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Jerry Lee Lewis R.I.P.

The last man standing of the original wave of rock & roll pioneers, Jerry Lee Lewis died on Oct. 28 at the age of 87. 

The man nicknamed the Killer practically needs no introduction. Wielding his Pumping Piano like a weapon, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Carl Perkins and the other inventors of rock & roll in the 1950s. The Louisiana native’s hits “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Breathless,” “High School Confidential,” and, of course, “Great Balls of Fire” remain indelible parts of the American musical landscape over half a century after their original release.

The scandal of his marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin in 1957 may have derailed his career for a while, but he made his comeback in the country music arena, wracking up hits like “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” “Middle Age Crazy,” “Thirty Nine and Holding,” and “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me).” A chaos agent who resisted playing it safe, Lewis may have been persistently dogged by personal and professional troubles throughout his long career, but he remained a respected elder statesman, inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, and just this year entered the Country Music Hall of Fame this year. His final album was The Boys From Ferriday, a collection of gospel songs played and sung with his cousin Jimmy Swaggert.  

Lewis taped a single episode of Austin City Limits during Season 9, broadcasting in 1984 – an episode now considered a classic, receiving a commercial release on New West Records in 2007. Years later, ACL producer Terry Lickona offered him another taping, but the Killer demurred, saying he “could never do another show better than the first one.” See for yourself in this excerpt, featuring Lewis’ biggest hit: “Great Balls of Fire.” 

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Michael Nesmith R.I.P.

Austin City Limits was sorry to learn of the passing of singer, songwriter, entrepreneur, music video pioneer and, of course, Monkee Michael Nesmith. He died of heart failure at the age of 78. 

The Houston native was a creative lynchpin for the Monkees – the first member to pen original material for the group and the first to insist that the band play its own instruments and choose its own songs. After the Monkees ended in 1970, he formed the First National Band along with steel guitar pioneer Red Rhodes, and became one of the pioneers of country rock with the early seventies albums Magnetic South, Loose Salute, and Nevada Fighter and the singles “Joanne,” “Silver Moon” and “Rio.” 

While he continued to record throughout his life, he eventually turned his attention to visual arts, pioneering long-form music video with the Grammy-winning Elephant Parts and forming the company Pacific Arts, which produced, among others, PBS’s acclaimed Ken Burns miniseries The Civil War. Nesmith also produced the cult comedies Tapeheads and Repo Man, produced records for singer/songwriters Iain Matthews, Bert Jansch and Texas’ own Carolyn Wonderland (whose wedding he officiated), wrote a pair of novels and served on the boards of the Gihon Foundation and the American Film Institute. He also participated in Monkees reunion tours, with the band playing its final show in November of this year. 

In the midst of all those accomplishments, Nesmith also appeared on Austin City Limits in 1993, opening Season 18. Here’s his closing number, “Rio.” 

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Nanci Griffith R.I.P.

We here at Austin City Limits were shocked to learn of the death of singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith on Friday, August 13. No cause of death was announced. 

Born in Seguin and raised in Austin, Griffith became a favorite on the Texas singer/songwriter circuit, releasing her first album There’s a Light Beyond These Woods in 1978. She first appeared on Austin City Limits in 1985, wearing a bright yellow, flowered dress she made herself especially for the show. Joined by a mini-orchestra of Nashville and Austin luminaries (including a young singer/songwriter named Lyle Lovett), Griffith wowed the hometown crowd with songs from her then-new album Once in a Very Blue Moon

Griffith went on to appear on ACL seven more times, including five headliner shows, two songwriters specials, and as a guest of Hootie & the Blowfish. 

She last appeared on the show in 2001, supporting her record Clock Without Hands

We’re deeply saddened to lose this remarkable singer, performer and tunesmith, whose influence has been felt on nearly every Texas singer/songwriter who came afterward. May the Last of the True Believers rest in peace. 

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R.I.P. Charley Pride

The Austin City Limits staff was disheartened to learn over the weekend of the death of trailblazing country music superstar Charley Pride at 86. He died due to complications from the novel coronavirus. 

The Mississippi native, son of a sharecropper, was the first Black singer inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000, and one of only three Black members of the Grand Ole Opry. (The others are pioneer DeFord Bailey and current star Darius Rucker.) After a successful run as a pitcher and outfielder in minor league baseball, Pride was signed to RCA Records after company president Chet Atkins heard his demo tapes and signed him. Pride first hit with the 1966 top 10 country hit “Just Between You and Me,” which inaugurated a string of bestselling smashes (“Kiss An Angel Good Morning,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” “Don’t Fight the Feelings of Love,” so many more). Nearly a half-century on, it’s hard to believe that when his first few singles were sent to country radio, no photos were issued, and even harder to believe that some radio stations refused to play his records once his identity became known. Pride broke down barriers and was elevated to the level of stardom his talent deserved. When his career was in full flight, he could lay claim to 30 No. 1 hits on the country charts, and sold more than 25 millions records as RCA’s best-selling country artist. His final performance was on November 11 at the annual CMA Awards show where he received the well-deserved Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Celebrated for his remarkable voice and as a gifted entertainer, Pride made his only appearance on Austin City Limits during Season 6 in 1981. Here he is singing one of hits from that year, the beautiful “Roll On Mississippi.” 

Our hearts go out to his beloved wife Rozene and family. 

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Hal Ketchum 1953-2020

We here at Austin City Limits were saddened to learn of the death of singer/songwriter Hal Ketchum. The American country great died of complications of dementia at age 67.

Hal Ketchum on Austin City Limits, 1992

Though the golden-voiced New York native was best known as one of Nashville’s brightest stars of the nineties, with eleven albums to his name, he was a staple of Texas music clubs before he hit Music City. He nurtured his catalog of tunes for years in Austin listeners’ venues like the Cactus Cafe, with his debut album Threadbare Alibis coming out on Austin’s own Watermelon Records. The combination of being a major country hitmaker (“Small Town Saturday Night,” “Sure Love,” “Past the Point of Rescue,” “Hearts Are Gonna Roll,” “I Know Where Love Lives”) and his Central Texas roots earned him three appearances on ACL, in 1992, 1994 and 1998. 

Ketchum moved back to Texas in 2008 and made his final live appearance at Gruene Hall in 2018. He retired in 2019 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He will be greatly missed.

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R.I.P. Billy Joe Shaver

Austin City Limits is devastated to learn of the death of singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, one of the pioneers of the outlaw country movement. He died Wednesday Oct. 28 in the hospital in Waco following a stroke. He was 81. 

Nobody wrote songs about hard living and redemption like Billy Joe Shaver. Whether he was talking about falling off the wagon or getting back on, the Corsicana, Texas native’s plainspoken eloquence found the beauty in the rough times, and expressed it with optimism for the future. On his classic, much-covered tunes like “Georgia On a Fast Train” and “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday),” Shaver didn’t wallow in the seamier side of life – he understood that the bad times were as important a part of the journey as the good ones, and never gave up on hope, love, or joy. Though he mystifyingly never enjoyed the same level of fame as his contemporaries Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson or John Prine, he was admired, respected and loved by them all. Indeed, Jennings brought Shaver to prominence by filling his classic 1973 LP Honky Tonk Heroes with the troubadour’s songs. 

Billy Joe Shaver on Austin City Limits, 1985

“A writer once said that Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver were ‘the first of the last real cowboys,’” said ACL executive producer Terry Lickona. “Billy Joe added the heart and soul and grit and edge that made so-called outlaw country music real. He lived the life he wrote about, and we’re proud to have showcased his music four times over the years.”

As Shaver put it in one of his most famous songs, “I’m gonna live forever.” Perhaps not in body, but most definitely in body of work. Rest in peace, Billy Joe – you were definitely a diamond. 

Billy Joe and Eddy Shaver on Austin City Limits, 1997