Austin City Limits wasn't always a cultural institution, nor a repository of some of the finest musical performances ever committed to videotape. In the show's earliest days it was an unusual experiment even for public television, and creator Bill Arhos and his staff did not have the benefit of the sterling reputation it enjoys today. But now, among musicians, ACL is arguably the most coveted booking on the airwaves, perhaps even more prestigious than Saturday Night Live.
Back then, though, the now-retired Arhos was program manager of Austin's PBS affiliate KLRN (later KLRU). He had read Jan Reid's 1974 book The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock and hatched an idea that he might be able to base a TV show around the scene surrounding Austin's Armadillo World Headquarters. That near-mythical nexus of the post-'60s counterculture and traditional Texas values (with tasty nachos, too) was conveniently personified in Willie Nelson, who appeared in Austin City Limits' 1974 pilot episode. Arhos somehow convinced KLRN and PBS to sign off on a series, and ACL was born.
But notwithstanding the fertile scene around the Armadillo, an entire season of a public-TV series has to fill a lot of airtime. So Arhos and his staff (principally the show's current executive producer, Terry Lickona) began trolling other parts of Texas for ACL-worthy artists, and it didn't take long to find one from Houston: in 1976, zydeco master Clifton Chenier, based in the Creole-settled Fifth Ward neighborhood known as "Frenchtown," appeared in Episode 3 of the show's first proper season. ACL divides most of its shows into pairs, and Chenier's partner was someone else who had spent quite a bit of time in Houston by the mid-'70s: Townes Van Zandt.
Ever since, ACL has hosted hundreds of performers, quite a few of whom have some sort of connection to the Bayou City; a review of the episodes handily compiled at acltv.com/anthology yields plenty to choose from. In fact, a number of acts closely identified with Houston have been among the series' most frequent guests, while others still have been responsible for some of ACL's most electrifying moments.
So with apologies to Larry Gatlin, Albert Collins, James McMurtry, Shake Russell, Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark, Clint Black, Carolyn Wonderland, and more recently the Clear Lake natives in Black Angels and those Woodlands boys in Arcade Fire, the following performers' ACL stints may have come well after leaving our own city limits, but we're happy to claim them anyway.
BILLY GIBBONS & ROKY ERICKSON Season: 33
Amazingly, one of the most egregious -- if not the most -- omissions in ACL's history (both TV show and now festival) is that Lil Ol' Band From Texas. The closest ZZ Top has ever come to the ACL soundstage (so far) was this 2008 episode where the Rev. Billy F. Gibbons sat in with fellow '60s Texas psych-rock legend Roky Erickson, then in the early stages of the comeback that climaxed with 2010's brilliant joint LP with Okkervil River, True Love Cast Out All Evil.
Paired with Erickson was Nashville's hard-partying Kings of Leon, then well on their way to becoming the biggest rock band in all the land behind third album Because of the Times.
ROBERT EARL KEEN Seasons: 14/20/22/25/27/36
Sharpstown native Keen has become an ACL workhorse over the years, first appearing as part of a 1989 "Texas Showcase" alongside Rosie Flores, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Rio Grande Valley singer-songwriter Tony Perez (who wrote Martina McBride's 1994 hit "Life No. 9"). Subsequent episodes have most often matched Keen with one of his iconoclastic Texas country godchildren: Jack Ingram (S22), Charlie Robison (S27), and most recently Hayes Carll in the 2010-11 round of shows.
STEVE EARLE Seasons: 12/23/26/35
Years after the Hardcore Troubador did his time on "Telephone Road," he made his Austin City Limits debut in 1987. Fresh off Guitar Town and Nashville's "great credibility scare," Earle shared his ACL hour with another maverick who falls just outside the purviews of rock, country and blues, long-haired Leon Russell. Earle has since returned to ACL three times, including for one of the series' best-known episodes, the 1998 Townes Van Zandt tribute, and most recently in 2009 to perform songs from his TVZ tribute album Townes.
RODNEY CROWELL Seasons: 7/8/14/19/23/29/39
"The Houston Kid," who plays Discovery Green next Thursday, has been a steady but subtle part of Austin City Limits throughout a good chunk of the show's history. He first appeared in a sort of reunion episode with his former Hot Band employer, Emmylou Harris, in 1982; returned at the height of his mainstream success behind his Diamonds & Dirt album in 1989; and has popped up in a few songwriter's specials, including the famous 1998 Townes Van Zandt tribute. After a decade-long hiatus, he re-teamed with Harris last season to support their Grammy-winning Old Yellow Moon album.
CLIFTON CHENIER Seasons: 1/4
The King of Zydeco was likely living in Houston when he appeared on Austin City Limits' third episode in 1976, becoming the first African-American musician to perform on the show. Because zydeco was very much a regional phenomenon in the mid-'70s, it's entirely possible his set was millions of PBS viewers' first experience with the infectious Creole dance music.
Chenier, who was given a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Grammy award earlier this year, returned three seasons later with his Red Hot Louisiana Band to split a perfect pairing with "Louisiana Man" Doug Kershaw; his son C.J., who lives in Houston and succeeded his father as the Red Hot Louisiana Band's leader, appeared in his own right in a Season 17 episode with Los Lobos.
GATEMOUTH BROWN Seasons: 2/3/5/21
Master fidder and guitarist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown was a pivotal figure in Gulf Coast music for a half-century. He took over T-Bone Walker's gig at the famous Bronze Peacock nightclub and was a linchpin of Don Robey's Peacock Records in the 1950s, where his stinging guitar tone put its stamp on Albert Collins, Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Little Joe Washington, among other locals.
But Brown was equally adept at jazz, swing, and old-timey folk music, exactly the kind of versatility that the young Austin City Limits was looking for. Early in the show's history, he appeared alongside fellow fiddle guru Vassar Clements, Hee Haw personality Roy Clark and a young Delbert McClinton before making a triumphant return in 1996, where Brown proved that his agile fingers were more than intact.
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GEORGE STRAIT Seasons: 7/9/11/14
In his four ACL appearances, the once and future King George has only had an entire ACL episode all to himself just once, in 1989 (his last appearance to date). He had only recently left Houston's D records for MCA when he debuted in a 1982 show that paired him with Tompall Glaser and the Glaser Brothers of Wanted! The Outlaws fame. Strait also split hours in 1984 with "Heaven's Just a Sin Away" family group the Kendalls and in 1986 with young stud Dwight Yoakam -- what a taping that must have been.
TOWNES VAN ZANDT Seasons: 1/8
Van Zandt was at least partially a product of Houston's '60s/'70s folk scene, and his spare but profound songwriting remains a kind of ACL platonic ideal. The show can arguably reduce its entire reason for both existing and enduring to one of his lines, "for the sake of the song," even though he only appeared on the program twice. But thanks to his exposure on the series' third episode (with Clifton Chenier), what would become Van Zandt's best-known album, Live at the Old Quarter in Houston, Texas -- originally recorded in 1973 -- was finally released in 1977.
And once Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard hit No. 1 with Townes' signature tune, "Pancho and Lefty," its author returned to the show for a 1983 "West Texas Songwriter's Special" alongside Butch Hancock, David Halley and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Finally, the posthumous TVZ tribute episode in Season 23, featuring the incredible lineup of Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Rodney Crowell, Peter Rowan, Cowboy Jack Clement and Van Zandt's son J.T., remains one of ACL's most popular episodes and is still repeated on occasion.
LUCINDA WILLIAMS Seasons: 15/17/24/33
Lucinda Williams has followed her restless soul through a host of different addresses, but primarily spent the mid-'70s through mid-'80s between Austin and Houston, where she was a regular at Anderson Fair and recorded 1980 LP Happy Woman Blues. It was another decade before she hit the ACL stage, evenly spaced between the two records that really made her modern reputation, 1988's Lucinda Williams and '92's Sweet Old World.
By her next taping, supporting 1998 masterpiece Car Wheels On a Gravel Road, Williams was one of the biggest stars in the alt-country galaxy and has been ever since. Don't be surprised to see her brand-new double album, the excellent Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20), net her a fifth taping somewhere down that gravel road, either.
LYLE LOVETT Seasons: 12/15/18/19/20/22/23/25/26/30/34/36
The most frequent artist to appear on Austin City Limits is, not surprisingly, Willie Nelson. But if the Red Headed Stranger represents the show's origins, both geographically and conceptually, Lyle Lovett -- who has appeared second-most often -- embodies the musical variety that defines ACL today. Lovett has appeared 12 times overall and anchored important episodes like the 1998 Townes Van Zandt tribute and a 1994 "songwriter's special" with Nelson and Rodney Crowell. He showed up twice in Season 22 alone, and taped the final episode before ACL relocated to the plush new ACL Live at the Moody Theater on Willie Nelson Boulevard downtown.
Trivia time: on his 1987 ACL debut, Lovett was paired with Judy Rodman, the 1985 winner of the Academy of Country Music's New Female Vocalist award who had a No. 1 hit with "Until I Met You" and is today a successful vocal coach in Nashville.
LIGHTNIN' HOPKINS Season: 4
The most iconic Houston bluesman of them all only appeared on Austin City Limits once, splitting a 1979 episode with the Neville Brothers and Texas barrelhouse pianist Robert Shaw, and his set is barely 15 minutes long. Clad in a fedora and electric-blue suit with a three-quarter-full beer on the stool next to him, Lightnin' -- who would have been about 67 at the time and passed away three years later -- thumb-picks his way through "Mojo Hand," "V-8 Ford," "Rock Me Baby" and a few more tunes without so much as raising an eyebrow. When the cameras cut away to the crowd, they are mesmerized.
On public television in 1979, it must have been mind-blowing. Even today it's a hypnotizing performance -- a window into how different the world was back then, but also an indelible reminder of what a precious resource this one TV show has turned out to be for music fans the world over.
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