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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.

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Eric Taylor 1949-2020

We here at Austin City Limits were saddened to learn of the death of Texan singer/songwriter Eric Taylor on Monday, March 9, after months of ill health. He was 70. 

Though born in Georgia, Taylor was a key figure in the Texas singer/songwriter scene of the early 1970s. Having stranded himself in Houston in 1970 on the way to California by running out of money, he integrated himself into the folk clubs, honing his craft in thrall to Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. In turn, he inspired the next generation, bridging the gap between the Clark/Van Zandt era and that of Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett, on whom he had a particularly deep influence. 

After making his recording debut in 1976 on the Houston songwriters compilation Through the Dark Nightly, Taylor released his first album Shameless Love in 1981. It would be another fourteen years before his second, eponymous LP, released in 1995 on Austin label Watermelon Records. Seven more records followed, including 2001’s Scuffletown, which occasioned his first headlining appearance on Austin City Limits. His songs were covered by Lovett and Nanci Griffith, who called him “the William Faulkner of songwriting in our time.” 

“Taylor’s great gift was characters who he’d enliven with enough mythology to where the real and the fictional could be indistinguishable,” wrote Andrew Dansby in the Houston Chronicle. “The reality of a given name didn’t matter: the themes of searching and endurance mattered.”
Taylor first appeared on Austin City Limits as a guest on Lyle Lovett’s twenty-fifth season episode in 2000, in which the latter paid tribute to the Texas songwriters who inspired him. Here are Taylor and Lovett doing “Hemingway’s Shotgun.”


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.”