Since its earliest days, Austin City Limits, the acclaimed PBS series, has been devoted to country music, with a particular emphasis on Texas artists. Over time, a wide array of music has been represented on the program, but country music remains the mainstay of the show, so it’s natural that a new ten-disc Time-Life DVD Austin City Limits collection emphasizes country.
While the ten discs that comprise Austin City Limits: Country are filled with wonderful performances by everyone from the Texas Playboys to Kacey Musgraves, one artist dominates the proceedings. That would be Willie Nelson, who appears on five of the ten discs.
Simply put, Willie Nelson would not be Willie Nelson without Austin City Limits. And Austin City Limits would not be Austin City Limits without Willie Nelson. More on Willie Nelson in a moment.
The first nine discs cover 44 seasons of the show, from 1976 through 2018. While Nelson does indeed show up often during these discs, he is certainly not alone. Austin City Limits has managed to honor the legends (Johnny Cash, George Jones, Charley Pride, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and many more) while also presenting hot new artists, whether they’re Alabama in 1980, George Strait in 1984, or Chris Stapleton in 2017.
Being a compilation, the performances through discs one-nine are uniformly enjoyable, though one’s personal taste will dictate which a viewer likes best. The chronological nature of the discs also presents an ongoing history of country music fashions and hairstyles, among both the performers and audience members.
As enjoyable as those first nine discs are, by far the highlight of this collection is the tenth disc, which is devoted to the Austin City Limits pilot episode, recorded on 17 October 1974. Naturally, the pilot was a complete show by Willie Nelson and Family.
When I first received this collection for review back in April, I watched the 1974 concert on disc ten first, then moved on to discs one-nine. I had just finished watching disc ten a second time and was working on this review when I received a call that my mother was on the way to the hospital. We lost her just a few hours later.
Now, Mom was a huge Willie Nelson fan and a huge influence on my love of music. I had been meaning to watch the Austin City Limits pilot show with her but did not get the chance.
In the wake of Mom’s passing, I found myself not able to finish this review for a while. I thought I’d be listening to a lot of Willie’s music, and I did at first, but then I couldn’t any longer.
This thing is though, Mom would want you to know about this collection, especially the 1974 pilot, which represents Willie and his band at a pivotal moment. For all I know, Mom and Dad may have even watched the pilot when it originally aired. Maybe the pilot is what made Mom such a devoted Nelson fan–it did, after all, expand Nelson’s national reputation, even before the release of the Red Headed Stranger and Stardust albums. Here is what I think Mom would have liked you to know about this 1974 Willie Nelson concert:
- Willie had been kicking around the country music world for more than a decade when he and his band, the Family, took the stage in 1974 to film the Austin City Limits pilot. He earned acclaim as a songwriter and had already released some key albums but hadn’t fully broken through as a national artist. That was about to change, perhaps in part to the broadcast of this show on PBS.
- You quickly get the sense that, whether Nelson had any sense for the level of success he’d ultimately achieve, he had already had an epiphany that this artistic path he was on was solid and he was determined to follow it.
- Nelson’s band, the Family, is with him every step of the way during this performance. This includes pianist Bobbie (Nelson’s sister); bassist Dan “Bee” Spears; harmonica player Mickey Raphael; electric guitarist Jody Payne; and cape-wearing drummer Paul English. The loose-but-tight telepathy of these musicians is jaw-dropping and would remain so for decades. These band members were crucial to Nelson’s success, and he knew it.
- Speaking of jaw-dropping, Nelson’s guitar-playing (on his beloved guitar Trigger, already looking beat in 1974), is otherworldly throughout the performance.
- The setlist is an intriguing mix of songs not written by Nelson but strongly associated with him (Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River”, Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan’s “Stay All Night”); Nelson classics (“Crazy”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”); lesser-known, odder Nelson tunes (“Devil in a Sleeping Bag”); and, of course, some gospel rave-ups (Ada R. Habershon’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, James Milton Black’s “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder”).
- Nelson’s solo rendition of his friend Leon Russell’s often-covered “A Song for You” is mesmerizing.
Austin City Limits: Country is, overall, a tremendously entertaining collection that represents a long and often perfect marriage of music and television. Come for Reba or Toby or Brad or whoever you love best. But stay for Willie in 1974.