How Austin City Limits Became One of Texas’ Most Popular Music Festivals


When the GRAMMY winner Gary Clark Jr. recorded sound “Austin City Limits” episode with Alabama Shakes at the end of 2012, the blues guitarist had already performed at the White House with Buddy Guy, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck and BB King, and played alongside Eric Clapton. In fact, Clark had also previously starred on “Austin City Limits,” appearing five seasons earlier in a Jimmy Reed tribute. But when he stood center stage in front of his iconic Austin skyline backdrop, finally joining a fraternity populated by so many of his idols, the Austin, Texas native, so 28, said, “I’ve wanted to do this for 16 years.”

Like Clark, who learned to play the guitar while carrying his VHS tape of the 1996 tribute episode to Stevie Ray Vaughan, GRAMMY nominee Sarah Jarosz also grew up watching the public television series – which, unlike d other television programs, features artists performing in a real and uninterrupted way. sets. Multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Jarosz, who grew up in Wimberley, just outside of Austin, recalls, “Just seeing some of my musical heroes on this show was pretty priceless and inspiring. “

The PBS series – the longest-running TV music program in the United States – has helped launch careers for 39 years. Even those who achieve international fame before stepping onto the show’s storied stage count their performance as a bucket list/holy grail moment. On October 3, the day before Season 40 kicks off with GRAMMY winner Beck, PBS will air “Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years,” a two-hour special featuring some of the hottest artists and rising stars. beloved on the show, from Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt and Joe Ely to Clark and Alabama Shakes.

Co-hosted by actor/musician Jeff Bridges and GRAMMY winner Sheryl Crow, the special combines footage from a four-hour event taped in June and the inaugural broadcast Austin City Limits Hall of Fame induction ceremony, held in April. Among the first class of inductees were pedal player Lloyd Maines, Vaughan and Willie Nelson, who recorded the pilot episode of “Austin City Limits” in 1974.

ACL, as it is commonly known, has presented over 800 live performances since its first broadcast 40 years ago. Conceived by KLRU-TV (then KLRN) program director Bill Arhos, producer Paul Bosner and director Bruce Scafe, the series initially focused on the unique music scene that had sprung up in central Texas, where country , blues, folk and rock had crossed paths. pollinated into something labeled progressive country, or “redneck rock”. (Nelson’s strain was dubbed “outlaw country.” The fledgling genre would become known as alt-country before morphing into Americana.) Aired during a PBS pledge campaign in 1975, the hit of the show’s fundraising caused him to resume for the 1976 season.

Since then, it has managed to not only stay on the air, but also gain popularity, withstanding the birth of MTV and other competitors for viewers’ attention. Weather The magazine cited ACL as one of the 10 most influential music programs in television history. It is also the only television program to have received a National Medal of Arts. Other accolades include a Peabody Award and designation as an official rock and roll landmark (both the show and its venues) by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

“No one would have ever thought it would last this long,” says KLRU CEO and Managing Director Bill Stotesbery. “The shows don’t last as long on TV. I think that’s because the show has maintained a very high level of quality and it’s on PBS, because PBS is committed to that type of thing. programming.”

ACL has also grown in scale, reaching far beyond genre or geographic boundaries to feature artists from Juanes, Def. Mos and Radioheadto Buddy Guy and John Mayer, Femi Kuti and cold game.

ACL has also grown far beyond KLRU’s Studio 6A on the University of Texas campus, its home for 36 years. In 2002, the series spawned the now annual Austin City Limits Festival, and in 2011 PBS first aired “ACL Presents: Americana Music Festival”, featuring highlights from the Americana Honors & Awards Show. . Also in 2011, the series moved to the new ACL Live at the Moody Theater in downtown Austin on Willie Nelson Avenue, with an audience capacity growing from 350 to 2,750.

For Jarosz and performers such as GRAMMY-winning jazz artist Esperanza Spalding, who wasn’t allowed to watch non-PBS programs as a child, both stages are magical — and so is the experience of performing on them. .

“To really achieve a [full] together is like doing one act of a play or doing three acts of a play,” Spalding says. “It makes a difference for audiences to see a fuller palette of who you are as an artist. … It really is such a luxury to stretch out and show your whole self. Forty years bear witness to this. People want to know what the artist is saying.”

There is also a career bump.

“Probably 90% of the people who come to see me after my concerts say that [ACL’s] how they heard about me and that’s where they saw my performance and heard my music for the first time,” says Jarosz, who was 18 when she recorded her first episode. “Having this chance really helped a lot.

ACL executive producer and host Terry Lickona, who also co-produces the GRAMMY Awards and is a former president of the Recording Academy, says the show’s longevity has made it even more desirable for artists.

“They see ‘Austin City Limits’ as validation of their music,” notes Lickona, who joined ACL in her second season.

Her wishlist still includes Bruce Springsteen and Prince, who is apparently a fan.

“I heard other people [Prince] has seen Esperanza Spalding and Grupo Fantasma, and he loves to watch to see if there’s anyone new he’s never heard of before,” says Lickona.

Speaking of career moguls, Prince then hired Grupo Fantasma as his backing band for various high-profile gigs, including a Golden Globes after-party.

Lickona is also excited to discover new, original talent and share it with viewers — via TV, the Internet, or another technology yet to come.

“We are all proud of the origin of ‘Austin City Limits’,” said Ed Bailey, vice president of brand development for ACL. “But we’re proud of where it’s going. Forty years is a stopping point to celebrate where we’ve been…but we’re also looking for the next thing. That’s why ACL is still important.”

(Astin, TX-based writer/editor Lynne Margolis has contributed to a variety of print, broadcast and online media, including American songwriter and Dough magazines,, the Christian Science Monitor and NPR. She also writes biographies for new and established artists.)


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