Sturgill Simpson and Asleep at the Wheel keep ACL Season 41 twanging

Season 41 of Austin City Limits kicks into high gear with breakout country artist Sturgill Simpson sharing the bill with legendary Western swing institution Asleep at the Wheel.  Two acts steeped in old-school tradition but beamed through a contemporary prism, the must-see episode features rising star Simpson making his full set ACL debut while Texas swing veterans Asleep at the Wheel return for their 11th appearance. Asleep at the Wheel, newly-minted ACL Hall of Fame members, are joined by guest stars The Avett Brothers, Amos Lee and the Quebe Sisters in a special tribute to musical forebear Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing.   

Forty years after Willie Nelson made his iconic debut on ACL on October 14, 1974, country rebel Sturgill Simpson arrives at the top of his game in a standout ACL debut.  With his acclaimed breakthrough Metamodern Sounds In Country Music topping Best of 2014 Album lists and a stack of accolades to call his own—including a Grammy nomination, top honors at this year’s Americana Awards, slots at the year’s biggest music festivals, including Bonnaroo, Coachella and ACL Fest—ACL captures Simpson on the verge of full-blown stardom.  Playing an acoustic guitar, the Kentucky native and his ace four-piece band launch into a scorching seven-song set that makes a believer out of everyone.  He pays tribute to the outlaw country scene that inspired him, acknowledging his debt to Willie, and to Austin cosmic cowboy Steve Fromholz, with an impassioned rendition of “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” a Fromholz song Nelson made famous in the ‘70s, and a perfect showcase for Simpson’s rich baritone.  The full span of Simpson’s influences is evident with the inspired set-closer, a brilliant crossbreed of the Osborne Brothers’ bluegrass classic “Listening to the Rain” to glam-rock band T-Rex’s “The Motivator.”

A national as well as Texan treasure, the nine-time Grammy Award-winning Austin supergroup Asleep at the Wheel has kept the Western swing flame burning for forty-five years.  Still led by larger-than-life founder Ray Benson, AATW appeared in the first official episode of Austin City Limits in 1976, and returns for a remarkable eleventh appearance to perform selections from their recent Bob Wills tribute album Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, a salute to the great bandleader.  Wills’ music, born in the 1920s and ‘30s, continues to inspire younger generations, and AATW is joined on the ACL stage by some very special guests, including soul singer Amos Lee, fiddle trio the Quebe Sisters and Americana sensations The Avett Brothers, who put their own spin on Western swing classics.  A highlight of the set comes when two former Texas Playboys—singer Leon Rausch, 88, and 92-year old saxophonist Billy Briggs—take the stage.  The entire ensemble returns for a crowd sing-along of the signature “Texas Playboys Theme,” winding “Happy Trails” into the old chestnut for a perfect close. 

photo by Scott Newton

“This show goes back deep to the roots of where Austin City Limits began,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona.  “Sturgill would’ve fit perfectly into the Austin music scene of the ‘70s, and it speaks volumes that his own progressive country sound resonates so strongly and stands in contrast to much of the country pop today.  Asleep at the Wheel appeared on the very first episode of our very first season, and they’re still kicking it 41 years later – just like ACL!”

Tune in this weekend for this episode, and, as always, check your local PBS listings for the broadcast time in your area. Go to the episode page for more info, and don’t forget to click over to our Facebook, Twitter and newsletter pages for more ACL info. Tune in next week for the ACL debut of Don Henley.