Austin City Limits: On The Money


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When Austin City Limits aired its first show in 1976, its originators had no idea it would make it past one season, much less become the longest-running live music show in television history. Thirty-five years later, the PBS program that helped put Austin on the map as the “live music capital of the world” is celebrating this anniversary with an amazing season featuring acts from Allen Toussaint and Esperanza Spalding to Elvis Costello and Pearl Jam, a successful namesake festival, a new Web site and a new studio under construction downtown. Oh, and official designation by Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum as the nation’s 10th rock and roll historic site.

When rock hall president and CEO Terry Stewart came to Austin to announce the site’s selection, he noted, “We’re landmarking the physical space, but more importantly, we’re landmarking the program. … it’s been a part of everybody’s life who loves music.”

That the show, taped in KLRU-TV’s Studio 6A on the University of Texas campus, has remained on the air so long is an extraordinary feat, especially when one considers the vagaries of funding in the non-profit public broadcasting realm.

That ACL taped its first hip-hop acts—Mos Def and K’naan—on Oct. 1, the day it received the rock hall plaque, is an indicator of how it’s been able to do so. Though it still carries an allegiance to the roots/Americana acts that formed its foundation (Willie Nelson taped the pilot in 1974 and Asleep at the Wheel was the debut-season opener in 1976; they finally performed together for a show that will air in November), ACL has since diverged widely into indie rock, soul, jazz and many other musical idioms. The 35th season opened October 3 with the Dave Matthews Band’s maiden appearance—which aired just as the band walked offstage after its debut gig at the Austin City Limits Festival, now in its eighth year.

The festival itself, now the fifth largest of its kind in the country, was an attempt to draw younger audiences to the show and expand the “brand.” And the new studio, funded in part by Nelson, will become a year-round live music venue in addition to allowing studio configurations for audiences of up to 2,500, instead of the current 300. That means more potential donor support; the show is funded largely by corporate and individual donations, and donors do get free tickets (as do lucky members of the public).

Musing about the secret to ACL’s success as he introduced a sneak-preview airing of the Willie and the Wheel segment at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville last month, executive producer Terry Lickona said, “I often think it’s the free beer that we distribute to the audience at the tapings, because it loosens everybody up.”

Of course, the show’s musical evolution is not universally applauded; one still hears grumblings from Austin icons who have never been invited to appear. Others fear that tickets will no longer be free at the new venue, though Lickona assures that they will remain so for the time being. Maintaining its intimacy despite the capacity growth (which will increase vertically; the 10,000-square-foot floor area will be about the same) is another issue. As he taped his second segment in five years, Costello remarked, “I hope they take a lot of the magic with them.”

But even veterans like Matthews share the sentiment uttered by Gordy Quist of Austin’s Band of Heathens, whose segment airs with Costello’s November 7. Quist called playing on that now-landmark stage, where the ghosts of Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Stevie Ray Vaughan and so many others have stepped, “a check-it-off-the-list kind of gig … one of the things to do before you die.”

And Costello also noted, “When you stagger back to your hotel room after your own show, you can turn on Austin City Limits and see how it’s really done.”

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Brendan Benson @ Exit/In, Nashville, 12/12/09