a pre-show soundcheck to accompany each episode’s opening sequence.
Along with this soundcheck, the audience saw a slideshow of images that began with general scenes of Texas like lonely country roads and Texas plant life.
With the appearance of a green-and-white
Austin City Limits highway sign, the montage shifts to storefronts and signs for local nightspots like the Armadillo or Threadgill’s, or the Soap Creek Saloon.
Austin insiders were familiar with these places, while outsiders would be drawn to the city's unique aesthetic. Taken in its entirety, the opening made Austin look fresh and vibrant and showed musically how much it had to offer.
Progressive country was still dominant, even though they featured blues performers like Ray Charles and later on pop-rock bands like The Crickets. To solidify this bent, they removed the soundcheck and replaced it with a theme song, written by Gary P. Nunn titled
London Homesick Blues.
The song is a homage to the state of Texas and boldly brings all things endemic to the state front and center.
The More the Merrier
Austin City Limits became so big it was a coveted platform for artists nationwide and the viewership increased. With their growing popularity, they launched the Austin City Limits Musical Festival in 2002.
The genres represented at the festival expanded beyond the ACL of the 1970s, with hip hop, pop, rock, and metal represented in addition to country.
Artists like Metallica and The Cure stood on the Bud Light stage in Zilker Park in front of 100s of people. It began as a one-weekend event, but in 2013, it expanded to two consecutive weekends.
So successful was it that it gained international influence.
Sydney City Limits and Auckland City Limits came on the scene–the latter in 2015 and the former in 2018.
It certainly shows the power of music when it can reach from central Texas to our friends down under.
Commercial sponsors helped with their growth. But in the '90s, new competition from cable and, increasingly, the Internet, provoked a broadcast television crisis.
This forced all three major commercial networks, along with PBS, to alter strategies in order to stay relevant. By then, they had lost subscribers and were tasked with proving to sponsors that they could still appeal to a national audience.
They wound up separating from PBS, made the show free on all stations, and relied solely on sponsors for money.
They also balanced their programming between genres instead of doing country. Audiences were especially surprised when Ray Charles appeared on the show pounding his piano keys. It was a sign that a new era was emerging.
Still Taking It to the Limit
The originator of the Austin City Limits, Bill Arhos, turned over management to Terry Lickona who helped propel the brand into a wider public sphere.
Lickona also helped expand programming early on in his career as a producer, pressing the faithful New Orleanian, Fats Domino, until the singer finally gave in and traveled to perform for the show.
He always went to extra lengths to get the best of the best, including talking his way backstage during a Ray Charles performance in Austin. He negotiated with Charles while the singer was wearing nothing but his boxers.
Awkward, but as they say, that’s showbiz, baby.
Lucky for us, the efforts of Lickona and the rest of the crew have kept the Austin City Limits brand going strong–with claims to radio, live TV, the music festival, and international festivals.
And in this age of Pandora, Netflix, and YouTube, there's a certain charm to a brand that values all things live and raw.
Hearing singer-songwriters belt out raw tunes or hearing someone strum a folk guitar offers a break from all the autotune and pre-recordings that come with a lot of live performances today.
After nearly 50 years running, the festival's energy is still contagious among its viewers and ensures that as time ticks on, it can keep up with each new beat.