How Austin City Limits Went From TV Show to Blockbuster Brand

Willie Nelson (onscreen) at the 2006 Austin City Limits Music Festival
Willie Nelson (onscreen) at the 2006 Austin City Limits Music Festival
Photos courtesy of Oxford University Press

It's shaping up to be a big weekend for Austin City Limits. First, the landmark PBS television show that began taping episodes on the top floor of Building B in UT-Austin's College of Communications in 1975 salutes its 40-year history with a two-hour special full of past performances. Airing tomorrow night at 9 p.m. Houston time, that retrospective will probably look familiar to longtime viewers of the program, who will see plenty of ACL's famous fake skyline (where the state capitol building and UT tower are just a little closer together than they are in real life), as well as signature camera shots that linger on the performers a little longer than any other show on the air, ever, sometimes at strange angles like looking up through a snare drum.

What those viewers may not see are many hints of the multimedia cultural octopus ACL has become in the 21st century, albeit in a very laid-back and low-key "Austin" kind of way. Offering a preview of his Bayou Music Center appearance next Thursday, Beck opens the series' 40th season with an hour-long episode that airs Saturday night at 11 p.m., the night after he headlines the first night of the 13th edition of the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park.

Most of what happens during the festival's three days -- and then again next weekend -- will be streamed live on the Internet, while all week long, a number of other ACL Fest 2014 acts will tape episodes of their own at the 1,800-seat ACL Live venue at downtown Austin's plush Moody Theater. Others, like Interpol and Jimmy Cliff, will duck over to nearby cities like Houston for convenient side gigs.

Ray Charles in 1984, an example of how ACL has always been about more than "country" music
Ray Charles in 1984, an example of how ACL has always been about more than "country" music
Photo by Scott Newton

This kind of pervasive synchronicity hardly happened by accident, but neither was it quite part of anyone's master plan. It has definitely always been the product of a close-knit group of talented producers, cameramen, audio engineers and support staff, all of whom love music and are dedicated to presenting it on television in a unique way, but it happened through trial and error and took many, many years.

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Little by little, Austin City Limits gradually developed from an unusual public-television program designed to showcase the a singular array of Austin's progressive-country musicians in the mid-'70s into something that, as it outlasted that particular scene, came to stand for something much greater. ACL completely changed the way people experienced music on television, had a deep influence on what fans would come to consider "country" and then "roots" music, and today is one of the most powerful, recognizable and beloved brands to ever come out of Texas.

The shifting identities surrounding Austin City Limits are at the heart of author Tracy Laird's new book, Austin City Limits: A History (Oxford University Press). Although Willie Nelson appeared in the ACL pilot and would do so again at least a dozen times through the years -- Laird, a professor at Agnes Scott College near Atlanta and author of Louisiana Hayride: Radio and Roots Music, opens the book by contrasting watching Nelson live at the 2006 ACL Festival to the Red-Headed Stranger's many appearances on the show -- she chooses another well-known Texas musician, the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, as perhaps the best example of a single musician who helped defined Austin City Limits.

"In those two episodes he recorded, you really get a sense of why he was such a powerful musician, and you also get a sense of what sets Austin City Limits apart," she says. "Somewhere along the way, someone made this quip about 'the thing about the camera angles at ACL is that they linger long enough for you to learn the chords.' Many people working on the show are musicians themselves, and they have a real appreciation for what a musician is doing."

In her book, Laird zooms in on a handful of ACL episodes to highlight different aspects of how the show's identity has continued to shift over the years; one that stands out is the Tom Waits from 1978, the show's third season. Her point is not only to show not only how offbeat ACL's bookings could be even in its earliest seasons, but how versatile it has proven over the years -- the way Laird experiences that episode is not in the audience at the old Studio 6B or even watching it on television, but by streaming it on the show's Web site several decades after it aired.

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Gilian Welch & David Rawlings during a 2011 taping at ACL's new home, ACL Live at the Moody Theater
Gilian Welch & David Rawlings during a 2011 taping at ACL's new home, ACL Live at the Moody Theater

Another one is the relatively recent taping she witnessed herself, a pairing of Portland indie-rockers the Decemberists and Austin electronica duo Ghostland Observatory, which gives some insight into the artistry involved in how what happens off-camera influences what viewers see at home, although by this point it doesn't much matter whether they're watching on their laptops or in their living rooms.

Some of the book's most amusing moments come when Laird details how, after a few seasons that were relatively heavy on mainstream-country acts -- and even today, a few people no doubt persist in thinking ACL is a "country music" show -- as the show struggled to market itself as anything but country.

L-R: Longtime ACL executive producer Terry Lickona and author Tracey E.W. Laird
L-R: Longtime ACL executive producer Terry Lickona and author Tracey E.W. Laird

But shortly after that Austin City Limits realized that it had already become a brand of its own, around the same time the idea of a "brand" could be anything besides the products on supermarket shelves was gaining currency. Entering partnerships with the City of Austin and promoter Capital Sports & Entertainment (which became C3 Presents five years later), it begat its own music festival in 2002 and then ACL Live almost a decade later. Amusingly, one extension of the brand that never materialized was ACL beer; ahead of its time, perhaps. Today the most important thing the ACL brand stands for is quality music, because that's the only label that really fits something with such an eclectic, discerning vision.

"What I love about the show is that the minute you try to pin it down with a label, then you're going to find a list of exceptions," Laird says. "So the 'mainstream-country' years, not only Ray Charles is in there, and B.B King, there's Jerry Lee Lewis and George Thorogood and people who don't fit that label. I think it's because the label has never been the thing.

"It's been the quality of acts performing there that's driven the people making the show happen," she adds. "I think that's why it's still around."

Laird will discuss her new book on "Houston Matters" at noon today on Houston Public Media News 88.7, and sign copies at 7 p.m. tonight at Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet. Austin City Limits Celebrates 50 Years airs at 9 p.m. Friday on Houston Public Media TV 8.

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