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Willie Nelson returns to the house he built in ACL Season 44

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Austin City Limits proudly welcomes back a longtime friend, American music icon Willie Nelson, in a career-spanning hour as he performs a mix of his universally-known hits and new classics from his timeless catalog.

There’s a good reason why a bronze statue of Willie Nelson stands at the entrance to ACL’s studio home on the Austin street that bears his name. The Texas native launched Austin City Limits with the now-historic pilot episode (taped in 1974), ushering in what has become the longest-running television music series ever. Inducted into the inaugural class of the ACL Hall of Fame in 2014, he returns to “the house that Willie built” for a remarkable 18th appearance on the program, marking his first headlining appearance in a decade since he shared the stage with Asleep at the Wheel during Season 35 in 2009. The new performance marks his first appearance with his longtime Family Band since Season 25 in 2000.

In the 45-year history of Austin City Limits, no artist has personified the music series’ eclectic, freewheeling spirit more fully than Willie Nelson. Joined by the five-piece Family band, Willie starts the 16-song set with his perennial opener, “Whiskey River,” the song he launched ACL with almost a half-century ago. The energy is palpable for the mainstays that established him as a songwriting legend: “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy,” and “Night Life” (undertaking such an intense, bluesy shred on his trusty acoustic Trigger that he has to shake out his left hand afterward). He honors departed pals and co-songwriters with shout-outs (“Good Hearted Woman,” “for Waylon!” and “It’s All Going to Pot,” “for Merle!”). Willie calls out often for the crowd to join in, and they reply with joy and respect. “I hear it!”, he answers back with a grin during one of many sing-along moments.

The set features the pinnacles of his artistry as an interpreter: “Georgia on My Mind” anchored by harmonica master Mickey Raphael’s counter melodies; his version of “Nuages,” Django Reinhardt’s 1940 gypsy jazz instrumental, is lifted by the fascinating interplay with sister Bobbie’s piano; “Always on My Mind” showcases Willie’s inimitable phrasing. In tribute to his own favorite vocalist, Willie dips into his most recent album for a jazzy take on Frank Sinatra’s hit “Fly Me to the Moon.” The outlaw legend performs his new-classic anthem “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” and elicits unerringly faithful crowd-chorus callbacks on “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” and the raucous sing-along “On the Road Again.” All reveal a singular artist who’s still exploring, still playful, still pushing the boundaries of where his music can go. After a rousing, standing-room, hand-clapping “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and his now-standard set-closer “I’ll Fly Away,” Willie smiles as wide as Texas, and with a wave of his hat offers a heartfelt “Thank you, Austin City Limits!”

“There would be no Austin City Limits without Willie Nelson – simple as that,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona. “He launched ACL into the television universe in 1974, and has helped keep us going for 45 years. It was truly emotional to witness such an outpouring of love from the audience. This show is Willie Nelson, pure and simple.”

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. Join us next week for another brand new episode, featuring the return of blues legend Buddy Guy and the debut of hip-hop/jazz supergroup August Greene.