‘Austin City Limits’ On a Pedestal

Austin City Limits has defined how music is experienced through television for 40 years. This is a look back at a cultural institution that has always pushed forward.

PBS’s long-running live music showcase, Austin City Limits, has built up a considerable amount of cultural cache in its 40 distinct, multi-faceted seasons, garnering a level of respect both in music and broadcasting circles rivaled by exactly no one. Tracey E.W. Laird, music professor and critic, has composed Austin City Limits: A History to honor the cultural institution during its four-decade anniversary. The book is a laudatory and reverent examination of the television show’s legacy unlike any before, and though it’s incredibly succinct and unerringly devout to the show and its crew, a more fitting tribute to such an important American musical touchstone could hardly be imagined.

Austin City Limits: A History offers a lively and concise telling of the behind-the-scenes history of Austin City Limits and its relationship to popular music, broadcasting, the music festival which began in 2002 that bears its name, the city of Austin and the cultural identity of Texas as a whole (the show is, according to the author, Austin’s “most famous cultural representative”). Laird explores the details of not only how the show came to exist but also what it stands for within American culture, how it has evolved since that first season and under what circumstances it has managed to stick around for so long. This makes the book as analytical as it is informative—the mark of quality non-fiction writing.

The book explores the details of the existence of Austin City Limits on a markedly personal level, gathering backstories and interviews of relevant crew members with decades of experience working for the show. From camera operators, directors, audio engineers and lighting technicians, Laird examines the technical achievements of the show through the people who made it happen. She breaks down the flow of the set, what’s involved in the pre- and post-production, and how the “live” feel of the broadcast is nearly impossible to emulate for others (specifically late night talk shows, music award ceremonies, and slews of other live music showcases that came and went over the years).

Laird shares snippets of Austin City Limits press releases to reveal how the show marketed itself, and how even that evolved, from representing Austin’s singular progressive country scene, eventually broadening to “roots” and “Americana” music, and finally proclaiming what it has become today: a broad, inclusive showcase of some of the best contemporary and traditional music, big and small, from all genres and styles. (“Austin City Limits programming never did fall readily into a neat and tidy relationship with the vocabulary available to describe it,” the author admits). Laird avoids generalizing or speculating for the most part; Austin City Limits: A History is full of interesting details from behind-the-scenes—facts and opinions straight from the sources—making it as involved with the broadcasting process as with the impact of Austin City Limits on music and television culture.

Regrettably, the book itself can feel at times like an extended press release, its author invariably positive and aggressively congratulatory toward the show and it’s staff. Laird praises effectively every aspect of the TV show in turn, making sure to note how distinguished and exceptional every member of the production crew are to have made something so pure, impeccable and timeless. It can get aggravating to hear such unadulterated commendation for everything on the show without a single dissonant note, but Laird is obviously a true fan, and her passion does come through.

However, the one-dimensionality of the book makes it sometimes feel less like “A History” (a title which lends the book an air of objectivity) and more like an advocate gushing over the work of a dear friend or close family member, but the amount of detail and research involved elevates it through the pseudo-promotional monotony. Laird may not paint a broad or inclusive picture of the Austin City Limits legacy, but she creates a concentrated and organized account with a great depth of information, and perhaps that’s exactly what the show deserves. Still, with all the talk about how Austin City Limits “runs counter to commercial TV logic”, one would expect slightly more nuance in the unfolding of the story.

But again, Laird’s passion is the driving force of the book. It’s this enthusiasm, in fact, that elicits one compelling thematic statement above all others, derived from the author’s sterling analysis of a single defining component of American music across the ages: stylistic fragmentation. This is evoked several ways. Laird explains how the Austin music scene in the ‘70s and progressive country music as a whole (shaped by delegates like Willie Nelson) had to strike a balance between country music’s traditionalism and rock music’s innovations—not to mention English, German, Hispanic, Cajun and African American influences—while the Austin City Limits show itself was forced to balance a need for national appeal with the local and regional flavor that made it unique in the first place.

The author makes a passing mention of how the show operates in the digital era, when one can find hours of clips, snippets and stray episodes of the show on the internet in moments, pulling a viewer back into 1979 to watch Tom Waits perform a single gruff ballad or back only a couple weeks ago to a full episode they may have missed. She also considers how Austin City Limits, a show without a strictly defined demographic, is allowed to exist on television when TV shows and channels have split indefinitely into tighter and shallower areas of interest: shopping, cooking, golf, etc. Laird explains that, “In its design Austin City Limits already fits well with the fragmented attention generally attributed to television audiences,” accounting for its singularity.

The story of Austin City Limits is much like the story of American art as a whole in that way: building from the pieces of disparate worlds to create new ones. As time has gone on, this story of innovation has only become a more prevalent force in modern life. One remaining comfort in the exciting age of increasingly unpredictable political, social and artistic fragmentation is that Austin City Limits is still around, committed to many of the same values with which it began 40 years ago. Most importantly, it’s still pushing music—and the way its experienced through television—forward, and Laird, for her part, captures that detail perfectly.

RATING 8 / 10