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R.I.P. Paul English, longtime drummer for Willie Nelson

We here at Austin City Limits were shocked to learn of the death of Paul English, Willie Nelson’s longtime drummer and best friend, after a bout with pneumonia.  He was 87. 

Born in Vernon, the North Texan grew up in Fort Worth, living the kind of outlaw life usually only glimpsed in the movies, a life that led him to be (proudly) listed in the Fort Worth Press’s “Ten Most Unwanted Criminals” for five years straight. (His son Paul, Jr. noted in the Oxford American: “If you’re writing songs about shooting people, it’s nice to have a guy who’s shot people up there onstage with you.” Read the whole compelling piece here.) He first played with Willie in 1955, becoming his regular drummer in 1966. From then on, English was the rock in Willie’s band – not only the Family’s heartbeat, but its road manager, tour accountant, collector, and, if need be, muscle. The subject of Willie’s fan favorite tune “Me and Paul,” English was also Willie’s running buddy for five decades, the man who watched his boss’s back, literally and figuratively, gun in boot, ready to take on anyone who showed his pal – or anyone in the Willie organization – any disrespect. English slowed down in recent years, having already been joined on drums by his younger brother Billy for many moons, but his larger-than-life persona, closeness to his employer, and de facto leadership of the Family Band kept him the heart and soul of Willie Nelson’s music. 

Due to his long tenure, English appeared in every episode featuring Willie as headliner, from the first in 1974 to the most recent in 2018. Here he is in the pilot, in his signature hat and cape, accompanying Willie & Family on “Devil in a Sleeping Bag” – a song about life on the road in which he figures as the titular Devil. 


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R.I.P. Lyle Mays of the Pat Metheny Group

Austin City Limits is disheartened to learn of the death of Pat Metheny Group keyboardist Lyle Mays, who died at age 66 in Los Angeles on Feb. 10 after a recurring illness. 

Born in Wisconsin to musician parents, Mays studied piano and organ from an early age. After graduating from the University of North Texas, where he’d composed and arranged for the college’s famous One O’Clock Lab Band, Mays joined clarinetist Woody Herman’s group on the road. He met Pat Metheny in 1974, recording the guitarist’s second album Watercolors with him in 1977 and forming the Pat Metheny Group that same year. As co-writer, producer and arranger, Mays recorded fourteen albums with the band over the course of thirty-plus years, winning eleven Grammy awards along the way. He also performed as a sideman for artists ranging from Joni Mitchell to Earth, Wind & Fire, as well as composing music for theater and children’s records. Mays released five solo albums, including 1993’s Fictionary, a trio record with fellow North Texas alumnus Marc Johnson. After retiring from music following the Metheny Group’s final tour in 2010, the self-taught computer programmer followed his other passion and became a software manager. 

Here is Mays performing “Proof” in 2003 with the Pat Metheny Group on Austin City Limits


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R.I.P. Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo

We here at Austin City Limits are saddened to learn of the death of singer and teacher Joseph Shabalala, founder of South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who appeared on ACL in 2006. He was 78.

He was born Bhekizizwe Joseph Siphatimandla Mxoveni Mshengu Bigboy Shabalala in 1941 in the town of Ladysmith (eMnambithi district) in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa. In the late fifties he joined the Durban Choir, leaving them two years later when they refused to perform his original songs. He founded his own isicathamiya group the Blacks in 1959, renaming them Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 1960. The group signed a recording contract in 1972, selling 40,000 copies of their first album Amabutho, making it South Africa’s first gold-selling record. Ladysmith Black Mambazo continued to be popular in its home country, but gained international fame after appearing on singer/songwriter Paul Simon’s Grammy-winning 1986 LP Graceland, specifically the songs “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes” and “Homeless,” which Shabalala co-wrote. The group won its first Grammy in 1988 for its album Shaka Zulu, winning four more over the course of a long – and ongoing – international career. Shabalala retired from performance with Ladysmith Black Mambazo in 2014, continuing to teach choral music until his death. 

Here is Shabalala on Austin City Limits in 2006, closing out the night’s performance with “Phansi.”  

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David Olney 1948-2020

We at Austin City Limits are saddened to learn of the death of David Olney, a Nashville-based singer/songwriter revered by his peers. He died while performing onstage in Florida on Saturday, Jan. 18, of an apparent heart attack, at the age of 71. 

Born in Rhode Island, Olney moved to Nashville in 1973 and fell in with Guy Clark’s expatriate songwriters community including Rodney Crowell, Richard Dobson and Townes Van Zandt (whose songs he often covered). In 1980 he formed the rock band the X-Rays, with whom he recorded two LPs, opened for Elvis Costello, and appeared on ACL. He became known as a solo troubadour after that, issuing over two dozen albums over thirty-plus years, and garnering acclaim for his powerful live performances. His songs – which covered everything from John Barrymore (“Barrymore Remembers”) to the donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem (“Brays”) – have been covered by Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Del McCoury, Steve Earle and Paul K & the Weathermen, among others. His friend Townes said, “Anytime anyone asks me who my favorite music writers are, I say Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bob Dylan and Dave Olney.”

Here is Olney with the X-Rays on ACL in 1982 with the title track of his debut album The Contender.

Austin City Limits 713: David Olney and the X-Rays – “The Contender” from Austin City Limits on Vimeo.

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RIP Joe Sun

We here at Austin City Limits pay our respects to country singer Joe Sun, who passed away of natural causes Oct. 25 at his home in Florida. He was 76. 

After a stint in the Air Force and as a radio DJ, the Minnesota native went to Nashville in the seventies in hopes of becoming a country singer, scoring a hit in 1978 with “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You.” Over the next few years Sun earned seven more top 40 country hits, before turning his attention to Europe. He also recorded ads for Budweiser and Timberline Boots, and appeared in the 1985 film Marie with Sissy Spacek, Jeff Daniels and Morgan Freeman. His rich, bluesy voice and rootsy honkytonk sound will be missed. 

Sun appeared on ACL in Season 5, 1980, paired with Carl Perkins. Here he is with his biggest hit, “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You.” 

Austin City Limits #512: Joe Sun – “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You” from Austin City Limits on Vimeo.
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RIP Paul Barrere of Little Feat

We here at Austin City Limits are saddened by the passing of Little Feat singer, songwriter and guitarist Paul Barrere on Oct. 26. He was 71. No cause of death has been announced, but Barrere was undergoing treatment for liver cancer. 

The Burbank native joined Little Feat in 1972, just in time to record the band’s classic LP Dixie Chicken. Besides serving as an alternate singer and skilled guitar foil to bandleader Lowell George, Barrere wrote or co-wrote several Feat classics in its repertoire, including “Time Loves a Hero,” “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now,” “Old Folks Boogie,” “Down on the Farm,” “Skin It Back” and “All That You Dream.” When the band reconvened in 1988 following George’s death, Barrere assumed the frontman position, leading the Feat through a further nine albums, including the gold-selling Let It Roll and its most recent LP Rooster Rag. Barrere also played live and in the studio with Taj Mahal, Jack Bruce, Carly Simon, Chico Hamilton and Nicolette Larson, among others. In between the two eras of Little Feat, he recorded two solo albums and led the band the Bluesbusters. He will be missed by bandmates and fans alike. 

Little Feat performed on Austin City Limits in 1991. Here they are with the Barrere-led “Old Folks Boogie.”

Austin City Limits 1611: Little Feat – “Old Folks Boogie” from Austin City Limits on Vimeo.