ACL’s all-star 40th anniversary

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.


Valerie June brings organic moonshine to ACL

“I’ll try not to cry tonight,” said Valerie June directly after taking the stage for her ACL debut. “It means the world to me to be here.” With an intro like that, it would be impossible not to be on the side of this fast-rising Memphis singer/songwriter. The talent bursting from her seams, however, justified the empathy. With one foot in country blues, the other in mountain folk music and her head in the stars, June and her band conjured a distinctive brand of genre-blending songs that she calls organic moonshine roots music.

June opened with the Carter Family chestnut “Happy or Lonesome,” her unique voice working the midpoint between those emotional extremes. Then she and her band – which includes guitarist Binky Griptite, last seen on the ACL stage as part of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – ranged all over the Americana map, from the twanging folk of “Twined & Twisted” and sprightly country of “Rain Dance” to the waltzing honky-tonk of “Keep the Bar Open” and the heartfelt gospel of Jim Reeves’ “This World is Not My Home,” which earned especially vocal approval from the crowd. But whether June was strumming her custom-made “baby” (a banjo/ukulele hybrid) for “Somebody to Love,” crooning through the R&B balladry of “The Hour” or philosophizing the slow blues of “Pushin’ Against a Stone,” June put her own stamp on every note. Once you hear “Goodnight Irene,” her show-closer, you’ll never want to hear it any other way.

This was one of those special first-time shows that will be talked about for years to come. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on PBS.

James McMurtry

James McMurtry © KLRU photo by Scott Newton

With his “verbose, character-rich yarns” (Entertainment Weekly), James McMurtry has spent almost two decades fusing together roots music and lyrical witticisms that is as expansive as his father Larry McMurtry’s novels. As Rolling Stone wrote, “James McMurtry can compel you to boogie while you consider the plight of his characters.”

His first album, released in 1989, was produced by John Mellencamp and marked the beginning of a series of critically acclaimed projects. His most recent release, 2005’s Childish Things, earned McMurtry the 2006 Album of the Year and Americana Song of the Year for “We Can’t Make It Here” from the Americana Music Association. The song received high praise as a “brutally eloquent protest song” (USA Today.) The Washington Post wrote “As he rhymes with the adeptness of a rapper and the passion of a doomsday evangelist, McMurtry’s insistent diatribe leaves you no alternative but to pay attention.”

McMurtry is currently working on a new CD here in Austin, which will feature another political anthem, “God Bless America.” McMurtry released this song, which takes the current administration to task for the war, on the internet a month before the elections. “I’ve always been a little put off by activists. So you know it’s a dire situation when I have to become one myself,” McMurtry said.

The Gourds

The Gourds © KLRU photo by Scott Newton

Few bands could take the gansta rap stylings of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” and turn it into an Americana anthem. But Austin’s The Gourds have done that and more during their career of making quirky, witty, fun music.

Since the release of their debut CD, Dem’s Good Beeble in 1997, the band has been one of the stars of the Austin music scene. At the heart of The Gourds is the songwriting dichotomy of Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith. Texas Monthly wrote “Kevin Russell is the meat-and-potatoes foot-stomping foundation of the group, whose best efforts resonate like charismatic old friends. The flipside is Jimmy Smith, whose work stubbornly refuses to yield to expectations. Like someone who asks, ‘You know what I think,’ and then doesn’t tell you, his songs can frustrate until they creep into your consciousness and stay there.” Add to that the musicianship of Claude Bernard, Keith Langford and Max Johnston and music fans get the “literate redneck party music for the well-read and unwashed” (Houston Press).

Earlier this year, The Gourds released Heavy Ornamentals to critical praise. Bumpershot wrote “The Gourds have been making music that celebrates American folk traditions ranging from good ol’ country to blues to cajun to whatever-you-care-to-name. On Heavy Ornamentals, the tradition continues.

“{It} is a demonstration of everything that The Gourds do best. And that’s plenty.” And Glide Magazine wrote on Heavy Ornamentals “The Gourds have allowed each song to become an excuse to meld their mishmash hybrid bluegrass style with relatable lyrics that makes everyone laugh and feel at home.”

Sarah Jarosz and The Milk Carton Kids folk out in ACL’s new season

Join us this weekend as we present Americana music originals Sarah Jarosz and The Milk Carton Kids in a brand new episode. Both artists showcase their bona fides in an all acoustic hour with roots/folk singer-songwriter Jarosz making a return appearance on the ACL stage and newcomers The Milk Carton Kids in their ACL debut. The episode showcases the young folk acts who were both nominated for Best Folk Album at this year’s Grammy Awards.

Pushing the limits of Americana with her own distinctive style, multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz takes the ACL stage for her second appearance performing highlights from her recent album Build Me Up From Bones. The incredibly talented Jarosz has already released three albums at the age of 22. With her two-piece band featuring a fiddle player and cello, Jarosz begins a stellar set with the Grammy-nominated title track in an acoustic performance that showcases her musicianship and songwriting. Switching between mandolin and banjo, Jarosz also dips into the songbooks of others, treating the audience to an accessible take on Joanna Newsom’s “The Book of Right On” and a solo rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Kathy’s Song”. She invites The Milk Carton Kids out to join her and the band for “Annabelle Lee” (based on an Edgar Allen Poe poem), displaying their complementary visions of contemporary folk music.

“We are so proud of Sarah, we feel like she’s part of the family,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona. “The last time she graced our stage she was on her way to college, now she’s graduated with honors and her remarkable talent has grown exponentially. We couldn’t resist having her back!”

photo by Scott Newton

The Milk Carton Kids, the L.A. acoustic folk duo consisting of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, make their ACL debut playing songs from their critically-acclaimed new album The Ash & Clay. The besuited pair “play a sweetly dazzling variation on close-harmony vocals, part Simon and Garfunkel and part Everly Brothers” (LA Times) for a sound NPR calls “gorgeous contemporary folk.” With flat-picking harmonies and a touch of twisted humor, the duo play purely acoustically on the ACL stage—no guitar amplification and one vocal mic—to beautiful effect. In a skillful performance infused with their signature wit, the Kids charm the Austin crowd with their playful, deadpan banter, exquisite guitar work, rich harmonies and timeless folk.

“I first saw Kenneth and Joey perform on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium last September, and it was obvious that they are world-class entertainers beyond their years,” says Lickona. “They are traditionalists with a modern spin and a mischievous sense of humor.”

photo by Scott Newton

Check out the episode page for more details. Be sure and visit our Facebook and Twitter pages or sign up for our newsletter for more ACL goodness. Next week: Grammy winner Kacey Musgraves and Dale Watson.

Sarah Jarosz


Sarah Jarosz writes songs that “have a mystical streak, projecting love and loneliness across the landscape and the sky” (New York Times). Widely hailed as one of Americana music’s brightest young talents, Jarosz returned to the Austin City Limits stage performing songs from her newest release, Build Me Up From Bones.

Jarosz first appeared on ACL in 2010, supporting her debut album Song Up in Her Head. Though only 18 at the time, the Wimberly resident already had nearly a decade of performing experience under her belt, starting as a bluegrass prodigy but quickly expanding her horizons to include folk, jazz and pop. “I never became a bluegrass snob,” she told Texas Music. “I was always open to everything.”

Following her rising star turn on ACL, she left Austin to attend the New England Conservatory, releasing her second LP Follow Me Down along the way. Now graduated with honors from the Conservatory, Jarosz moved to New York City and dedicated herself to pushing the limits of her art, as Build Me Up From Bones asserts. “Jarosz makes music that’s all over the spectrum,” noted Pop Matters, “but puts her own imprint on it through her distinctive style.” All Music Guide declares that the album “reflects not only her growth as a songwriter but her willingness to push the boundaries of country, folk, and Americana to discover connections not necessarily considered before.”