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 Next up was Willie’s friend Emmylou Harris, who essayed an emotion-filled take on Willie’s “Crazy,” originally made a standard by Patsy Cline.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.