Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years: a primetime special

photo by Scott Newton

Join us as we celebrate four decades as a music institution with Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years, a primetime special airing Friday, October 3rd, 9-11pm ET on PBS Arts Fall Festival. With guest hosts Jeff Bridges, Sheryl Crow and Matthew McConaughey, the two-hour broadcast features memorable moments from the trailblazing show’s remarkable run, while the brightest stars in the series’ history return to the ACL stage for dream duets and choice collaborations.

An all-star lineup of ACL royalty pays tribute to the show’s enduring legacy with unforgettable music performances. Highlights of the special include the show opener as Bonnie Raitt, Alabama Shakes‘ Brittany Howard, Jimmie Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr. team up for the Sam & Dave classic “Wrap It Up.” Incredible pairings include ACL Hall of Fame legend Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris on the Nelson-penned classic “Crazy” and Kris Kristofferson and Sheryl Crow’s moving take on his signature “Me and Bobby McGee.” The Foo Fighters honor ACL with a wild rendition of Texas cult hero Roky Erickson‘s “Two Headed Dog,” recorded at the show’s original television studio especially for the occasion. Host Jeff Bridges performs the late singer-songwriter Stephen Bruton’s song “What A Little Bit of Love Can Do” as a tribute to the influential Austin musician who inspired Bridges’ Oscar-winning portrayal in Crazy Heart.  Local legends Joe Ely and Robert Earl Keen showcase their troubadour roots and significance to the Austin music scene. Breakout artists and ACL alumni Alabama Shakes and Gary Clark Jr. give blistering performances that forecast the future of the series. Blues titan Buddy Guy brings it all home with an electrifying take on his “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”  The special comes to a close with an all-star reading of two Lone Star classics—a stellar lineup of guitar slingers blaze through the Stevie Ray Vaughan standard “Texas Flood” and the biggest names in music trade verses on the Buddy Holly classic “Not Fade Away,” as ACL embraces its past and hints at what is to come.

photo by Scott Newton

“This is a huge milestone for us,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona, “and this show captures the essence of what Austin City Limits is all about. We set the bar high for this celebration, and we exceeded it! The lineup of talent speaks volumes about the respect that artists have for ACL.”

Artists performing on the special are: Alabama Shakes, Doyle Bramhall II, Jeff Bridges, Gary Clark Jr., Sheryl Crow, Double Trouble, Joe Ely, Mike Farris, Foo Fighters, Grupo Fantasma, Buddy Guy, Emmylou Harris, Robert Earl Keen, Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Randolph, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jimmie Vaughan.

photo by Scott Newton

Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years was taped at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, and the program’s original television studio, Austin PBS station KLRU’s Studio 6A.  Go here for the episode page, and don’t forget to keep up with ACL TV via Facebook, Twitter and our newsletter.

 

ACL’s all-star 40th anniversary

photo by Scott Newton

When you’re celebrating four decades of musical excellence, there’s only one way to do it: with amazing artists, superior songwriters and master musicians. We were lucky to have all of the above join us for ACL Celebrates 40 Years, our all-star tribute co-hosted by Jeff Bridges and Sheryl Crow, and featuring Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson, Gary Clark Jr., Jimmie Vaughan, Alabama Shakes, Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely, Doyle Bramhall II, Lloyd Maines and Grupo Fantasma.

Trading guitar licks with Jimmie Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr. and joined on vox by Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, Bonnie Raitt kicked off the first half of the show with a Grupo Horns-spiked groove through Sam & Dave’s classic “Wrap It Up.” Standard thus set, Raitt reiterated the importance of ACL to artists like herself that resisted easy categorization before launching into Mable John’s classic “Your Good Thing (is About to End),” punctuating the jazzy soul ballad with creamy slide solos. The set moved quickly from one legend to another, as Kris Kristofferson took the stage with co-host Crow for a moving take on his titanic classic “Me and Bobby McGee.” After an elated Crow exited, the Texas songwriting legend growled his virtual theme song, AKA the masterful “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33.”

After Crow having some time behind her guitar, it was time for her fellow host to have a shot, as Jeff Bridges returned to the stage in tribute to his recently deceased friend and Austin favorite Stephen Bruton. The Bruton-penned “What a Little Bit of Love Can Do” and “Fallin’ and Flyin’” (the latter from the Crazy Heart soundtrack) sounded great coming from Bridges’ perfectly weathered throat. Following that treat, ACL executive producer Terry Lickona came on to recap the recent ACL Hall of Fame presentation, honoring creator Bill Arhos and pilot star Willie Nelson. The past thus commemorated, it was time to move from veterans to young guns, as Alabama Shakes launched into its old-school soul ballad “Heartbreaker.” The band then gave the audience a thrill with the Memphis-styled “Gimme All Your Love,” a new song as yet unreleased on any Shakes record. Set one closed out with Austin guitar hero Gary Clark Jr., whose blues rocker “Bright Lights” slow-burned its way into our ears on the back of his sizzling thick-toned solos.

One brief intermission in order to reset the stage later, blues and Americana gave way to a different groove, as Austin’s greatest Latin funk orchestra Grupo Fantasma got hips moving and booties shaking. The slinky “Nada” and funky “Mulato” could make a dead man dance. We then shifted from sexy salsa to hard-edged rock, with a special videotaped appearance by the Foo Fighters. The alt.rock superstars blazed through a fierce take on Austin hero Roky Erickson’s raging “Red Temple Prayer (Two Headed Dog),” recorded in the original ACL studio 6A – the public debut of a performance that will appear in the final edit of the special.

“If you want to hear what the blues are like in the 21st century,” proclaimed co-host Crow, “get ready.” That was the signal for Austin blues kingpin Jimmie Vaughan to re-take the stage, joined by his old friend and tonight’s vanguard artist Bonnie Raitt. The pair essayed an old Billy Emerson tune called “The Pleasure’s All Mine,” a classic blues shuffle with their guitars locking horns at the end. Vaughan continued solo in the classic blues bag with Teddy Humphries’ stinging “What Makes You So Tough,” before inviting his former proteges Clark and Doyle Bramhall II up for the latter’s unrecorded blues grinder “Early in the Morning.” Blues has always been important to ACL’s history, and it was nice to have the spotlight shone directly on it.

Following a salute to our other Hall of Fame inductees Darrell K. Royal and Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, co-host Sheryl Crow arrived for her own set. With Bramhall guesting on guitar, she rocked “Can’t Cry Anymore,” one of her earliest hits from her breakthrough Tuesday Night Music Club. She then ceded the mic to Bramhall, singing harmony on his own early rocker, the choogling “I’m Leavin’.” Crow then shared the spotlight with Clark, the pair doing a guitar-and-harmonica run through blues pioneer Elizabeth Cotten’s standard “Freight Train.”

ACL started as a showcase for Texas music, so it was only natural for the penultimate segment to honor that legacy. Seminal Lone Star singer/songwriters Joe Ely and Robert Earl Keen took the stage for what Bridges called “the song that pretty well sums up the theme tonight,” the fist-pumping Texas anthem “The Road Goes On Forever,” written by Keen in 1989 and a staple of Ely’s live shows. Ely then left the stage so Keen could perform his cheeky crime tale “I Gotta Go,” before returning for his own original lighter-waver, “All Just to Get to You.” The Texan theme continued, with a special Hall of Fame award presentation to producer/steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, a veteran of both Ely and Keen’s live bands, the house bandleader for the night and quite possibly the musician who’s appeared the most times on the ACL stage.

Though the song claims that “The road goes on forever and the party never ends,” our party did come to an end with a massive gang-twang on Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” featuring the entire cast. You can’t have a much better time than with Joe Ely, Jeff Bridges and Sheryl Crow trading verses and Bonnie Raitt, Jimmie Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr. trading solos. It brought a great evening blazing to a close. As the icing on the cake, this landmark performance will find its way to PBS for a two-hour prime time special as part of of the PBS Fall Arts Festival – look for ACL Celebrates 40 Years on PBS on Oct. 3 at 9pm ET.

 

ACL Hall of Fame inducts Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and more

photo by Scott Newton

ACL’s 40th anniversary brings the debut of a long-held dream: the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame. To celebrate, we held our first induction ceremony on April 26 in the original home of ACL, KLRU-TV’s Studio 6A. We were proud to inaugurate Willie Nelson, the first artist to ever appear on the show and a frequent guest ever since; Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, who made two iconic ACL appearances; Bill Arhos, creator of the show back in 1974; and Darrell Royal, the archetypal U.T. football coach and dedicated fan who was instrumental in introducing country superstars to the ACL lineup. But we did more than just hand out awards. It’s all about the music on this program, after all, so we also lined up some fantastic performances.

After opening remarks by ACL executive producer Terry Lickona, Oscar-winning actor and native Texan Matthew McConaughey introduced Willie Nelson. Backed by Lyle Lovett’s band and his stalwart harmonica player Mickey Raphael, the 81-year-old Texas legend opened his set with his perennial vanguard “Whiskey River,” the Lovett group giving it an almost funky backbeat. That rhythm became more hard-hitting as Willie moved directly into “Still is Still Moving to Me,” the closest thing he has to a rock anthem. “Here’s a new gospel song I just wrote,” Willie noted wryly before he launched into “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” his latest hit.

Willie then introduced the leader of the band he was borrowing, as Lyle Lovett came onstage for a duet on Willie’s country/soul crossover hit “Funny How Time Slips Away.” Lovett first sang this song with Al Green and was honored to do it again with its author. Next up was Willie’s friend Emmylou Harris, who essayed an emotion-filled take on Willie’s “Crazy,” originally made a standard by Patsy Cline. Willie completed his trilogy of antique classics by retaking the mic for an especially jazzy blues version of the Ray Price-popularized “Night Life.”

Lovett and Emmylou returned for a round-robin version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” a hit for Willie and Merle Haggard, of course, but also last performed on camera by Emmylou and Willie during ACL’s 1999 Townes Van Zandt tribute. With that, Willie graciously turned the stage over to his guests, as Lovett crooned his enigmatic country waltz “Walk Through the Bottomland” and Emmylou sang Rodney Crowell’s rueful “‘Til I Gain Control Again,” which she made a hit in the 70s. Willie then took center stage once again, spiking the energy level with spirited takes on his traditional set closers “On the Road Again” and Hank Williams’ gospel fireball “I Saw the Light,” with the legend exhorting the crowd to sing along.

McConaughey returned to induct Willie into the Hall of Fame – it’s only right that the first person to be broadcast as part of ACL be the first one to enter our Hall. “Austin is the greatest thing to happen to music,” Willie stated in his acceptance speech, and as his hosts for so many years, we can’t argue. Terry Lickona took over for McConaughey afterward to induct Bill Arhos, former KLRU station manager, program director and ACL executive producer, and the man who sparked the creation of the show, sold it to PBS as a series and was the driving force until his retirement in Season 25. Bill quipped that, while he was happy to be inducted with the first class, “It’s a little intimidating to be in the class of first inductees when three out of the four have bronze statues. I’ve got a stainless steel fingernail clipper.”

Lickona then introduced recently retired University of Texas football coach Mack Brown, who inducted the late Darrell Royal, the most successful coach in UT football history. “Coach,” as he was known by everyone, may seem to be an odd choice for a music program’s hall of fame. But Royal’s greatest passion outside of football and his family was country music, and it was his friendship with C&W masters like Merle Haggard and George Jones that got them on the show. In addition, his legendary “picking parties” at his house, featuring all manner of singers and songwriters, inspired the creation of our own songwriters specials.

Following the intermission McConaughey returned to induct Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble. Stevie couldn’t be there, obviously, but his brother Jimmie weighed in with a specially recorded video message, and the members of Double Trouble – bassist Tommy Shannon, drummer Chris Layton, keyboardist Reese Wynans – accepted their own trophies. Wynans thanked both the Austin musical community and the city’s eager audiences for embracing their sound.

Then these consummate musicians took the stage in tribute to their late leader, with various special guests subbing on guitar and vocals. Vaughan acolyte Kenny Wayne Shepherd and singer Mike Farris appropriately kicked off the set with “The House is Rockin’,” Wynans duplicating his solo from the album and Shepherd faithfully reproducing his hero’s lead break. “Look at Little Sister” followed, a tune that really took advantage of Farris’ gritty blue-eyed soul voice. The duo closed out their part with the groovy, rocking “Crossfire,” Shepherd dreamily lost in his blues dream.

Next up was Doyle Bramhall II, former ARC Angel, current Eric Clapton sideman and the son of Stevie’s songwriting partner Doyle Bramhall Sr. Doyle II began with the 12-bar blues of “Lookin’ Out the Window,” one of his father’s compositions for Stevie, before launching into the soulful ballad “Life Without You,” highlighted by a fiery solo. Doyle II ended his set with a rocking “Change It,” another Bramhall Sr. tune that became one of Double Trouble’s greatest hits.

Doyle II remained onstage as it was reset with a pedal steel guitar. That could only mean one thing: Robert Randolph. After relating that he was one of the few in his crowd to be into Stevie Ray Vaughan – indeed, he claimed that one of his dates ended early due to his incessant spinning of Double Trouble’s music in his car – Randolph blasted into “Gimme Back My Wig,” an old blues tune popularized by Chicago slide guitarist Hound Dog Taylor and later covered by Stevie. After that slidefest, Randolph led the band into a raucous take on “Pride and Joy,” perhaps Vaughan’s best-known tune, lighting it up with wild steel solos and ending on a Hendrixian flourish.

It would take a hell of a showman to equal that performance, but we had just such a person in the wings. Legendary Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy brought his stinging tone and aggressive attack to bear in full force on “Let Me Love You Baby,” one of his hits that Stevie made his own. Guy doubled his power on “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” letting his famous flamboyance take over during the ending solo and reiterating why he was such a big inspiration to Vaughan and blues and rock guitar players even now.

Such a lineup of stellar talent and songs as that contained this evening could end only one way: with a show-closing jam. Nearly everyone who’d played crowded the stage for a rendition of “Texas Flood,” the Larry Davis tune that Vaughan and Double Trouble made their signature. With vocals shared by Guy, Lovett, Willie and his son Lukas, and solos slashed by Shepherd, Lukas and Guy, it was a blues fan’s wet dream, and a fitting way to close out the festivities.

What a show. What a night. There’s more to come in celebration of ACL’s 40th year, with exciting announcements aplenty – watch this space.

Happy 80th birthday to Willie Nelson

photo by Scott Newton

We here at Austin City Limits TV would like to wish a very happy birthday to the one and only Willie Nelson, 80 years young today. Willie has, of course, a long history with ACL, beginning with our pilot episode in 1975 and continuing through multiple (and we mean multiple) headlining shows, songwriters specials and guest appearances. He’s a local, state and national treasure, and we hope he’s still twanging away on Trigger when he hits 100. Happy birthday, Willie!

Along with other friends and fans, Austin City Limits’ Executive Producer Terry Lickona recorded a special birthday message for the red-headed stranger, which you can see here.

Darrell K. Royal – in memoriam

Darrell K. Royal, published in the book Austin City Limits by Clifford Endres. Photographed in Studio 6A by Scott Newton.

We here at ACL were saddened to learn that legendary University of Texas football coach Darrell K. Royal passed away this morning at the age of 88. Not only was Royal the “winningest coach in University of Texas history,” as noted by the Austin-American Statesman, but he was also a longtime friend of Austin City Limits. He helped us grease the wheels with the many artists he knew personally, including Merle Haggard and George Jones. The “guitar pulls” at his house that featured his buddy Willie Nelson and veteran and up-and-coming writers inspired our Songwriters Specials. And we also remember him as being one of our most loyal fans. His friend Terry Lickona, ACL executive producer, had this to say:

“Darrell Royal – or just Coach, as we called him – was one of the best friends Austin City Limits had back in its early days. He would come to many, if not most, of the tapings in the original Studio 6A. In fact, we saved a special seat for him at practically every show, ‘just in case.’ It was in the corner of the back row of the middle bleacher, where everyone entering could see him and he could greet the fans as they came in. In fact, he actually helped us book Merle Haggard during Season 3, at a time when most major artists had never even heard of the show. He had a passion for music, especially songwriters, a quick wit, an iron-grip handshake and an ear-to-ear smile. There are few, if any, Austin icons like him left.”

Goodbye, Coach. May you rest in peace.

Coach and Willie Nelson at the Austin Opry House, 1977. Photo by Scott Newton. Copyright 1977 Scott Newton.

Encore: Willie Nelson & Asleep at the Wheel

photo by Scott Newton

It goes like this: Willie Nelson starred in the pilot for Austin City Limits in 1975 and has appeared many times since. Asleep at the Wheel kicked the first episode proper in 1976 and is also a multiple headliner. Amazingly, they’ve rarely collaborated, despite being buddies for 40 years. So when these great Texas artists came together to record 2009’s fantastic Western swing tribute Willie and the Wheel, we had to have this explosion of musical chemistry on the show – especially since it coincided with our 35th anniversary.

Featuring great old tunes like “Right Or Wrong, ‘“Hesitation Blues” and “Fan It,” as well as a handful of Willie classics, the resulting episode has since become one of our all-time favorites. It’s a special show to our beloved audience as well, and we’re happy to present this encore episode. Tune in to your local PBS station this weekend, and you might want to push the furniture against the wall in case you’ve the urge to dance.

Go here for more details on this episode, and check in with our Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr pages for more ACL info and ephemera. Next week: M Ward and Okkervil River.