At home with the armadillo: ‘Austin City Limits’ turns 25
There is something in the air in Austin, Texas, something that makes the city recklessly attractive. It is common, for instance, to hear first-time visitors talk about the possibility of moving there after only a few hours in town. No one has been able to bottle this essence — but the people who run “Austin City Limits” come close. They have a gift for creating a bit of that spirit in a television studio, capturing it and broadcasting it to the world. This is one of the principal reasons the program celebrates its silver anniversary this year.
“Austin City Limits” started in 1974. The program’s concept is attributed to executive producer Bill Arhos and a few like-minded folks, including producer Paul Bosner, who wanted to showcase the eclectic country-rock music scene buzzing in town during the mid-’70s. Two pilots were taped in 1974, in response to an opportunity at PBS, which was then accepting submissions for new programs. One pilot featured B.W. Stevenson, who had recently scored a couple of radio hits (“My Maria”, “Shambala”); the other presented local hero Willie Nelson. At the time, Nelson was going through a rough period in his career, having left Nashville for Texas in 1972. Nelson’s taping drew a larger crowd, so it became the pilot for the show. PBS agreed to grant money to produce thirteen episodes, to be aired in 1976.
What began as a venue for the thriving music scene in Austin and Texas has blossomed into a monument to the power of music and live performance, and a show that has chronicled American roots music. Over the years, “Austin City Limits” has accumulated a priceless archive of performances from such musical pioneers as Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb and Lightnin’ Hopkins. It also has kept an eye on the up-and-coming, giving national exposure to such artists as Steve Earle, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Alison Krauss before the majority of American music fans recognized them. Likewise, its doors have been open to a diverse array of big-name acts including the Allman Brothers Band, Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King.
Surprisingly, few in Austin have solved the mystery of acquiring tickets to show tapings. There is usually a one-time announcement on one of the local radio stations just before tickets are distributed; a telephone information line also announces upcoming shows and ticket availability.
The show is recorded in a monolithic, almost windowless building on the corner of 26th and Guadalupe streets. The building anchors the northwest corner of the University of Texas campus and is part of the school’s communications department. The sixth-floor studio features several hundred bleacher seats surrounding an ample stage enlivened by a classic re-creation of the city skyline as a backdrop. (Some still think the show is taped outdoors, in someone’s backyard perhaps, with an awesome view of downtown.) The foliage is synthetic greenery; the backdrop is plywood, paint and twinkling lights. The setting has changed minimally over the years, unlike to the city of Austin itself, which has seen explosive growth.
For most of the program’s existence, producer Terry Lickona has been the most visible of the staff. It’s his voice you hear introducing each act during the program. With a shock of curly blond hair, Lickona looks younger than his 50 years. He got his start in radio in upstate New York in the early 1970s. “I was getting tired of the cold winters there,” he remembers. “I’d heard about the Austin scene and I was a big fan of Willie Nelson. I came to Willie’s Fourth of July picnic in 1974 and I decided to move here.
“I got my first radio job in Austin at KUT, which is in the same building that houses the studio where ‘Austin City Limits’ is recorded. I was a volunteer assistant to the producer of the show during season number three. Nobody thought that the show was going to last more than a year or two then. The producer, director and executive producer all left after that season ended. All of a sudden I became the senior ranking staff person. I saw an opportunity and I weaseled my way into the producer’s job even though I had no real experience.”
Lickona has been responsible for booking the program’s talent since that fourth season. A huge music fan, his vision has allowed the show to grow and prosper, although in the beginning it was rugged going. Most people are aware of recent problems that public media have had with funding. Lickona claims that when he started, finances were even more problematic, simply because “Austin City Limits” was viewed as having a regional rather than national focus.
Expanding the show’s emphasis was no easy task, although the fourth season can be seen as kind of a turning point. That year included performances from Tom Waits, Taj Mahal and the Neville Brothers. But Lickona says it was an appearance by Ray Charles and his orchestra in the fifth season that really turned the tide.
“Seeing Ray Charles on our stage, with a 20-piece orchestra and the Raylettes, validated the fact that ‘Austin City Limits’ was more than just Texas music,” he explains. “It was really about original American roots music. The emphasis has always been about originality, and that hasn’t changed over the years. But after the fifth year I had the feeling that the show was going to last a while.”
It has not only lasted, but thrived. “Austin City Limits” joins a select handful of television programs that have broadcast 25 seasons or more, including such institutions as “Meet The Press”, “Today”, “The Tonight Show”, “Sesame Street” and “60 Minutes”.
Part of the show’s longevity can be credited to the fact that it appears on public television. Had it been on the commercial side, it surely would have been canceled around the time live-music programming such as “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” and “The Midnight Special with Wolfman Jack” — contemporaries of ACL when it started — fizzled out.