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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
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R.I.P. Jerry Jeff Walker

Austin City Limits is saddened to learn of the death of Austin musical mainstay Jerry Jeff Walker, following complications of throat cancer. He was 78. 

To call Jerry Jeff Walker important to the Austin music scene is to nearly damn him with faint praise. Flush with royalties from the success of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1971 cover of his song “Mr. Bojangles,” the New Yorker moved to Austin in 1971, beating both Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel to the punch. The former Ronald Crosby proceeded to catalyze the progressive country movement, a homegrown scene in clubs like Soap Creek Saloon and Armadillo World Headquarters that helped launch what we now call Austin music. Along with Michael Martin Murphey, B.W. Stevenson, Rusty Wier, Steven Fromholz, and other so-called cosmic cowboys, Walker pioneered a style of singing and songwriting that flavored its country with folk introspection and rock & roll energy, influencing everything from outlaw country to the Red Dirt music scene along the way. On albums like 1973’s Jerry Jeff Walker and ¡Viva Terlingua! and hits like “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” (written by Ray Wylie Hubbard but made famous by Jerry Jeff), Walker and his pals used their rowdy yet laid back sound to bring together both sides of the Texas cultural divide, with hippies and rednecks, liberals and conservatives, finding common ground by virtue of their love for good tunes, good beer, and a good party. 

Naturally, Walker is one of the artists featured in The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, the late Jan Reid’s 1974 overview of Austin’s rising music scene. (Note: longtime ACL photographer Scott Newton provided the photos for the 2004 edition of the book after original photographer Melinda Wickman’s archives were lost.) That tome was a key inspiration in the early years of Austin City Limits, so naturally Walker was invited to appear on the program. He first appeared with his running buddies the Lost Gonzo Band during the 1976 debut season, in an episode that debuted the future ACL theme song “London Homesick Blues,” which first appeared on ¡Viva Terlingua! Walker came back to the stage in 1980, 1986, as part of the Austin City Limits reunion special featuring the cosmic cowboys from the early seasons, and 1988, a memorable show featuring a string section. Every show proved to a national audience what we here in Austin already knew: that Jerry Jeff Walker was, in his own words, “Contrary to Ordinary.” Our collective hat is off to you, Jerry Jeff – Austin music would not have been the same without you. 

Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band backstage at Austin City Limits, 1976
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John Prine 1946-2020

Austin City Limits was greatly saddened to learn of the death of singer and songwriter John Prine, who died April 7 from complications due to the coronavirus. John Prine’s last Austin City Limits performance is scheduled to broadcast again on PBS on April 18th. Check your local listings or stream it online in its entirety below.

What can we say about John Prine? It’s no secret that he was one of the greatest songwriters to ever pick up a guitar – everyone from Kris Kristofferson (who discovered him) to Elvis Costello to Bonnie Raitt to Johnny Cash to Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters to Bob Dylan would agree. Even film critic Roger Ebert, stumbling upon Prine at a Chicago open mic in 1970 after a movie, lavished rapturous praise on the Illinois mail carrier, shifting his piece that night from covering the film to covering Prine’s set. (It was Prine’s first review.) His work’s plainspoken eloquence, keen intelligence, sly wit, and singalong melodies make lifelong friends with anyone who chances upon them. 

We certainly felt he was in the upper echelon of tunesmithing greats. Prine appeared on the show eight times – headlining his own episodes in 1978, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2005 and 2018, joining a songwriters special in 1983, and appearing as a guest of Bonnie Raitt in 2002, duetting on his classic “Angel From Montgomery,” in a performance Raitt called one of the highlights of her career.

Bonnie Raitt and John Prine, Austin City Limits, 2002

We were stunned and thrilled by Prine’s most recent appearance two years ago in Season 44, when he was supporting his wildly acclaimed album Tree of Forgiveness. This was a man who hadn’t lost a step in the progression of his talent over the years, writing songs as smart and funny and powerful as he ever had. Quite simply, he was one of the best.

“This one really hurts, like a dagger to the heart. John Prine was so integral to the essence of Austin City Limits, and few artists graced the ACL stage over the years and decades more than he did,” says executive producer Terry Lickona. “The last time I saw him and his sweet wife Fiona was at this year’s Grammy Awards for his Lifetime Achievement Award, and he was as charming and self-effacing as usual, brushing off all the fuss. He leaves a void that no one else can fill.”

John Prine was one of the brightest stars in the galaxy of American songwriting. He will be missed. 

John Prine, Austin City Limits, 2018
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Kenny Rogers R.I.P.

Austin City Limits were surprised and saddened to learn of the death of country music icon Kenny Rogers. The Texas native and Country Music Hall of Famer, who appeared on ACL during our twenty-fifth anniversary season in 2000, was one of the most successful recording artists of all time, with an unbelievable 120 charting hits over the course of his long career. He was 81. 

Born in Houston, Rogers first recorded in the late fifties with a Houston-based group called the Scholars, releasing the song “The Poor Little Doggie.” By the mid-sixties, he had joined the folk act New Christy Minstrels as bassist and singer. Rogers and a handful of Minstrels then spun off into their own band First Edition, who scored a major pop hit in 1967 with the psychedelic pastiche “Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was In).” Taking over leadership of the group, Rogers led them back to the charts with 1969’s “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” solidifying the country pop direction that would make him one of the biggest crossover stars of the seventies and eighties. 

We all know the songs: “Lucille,” “Coward of the County,” “We’ve Got Tonight,” “Lady,” “Music Man,” “Daytime Friends,” the massive Bee Gees-penned Dolly Parton duet “Islands in the Stream,” and, of course, “The Gambler,” his signature song – all of which he performed on the ACL stage. While he became less of a presence on the pop charts over time, he remained a fixture on the country charts with songs like “Crazy,” “Morning Desire,” “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine,” “If You Want to Find Love,” “The Greatest,” “Buy Me a Rose,” “I Can’t Unlove You,” and many, many more. 

photo by Scott Newton

“Kenny Rogers was one of the few country-pop icons to grace the ACL stage,” noted executive producer Terry Lickona, “which is a testament to how far and wide our reach had become even twenty years ago. His fans truly loved him, and it was a show like no other.” He will be missed.