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Austin City Limits: A History

An unprecedented access telling of this landmark musical showcase whose history spans dramatic changes in the nature of television, the expansion of digital media, and the ways in which we experience music.

Reprinted from Austin City Limits: A History (footnotes omitted) by Tracey E.W. Laird with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © Oxford University Press 2014. All rights reserved. All photos taken by Tracey E.W. Laird unless otherwise noted, used with permission. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

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A RHINOCEROS IN YOUR BATHTUB

In the pilot of Austin City Limits, Willie Nelson performs a set before a live audience seated in a 360-degree arrangement around the band. People sit on the floor, others in short risers, and some move about while the band plays, just as they might in a club—bobbing, jostling, clapping their hands in time with the music. Someone gets up, perhaps to grab a Lone Star, free beer being a prominent feature of any Austin City Limits taping. An audience member looks distractedly off in the distance, only to have his attention recaptured as Willie begins the second verse of “Good Hearted Woman.” Mostly the camera focuses unobtrusively on the performers. Something that catches Willie’s eye makes him chuckle midway through the first line. He smiles at someone in between phrases. The camera tracks the song: a close-up on the harmonica player’s solo, then a piano break. With his eyes Willie cues the harmonica player that the more energetic second chorus is coming with the next down-beat. A key change in double time drives the song to an end and the applause erupts. While the style and look of Austin City Limits has changed during the nearly four decades since this pilot, the spirit of the show remains intact. The pilot communicates the feel of a live, small-venue performance, only a television screen away, and artfully makes that seem not very far at all.

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Figure 1.1 Willie Nelson smiles at someone in between phrases of
“Good Hearted Woman” in a still image from the pilot performance
on Austin City Limits.

During the decade or so prior to 1974, a scene grew up in Austin around the clubs supporting live musicians and the energy generated from the local student population at the University of Texas. Because of the commercial success and national notoriety of Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Michael Martin Murphey, the 1974 local scene in Austin correlated with a country-rock hybrid sometimes labeled “redneck rock” or “hip hillbilly.” The same phenomenon had other names too. Steve Fromholz, a singer-songwriter associated with the Austin scene, suggested his own descriptive term for the long-haired, cowboy hat–wearing country-rocking crowd: “hickies,” or people who are “almost a redneck and almost a freak.” Another name, the “cosmic cowboy movement,” came from the title and first cut of a 1973 album by Michael Martin Murphey.

Members of the scene self-consciously—at times, defiantly— associated themselves with a particular version of Texas identity. Murphey’s song is a case in point, beginning one verse with a pointed reference to Texas beer: “Lone Star sippin’ and skinny dippin’ and steel guitars and stars, Just as good as Hollywood and them boogie-woogie bars….” Nostalgic in spirit and antimodern in posture, the song draws on a tradition of Texas-centered musical romanticism that dates back at least to 1910, when John Lomax first published his collection Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. Lomax emphasized the authenticity of the music he collected—a sense that these songs constituted a valuable treasure from the past, a rare find in a rapidly changing society. Like Appalachia, Texas enjoys a symbolic history as a kind of cultural antidote to modernization: a mythic spot, a world apart from the rest of the country. Scholars and writers like Lomax began a tradition carried on by the phonograph industry and other commercial enterprises. They all cast Texas and its music as distinct from the broader nation. Texas music was more authentic, more real, and larger than life.

The song’s sound also typifies the 1970s Austin scene: instrumentation of country music (steel guitars, fiddles, and so on) paired with smart, quirky, Texas- (or at least Western-) oriented lyrics that were sometimes sentimental, sometimes irreverent, sometimes satirical or tongue-in-cheek. Murphey later said he intended his song to poke fun at what he saw as a trendy and shallow marriage of disparate cultural impulses, but his words stuck nevertheless. Tongue-in-cheek or not, the song draws together various threads that made up the loose fabric of the 1970s Austin scene, a group of Texas singer-songwriters comfortable and familiar with country and rock, as well as older blues styles.

The scene was inspired by the hippie movement and antagonistic to corporate commercialism. It longed for lost contact with nature and explored notions of freedom related to that perennial American fixation with the frontier West. The music invited audiences to listen to the stories or the poetry, or to sing along, to escape from the constraints of modern society, if only for a few minutes. Townes van Zandt might spin a tragic tale in a song like “Tecumseh Valley,” while Jerry Jeff Walker mused about a gifted bootmaker named Charlie Dunn. Hondo Crouch talked his way through a lyrical meditation on a “Luckenbach Daybreak.” Everyone joined in with Augie Meyers’s rousing accordion-driven number “Down to Mexico.” When it wasn’t quirky and funny— “a supernatural country rockin’ galoot,” to quote another line of Murphey’s song—it could be evocative, nostalgic, heartbreaking, vaguely yearning. The press and the music industry finally settled on the term “progressive country” to identify all that was happening in Austin from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s.

Several institutions arose in and around Austin to support and sustain the scene. Among them was the annual Kerrville Folk Festival. This event grew from earlier outdoor festivals and small venues dating back to the mid-1960s—including Austin’s Zilker Park Summer Music Festival and the Chequered Flag folk music club—and, earlier, from a long tradition of honky-tonks and dance halls. Perhaps most deeply associated with the 1970s Austin scene was the Armadillo World Headquarters, a cavernous one-time armory converted to a live venue with its own staff artist who created posters for its events. While the Armadillo ultimately failed on financial terms, it came to be seen as the spiritual epicenter of Austin in the 1970s.

The Armadillo World Headquarters stood out as only the most famous of many clubs drawing musicians and audiences to the Texas capital. Nightspots like the Broken Spoke, Texas Opry House, Split Rail, and One Knite regularly featured live music. The Armadillo World Headquarters featured “progressive country” artists, as well as those playing blues, r&b, and others with styles difficult to pigeonhole. Crowds gathered to hear Freddie King perform “Hide Away” and play his blues guitar on one night. On another, they heard Waylon Jennings sing “Ain’t No God in Mexico” and other hole-in-your-boot and bourbon-on-your-breath “outlaw country” songs. They paid $3.50 apiece for two shows in one night—1,500 people at each show—where Frank Zappa played “Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich” and other abstruse proto-art-prog jams. The Armadillo operators aimed to create a dual-purpose “cultural arts laboratory” and “beer garden of Eden,” featuring everything from reggae to once-per-month ballet, with a crowd that included “blue-haired ladies dancing with bikers watching.”7 In the end the Armadillo never kept economic pace with its grandiose artistic vision and ideology. It closed in 1980, but remains iconic for a special musical era in Austin, a sacred spot that lives in the collective memory decades after the building was torn down.

Time magazine explained Austin with an analogy. In a story from its September 9, 1974 issue, the writer compared the Armadillo to San Francisco’s Fillmore: as the Fillmore was to 1960s rock so the Armadillo was to “Austin’s country-rock set.” The title of the article, “Groover’s Paradise,” referred to musical free spirit Doug Sahm, a San Antonio native. It noted that “more than 200 musicians, vocalists and songwriters” relocated to Austin over a span of two years or so, and 65 Austin-based bands enjoyed regular gigs. The writer described Armadillo audiences as “a curious amalgam of teenagers, aging hippie women in gingham, braless coeds, and booted goat ropers swigging Pearl beer and swinging Stetsons in time to the music.” Record World devoted a special section of their March 6, 1976 publication to this scene, characterized by writer David McGee as “ ‘a state of mind become reality,’ which had its roots in the social upheaval of the ’60s.”

In the meantime public television station KLRU (known at the time as KLRN) needed innovative programming. The Texas legislature had invested a heap of state money into the University of Texas Communications program. To justify the three-building complex dominating the intersection at 26th Street and Guadelupe, KLRN sought to expand its lineup with local productions. Bill Arhos gets credit for the station’s best new idea. Arhos had first joined the station in 1961 as a graduate intern, and initially did production work on an experiment in educational television called the Texas Microwave Project. Over the years he worked his way up the ranks: producer, director, program manager, and then program director for the station. In 1986 he became the station’s general manager and president. He retired in 2000. The closing credits for Austin City Limits included “Created by Bill Arhos” for years. (Six months after ACL Live at the Moody Theater opened in 2011 Arhos told me that he had “only been to the new venue once, and that a fundraiser, but they gave me another plaque.”) As Arhos recalled it, the inspiration for Austin City Limits came directly from the local scene. The show’s first producer, Paul Bosner, envisioned it as a televised version of the Armadillo’s simple magic: put a rug on the floor and have a concert.

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Figure 1.2 Still image of the original set of Austin City Limits:
put a rug on the floor and have a concert.

KRLN had already originated successful news-type broadcasts and bilingual children’s shows, including one set in a mythical village called Carrascolendas, and a dramatic series for young viewers, Sonrisas (Smiles). Viewers appreciated these shows, but the station’s board of directors wanted programs with stronger national appeal. They pointed to NOVA, the long-running science series out of WGBH in Boston, which was started in 1974 through a partnership with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Years later Arhos recalled the push for KLRN to create programs of NOVA-size stature. He sometimes had a hard time conveying to board members Austin’s financial disparity with its Boston counterpart. Years later he recalled these exchanges: “We don’t have any money and there’s no infrastructure… Yeah, we got a $6 million budget but Boston has a $100 million budget. They went to the BBC and studied their science programming for a year—they sent three people over there, and we can’t send three people to, you know, Round Rock.”

Both Too Local and Yet Not Local Enough

A live music program would be relatively inexpensive to produce, particularly with the musical talent flocking to Austin at the time. Arhos applied for a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. With $13,000 the station shot two pilots, making it perhaps one of television history’s greatest bargains. In fact, shoestring budgets would be normal operating conditions for at least the first 25 years of Austin City Limits. Those running the show could never be certain that the current season was not the last. Until the 2011 relocation to the Moody Theater, Austin City Limits still shot its widest overhead angles with a four-person crane camera used in 1937 on the set of The Wizard of Oz. They borrowed microphones from KUT, the public radio station downstairs in the same building, just to get through the pilot. Today they own plenty of microphones. Still, while the budget grew from $165,000 for the entire first season to, for example, $585,000 for Season 10, the cost for 13 episodes remained approximately on par with a single episode of a commercial television series; while the 13 episodes that comprised Season 38 cost around $1.7 million, the comparison remains reasonable. Another cost has remained constant throughout the show’s history. Artists still receive union scale in 2014, just as Nelson did in 1974.

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Figure 1.3 The big four-person crane camera, in motion during a
double taping for Austin City Limits in 2007:

Ghostland Observatory and The Decemberists.

From the inception of Austin City Limits, the question loomed large: Will the program appeal to audiences? Music was and still is considered risky television fodder. Commercial networks had tried live music shows before, such as In Concert on ABC and Midnight Special on NBC. Chicago public television station WTTW began Soundstage the year before the Austin City Limits pilot. That show lasted until 1985; it was resuscitated in 2001, and remained in regular production until 2010. There had been local precedents for televising the Austin music scene as well. During the early 1970s, a fly-by-night, poorly advertised “mini-tour” called the “Armadillo Country Music Revue” culminated in a late 1973 live production featuring Willie Nelson, Michael Murphey, and the Armadillo’s house band, Greezy Wheels. It was simulcast on KLRN, which served both Austin and San Antonio at the time, and over radio stations in both cities. The Armadillo’s spearhead Eddie Wilson helped produce the show, using KLRN equipment and expertise. He later emphasized to an interviewer: “We weren’t talking about country music, we were talking about music from Armadillo country, which could be anything in the world.” Not one of these efforts gave good reason for imagining that Austin City Limits would eventually outlast every other live music TV program, public or commercial.

The precise origins of the show get a bit murky in hindsight. When asked about it by the local Austin American-Statesman newspaper in 1978, Arhos said that writers Jan Reid and Joe Gracey, the latter also an influential Austin radio character, first put forward the notion of a show built around the city’s then-thriving progressive country music scene. Reid wrote the 1974 book The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock about Austin music and would contribute regularly to Texas Monthly magazine over the next several decades, while also writing pieces for mainstream publications like GQ and Esquire. Gracey was deep into local musical life as a disc jockey and then program director at KOKE–FM, the radio station whose progressive country format won a Billboard Trendsetter award in 1974.

Years later Arhos identified two others who’d been in on the ground floor: Paul Bosner and Bruce Scafe, the producer and director, respectively, of the first season, were the first to propose a music program. Scafe and Arhos had worked together on the Armadillo Country Music Revue broadcast. Bosner, who divided his time between Austin, where he worked, and Dallas, where his wife worked, spent many evenings taking in Austin bands. He lent Arhos a copy of Reid’s book to help him catch up with what was happening in town. Arhos had the strong Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) connections. “By that time,” he recalled, “I knew everyone in the system.” So he took the idea to the man in charge of special projects at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. With a thin budget and long odds, Arhos faced a daunting challenge, but the vitality of Austin’s indigenous music culture made his seminal work, and all the efforts that followed in his stead, much easier.

Looking back from this distance, Austin City Limits seemed to bubble up from the stream of musicians flowing into the city much as the local Barton Springs swimming hole emerges from the depths of the Edwards Aquifer. Progressive country filled every nook and cranny of Austin during the early 1970s. It was everywhere. Arhos later wisecracked that to think of highlighting this music for an Austin-based concert program was “like noticing a rhinoceros in your bathtub.”

To tape the pilot, they invited B. W. Stevenson, then riding a surge of popularity from his hit “My Maria.” A Time magazine journalist had called Stevenson “the most commercially successful of the young Austin musicians” earlier that year. Despite his currency, however, publicity efforts had been so last-minute that only about 150 audience members were in the studio bleachers. That number looked skimpy from the camera’s eye, so they scuttled the show. Stevenson later returned to tape another performance for that first season. Meanwhile they took a second shot at the pilot, this time with Willie Nelson because he was sure to draw a large local audience to the studio. In retrospect Nelson’s appearance on the pilot broadcast for Austin City Limits was poetically prescient. His success inaugurated the show, and he remains intimately connected to it. Nearly four decades later, Willie Nelson, the city of Austin, and Austin’s most famous cultural export, Austin City Limits, remain bedfellows. A bronze statue of Willie Nelson now stands in Austin on the corner of Second Street (now Willie Nelson Boulevard) and LaVaca Street, right in front of the Moody Theater, a testimony to this relationship.

In many ways Nelson’s personal story is the story of a national love affair with progressive country. Two years before the pilot Willie Nelson already reigned as a local hero, celebrated for his much-publicized departure from the Nashville corporate country music world where executives embraced his songwriting pen at the same time they closed their doors to his singing voice. Born in 1933, Nelson grew up in central Texas, in the small town of Abbott, approximately 30 miles north of Waco. Some of his earliest musical experiences reflect the crossroads flavor of south central Texas. He gained his first performing experience, for example, as a 12-year-old guitarist in the Rejcek family polka band, playing Bohemian dance halls and beer joints. Returning home amid the flowering of the local Austin scene, Willie Nelson sealed the association of this central Texas area with “progressive country” (sometimes overlapping with “outlaw country”) and the image of the “hippie cowboy.”

Nelson hosted his first Fourth of July picnic in 1973, drawing tens of thousands of people to a ranch in Dripping Springs, Texas. In the words of music writer John T. Davis nine years later, the picnic “combined odors of marijuana and Old Spice,” a remark that indicated the peaceful union of cowboy and hippie cultures. These were the very same smells mingling together at the Armadillo. The picnics, however, drew far more media attention. Producers for the ABC television show Midnight Special, for instance, came to scout for musical acts. Nelson’s picnics changed locations throughout the 1970s, moving from Dripping Springs to Liberty Hill, drawing bigger and bigger audiences from near and far. Some likened the event to a “Woodstock” for country music. Yet performers at Nelson’s picnics ranged much wider musically: from Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge to Doug Sahm, from Leon Russell to the Pointer Sisters, who appeared in 1975.

By then Nelson epitomized “progressive country”: a songwriter of extraordinary depth, a performer of extraordinary accessibility, a sockless hippie cowboy with a beat-up guitar and faded T-shirt. Even before Austin City Limits, Nelson reached a wide spectrum of listeners, breaking past margins of musical taste and category. Reflecting on the 1974 concept album Phases and Stages, produced by Jerry Wexler on Atlantic Records, New York Times critic Loraine Alterman, for example, wrote that Nelson’s country music “can even move those of us who think we despise it.” Along with his contemporary, Waylon Jennings, Nelson attracted followings at places Alterman never expected, like “Max’s Kansas City here in New York or Los Angeles’ Troubadour.”

Yet even with Captain Willie at the helm and all of Austin’s cultural wind filling his sails, Austin City Limits embarked on a speculative voyage for television at the time of its 1975 pilot: an exploration that would test the appeal of a weekly, uninterrupted hour of live music in an intimate setting. At the time, televised live music most commonly occurred on variety shows hosted by big-name stars. There were no television channels devoted to music then, and most certainly not to country music. PBS was still young, only six years old in 1975, and perhaps the last place one might expect to find a guitar-wielding hippie cowboy. Still, it was worth putting it out there to see if a show drawn from Austin’s music scene might capture broader interest.

One final detail remained. Before the program could air, it needed a title. Arhos bounced possibilities around with Bosner and Scafe, like “Hill Country Rain” or “River City Country,” but nothing stuck. Then Arhos recalled the nice ring of Macon County Line, the title of an otherwise forgettable 1974 movie about a sheriff avenging his wife’s murder. “Travis County Line” parroted this too obviously, but what about “Austin City Limits”? Austin City Limits tapped the contemporary buzz about the city’s music scene, and might summon still deeper imaginings about Texas character.

While invoking both old and new Texas identity, Austin City Limits set up a potential paradox that might have proved an Achilles heel for the whole enterprise: possibly it was too local and yet not local enough, all at the same time. The name first seemed to work against the show’s bid for national relevance. Why should TV viewers in Omaha or Syracuse or Fresno care about music hot in Austin, Texas? Then as the show’s appeal became clear, the name gave ground for hometown criticism: Why don’t more local acts appear on a national show with the city’s name in its title? Or, in the words of one local newspaper writer 10 years later, “How much of Austin remains in Austin City Limits”?

With the title set, now came the sell. Arhos recalled years later that the show more or less spoke for itself. He recounted for one Dallas Morning News writer how he mailed 22 copies of the Willie Nelson pilot to PBS colleagues with enough postage for them to mail it to another colleague, and, again, to send it on to yet one more. All 22 copies included a request that the cassettes be returned to the station. “I never got back one,” said Arhos.

The pilot aired in 1975, the same year Willie Nelson released Red-Headed Stranger. Critics swooned over the fresh voice the album brought to country music, long stultified by, to use one newspaper writer’s words, “the time-tested country formula of basic vocal and instrumental tracks slathered with layers of schmaltzy strings.” From that perspective Nelson presented a sincere, stripped-down, more authentic country music, one that seemed familiar in the Austin scene. Outside Austin, country music more commonly evoked negative images, epitomized either as dangerous as the homicidal rapist hillbillies from 1972’s Deliverance, or as simple as the cornball hayseeds hiding in fields on TV’s Hee-Haw. Willie Nelson offered something different—a genuine songwriter who powerfully conveyed simplicity and sincerity, a poet for blue and white collar alike, whose reckoning of joy and pain, the sinful and the sacred, compelled listeners across the boundaries of genre set up by the label “country music.”

Writing from Memphis, television critic Larry Williams reviewed the pilot and characterized Willie Nelson as “a cult hero, an accomplished artist who is content to stay home and reap the rewards of regional stardom.” He pondered Nelson’s uncanny ability to communicate with audiences, and then placed him in distinguished musical company: “One could no more sit still listening to Willie Nelson than he could digging the far out sounds of a Bird, Prez or young Goodman, an early Beatles or a Woody Herman and the Third Herd.” From within PBS circles, Bill Arhos sent a letter to fellow programming directors, urging their support for the program. He cited the success of the Nelson pilot in fundraising, reporting more than $6,000 made by a California station in the break following the show. He went on to say, “A Florida station reports it as its second largest fundraiser between the Vienna Philharmonic and the Boston Pops.” Near the end of the letter he writes, “We hope you will take this opportunity to give an unusual form of country music its first chance on PBS.”

Nelson’s critical reception during this era set a tone for Austin City Limits as a dark-horse trailblazer. The year after Red-Headed Stranger, still one of the greatest concept albums of all time, came the release that named a country music subgenre, The Outlaws, with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser (1976). It would be the first-ever million-selling country album. He followed this with the solo release Stardust, an album of Tin Pan Alley tunes. Nelson clearly scoffed at rigid musical categories. As he told the writer Bob St. John in 1975, “I hate music labels… . Labels put a bind on something, corner it and keep it from branching out.”

Meanwhile the pilot’s timing coincided with Nelson’s far-reaching critical buzz in 1975 and placed Austin City Limits right there with him in his uniquely hip corner of the musical universe. Nelson was grounded in the south central Texas region, yet expansive in musical taste. His music and his persona circulated outside the confines of any single genre. Too authentic to fit the slick formulas of Nashville, Nelson emerged as a one-man musical meeting ground in a pop culture landscape historically hell-bent on subdividing audiences by race, class, or region. Likewise, Austin City Limits established a show with a strong local identity and a strong sense of national relevance. The man and the show, not to mention their home base of Austin, entangled their destinies on October 17, 1974. This was the day on which Nelson taped the pilot, one ceremoniously named “Austin City Limits Day” by the mayor 35 years later.

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Tracey E. W. Laird is Professor of Music and Chair at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. She is the author of Louisiana Hayride: Radio and Roots Music Along the Red River and co-editor with Kip Lornell of Shreveport Sounds in Black and White.

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