Sharon Jones R.I.P.

photo by Scott Newton

We here at Austin City Limits were deeply saddened to learn about the premature passing of Sharon Jones after a heroic battle against pancreatic cancer, at the age of 60.

As anyone who ever saw her perform with her crackerjack band the Dap-Kings knows, the Brooklyn native was a powerhouse onstage. Her rich vocals and dynamic stage presence could rouse a dead man from his grave. She spent her first forty years as a session backup vocalist, wedding singer, corrections officer and armored car guard – it’s as if it all came bursting out when she was finally given her turn in the spotlight in 1996, when she recorded her first single “Switchblade.” Once she had the Dap-Kings writing for, producing and backing her on the road, she was unstoppable. She released a series of classic old-school soul and funk LPs on DapTone in the new millennium, starting with Dap Dippin’ in 2002 and sadly ending with her 2015 Christmas album It’s a Holiday Soul Party and compilation soundtrack to the acclaimed documentary Miss Sharon Jones! Tunes like “Stranger to My Happiness,” “I Learned the Hard Way” and “100 Days, 100 Nights” will last as long as the 60s soul and R&B classics that inspired them. With her unflagging optimism (even in the face of cancer) and soaring musical capacity, Sharon Jones was a shining light in an often dark industry, and she will be missed.

Jones and the Dap-Kings rocked the ACL house in 2008 during Season 34. Here she is performing the opening cut, joined by a member of our audience on the funky “How Do I Let a Good Man Down?”

Leonard Cohen 1934-2016

photo by Scott Newton

We at Austin City Limits are greatly saddened to learn of the passing of the great singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen at the age of 82.

Transcending genre, the Montreal native was one of the most unique figures in all of popular music. Many songwriters are credited with bringing literary acumen to their work, usually without any real justification. But for Cohen it’s true – he’d already had a career as a poet and a novelist before turning to music as his main artistic outlet, and he brought his full authorial weight to the songs he recorded. His lyrics reveal a craftsman’s eye, knowing exactly what words to include and what to leave out, and his melodies strip down to support the libretto without becoming forgettable backdrops. While often accused of dwelling too often in the darkness, his songs travel a wide range of emotional terrain, from anger to joy to confusion to, yes, depression, exploring them all with an intellectual’s wit and a poet’s sensitivity. Cohen had a special affinity for navigating that mysterious space between the sacred and the secular – unsurprising for this grandson of a rabbi and follower of Buddhism. His ability to blur the lines between the sensual and the divine highlighted the truth in unbridled passion and the grace in a sense of wonder – not for nothing did Cohen once claim he “Came So Far For Beauty.”

Cohen had a special connection to Austin. On the 1979 tour captured on the live album Field Commander Cohen, he used the Austin jazz fusion group Passenger as the core of his road band, and guitarist Mitch Watkins, keyboardist Bill Ginn, saxophonist Paul Ostermayer and, especially, bassist Roscoe Beck would be off-and-on staples of his backup groups from then on. (Longtime backing singer Julie Christensen also did time in Austin prior to joining Cohen’s troop.) Perhaps it was this connection that led to his decision to make his major U.S. television debut on Austin City Limits. Recorded on Halloween night in 1988 and broadcast in 1989, Cohen’s hour-long episode was and is one for the ages, a tour-de-force of songcraft and performance that has become one of our most beloved and requested shows.

“Leonard was not much aware of ACL until his Austin friends and cohorts convinced him to do the show,” remarks Executive Producer Terry Lickona. “The band played a late show in L.A. the night before and took the red-eye straight to Austin, arriving just in time for rehearsal. They were all wearing the same clothes (Leonard never did change), and his only request was for a bottle of tequila, which the band easily dispensed with. The show was mesmerizing, as was the reaction from viewers who had never heard or seen anything quite like him. Leonard told me some years later that that Austin City Limits performance ‘saved his career in America’ at a time when he had all but been forgotten.”

Cohen returned in 1993 in support of his trailblazing record The Future. The maestro was so pleased with the results he included two of the songs on his 1994 concert record Cohen LiveWe’re honored to have these two classic appearances to document his unforgettable legacy.  You can watch the first one below. 

 

Ralph Stanley R.I.P.

photo by Scott Newton

Austin City Limits mourns the loss at 89 of a true musical giant: Ralph Stanley. The Virginia native was not only a bluegrass titan as a performer, but as an innovator. Along with Flatt & Scruggs, his brother Carter and Bill Monroe, Stanley could lay claim to helping create one of America’s most distinctive musical forms. His high, lonesome singing, virtuoso clawhammer banjo picking and vast repertoire had a tremendous influence on bluegrass, folk, country, gospel and Americana. Though he didn’t write them, Stanley’s renditions of old-timey tunes “Little Maggie,” “Pretty Polly,” “O Death,” “Angel Band” and “Man of Constant Sorrow” (re-popularized by the film O Brother Where Are Thou) made them standards in the American songbook.

“Ralph Stanley was the last of the living bluegrass legends, after Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs,” remarked ACL Executive Producer Terry Lickona. “Like the others, he invented his own sound, his clawhammer banjo style came straight out of the hills, and his voice sounded like it had been around since the beginning of time itself. He was a gracious gentleman, with a gentle spirit. His appearance on ACL with Bill Monroe in 1986 was historic, a rare performance by the two bluegrass giants. Another important part of America’s musical past is gone.”

Here is Stanley with his Clinch Mountain Boys in 1980 with his signature song “Little Maggie.”

Freddy Powers 1931-2016

photo by Scott Newton

Austin City Limits was saddened to learn of yesterday’s passing of the great Freddy Powers at the age of 84. His name may not be immediately familiar, but his songs are. The Oklahoma-born/Texas-raised “country jazz singer” wrote or co-wrote hits for George Jones (“I Always Get Lucky With You”), Willie Nelson and Janie Fricke (“A Place to Fall Apart”) and, most prolifically, Merle Haggard (“Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star,” “Natural High,” “Amber Waves of Grain,” “Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room”). He also co-produced Nelson’s platinum album Somewhere Over the Rainbow, hosted the CableACE nominated talk show Rogers and Hammerhead and appeared with Haggard frequently as opening act and special guest, as well as releasing his own albums. On top of all that, he served a stint in the Marines, was a staple in 1970s Las Vegas and appeared on both The Tonight Show and The Today Show. Having already accomplished more than most in one lifetime, Powers was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2004, which slowed down his productivity. But he continued to write and perform as long as he was able to sit in front of an audience and entertain. Along with his buddies Nelson and Haggard and co-author Jake Brown, Powers completed his memoirs, entitled The Spree of 83 and due to be published in February 2017.

“Freddy might not have been a household name, but most of his musical buddies were,” says ACL Executive Producer Terry Lickona. “Willie & Merle were two of his closest friends, and they were kindred spirits, musically and personally. He had an infectious passion for what can best be called country jazz, and he had a direct hand in bringing Willie and Merle together for one of the most memorable songwriters shows we ever did, in Season 9. He was also a remarkable songwriter; my favorite was ‘I Always Get Lucky With You,’ which became part of Merle’s repertoire for many years. Freddy’s spirit lives on!”

Powers appeared on Austin City Limits four times: in 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1996. Here he is in 1984 with his pals Willie ‘n’ Merle with “After You’re Gone.”

Guy Clark 1941-2016

photo by Scott Newton

Austin City Limits is saddened by the passing of legendary singer/songwriter Guy Clark this morning after a long illness. Along with his compadre Townes Van Zandt, the Monahans, TX native and longtime Nashville resident wrote new rules for starkly honest songwriting. Distinctive from the West Coast confessional approach and the East Coast folk revival, the writing that came out of the  Lone Star State in the late 60s and early 70s defined a new style of songsmithery that has proven hugely influential not only on Texas music, but on what would become known as Americana. The author of inarguable classics “L.A. Freeway,” “Dublin Blues,” “The Cape,” “Heartbroke” and “Desperadoes Waiting For a Train,” Clark sat in front of a large, talented and influential class, showing everyone with a guitar and a pen how it’s done.

Clark appeared on Austin City Limits seven times, in 1977, 1982, 1983, 1990, 1998, 2000 and 2008, and was inducted into the ACL Hall of Fame in 2015 by Lyle Lovett, who said, “He is my hero. His songs have touched all of us in Texas and people around the world.”

“Call him the ‘Dean’ or ‘King’ of Texas songwriters, he was simply the best there was, and set the standard for all the others,” said ACL executive producer Terry Lickona. “If you want to know what makes Texas songwriters different, just listen to Guy Clark. He was a storyteller and a rascal with a poet’s heart. Most of the personal stories I have about him I can’t tell, but maybe someday. I doubt if there will ever be anybody else quite like him.”

May he rest in peace with his wife Susannah and his best buddy Townes in that great songwriters’ bar in the sky.

Here’s Clark singing “Depseradoes Waiting For a Train from his 1977 debut appearance:

“L.A. Freeway” from the 1983 songwriters special:

“Dublin Blues,” from the Lyle Lovett & Friends guitar pull, 2008:

Merle Haggard 1937-2016

photo by Scott Newton

We at Austin City Limits were shocked and saddened to learn of the death of the great Merle Haggard on his 79th birthday, due to complications from pneumonia. An American original often cited as the greatest country singer of all time, Haggard made an incalculable contribution not just to country music, but American music in general. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t know at least a handful of his many classics. “Mama Tried,” “Big City,” “Silver Wings,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Okie From Muskogee,” “Daddy Frank,”  “If We Make It Through December,” Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” “Sing Me Back Home” – these songs are essentials threads in the fabric of the American musical tapestry. 

Haggard appeared on our show a total of nine times, in 1978, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1991, 1994 and 1996 (twice). “Other than Willie, Merle Haggard was the first major country artist to appear on Austin City Limits in its early years (season 3), and he appeared many times since,” said ACL executive producer Terry Lickona.” He told me once that he was so proud of his ACL performances that he considered them ‘a scrapbook’ of that time in his career. He was a maverick and a true original.”

Below is Haggard from his first appearance on ACL in Season 3, 1978. May he rest in peace.

B.B. King 1925-2015

photo by Scott Newton

Austin City Limits is saddened to learn of the passing of B.B. King. Not only did the King of the Blues visit Studio 6A for two classic performances in 1983 and 1996 (the latter recorded on his 70th birthday), but the man born Riley B. King made a massive contribution to American culture. The blues would not have been the same without BB’s hits: “Three O’Clock Blues,” “Sweet Little Angel,” “How Blue Can You Get,” “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother,” “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss,” “Playing With My Friends,” the titanic hit “The Thrill is Gone.” The world will be a sadder place without the creator of those classics in it.

“B.B. King personified blues music for the whole world,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona, “but when he first appeared on Austin City Limits in 1983 it was rare for a blues artist to command a full hour on national television. He was larger than life, but a gentle man with a kind soul and big heart. His ACL performance ranks as one of my personal favorites, and I was never more proud than when he somehow slipped ‘Austin City Limits’ into the lyric of his classic rendition of Willie Nelson’s ‘Night Life.’ We’ve lost a giant.”

May he rest in peace.

 

Johnny Gimble 1926-2015

photo by Scott Newton

We here at Austin City Limits were saddened to learn of the passing of the great Johnny Gimble, Texas swing and C&W fiddler extraordinaire. The Tyler, Texas native and Dripping Springs resident was 88.

Following a stint in the army, Gimble played with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in the late 40s, appearing on the classic 1950 recording of “Faded Love.” After spending a few years in Waco working as a barber and raising a family, the fiddle virtuoso moved to Nashville and became a first-call session musician. Gimble appeared on recordings by Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Marty Robbins, Ray Price and his longtime musical running buddy Willie Nelson, with whom he toured in the late ‘70s. Gimble was also recruited for Nashville session supergroups the Million Dollar Band (frequent performers on Hee Haw) and the Superpickers, and backed Carrie Underwood at the Grammy Awards in 2007. He also scored a country hit of his own in 1983 with “One Fiddle, Two Fiddle,” featuring Ray Price, and appeared in Clint Eastwood’s film Honkytonk Man as his old boss Bob Wills. His most recent album is 2010’s Ray Benson-produced Celebrating With Friends, recorded in collaboration with the Country Music Hall of Fame. That album also includes performances with his singer/pianist daughter Emily, who makes her ACL debut later this year as a member of Asleep at the Wheel.

Gimble was also a frequent guest on Austin City Limits, appearing numerous times with Willie Nelson, as well as making memorable appearances with the Superpickers in Season 4 and on the Season 6 Mandolin Special, on which he demonstrated his expertise on his other instrument, the electric mandolin. Gimble fronted a double-header episode in Season 5, headlining the first half and leading the Texas Swing Pioneers in the second half.

“Aside from being a Texas Playboy, he was the most renowned Country and Western Swing fiddler – ever!” remarked ACL executive producer Terry Lickona. “He played with heart and soul and had an infectious spirit and sense of adventure – in both his music and personality. Before Lloyd Maines set the current record, Johnny played more times on ACL than any other musician. There was a time when everybody wanted Johnny Gimble to play on their show.”

Our condolences go out to his family and friends, of which he had hundreds. May he rest in peace.