In honor of the 40th anniversary of Austin City Limits, the longest running live music show on television, we spoke to author Tracey E. W. Laird, author of Austin City Limits: A History, about the challenges the show has faced, the ways that it has adapted to a rapidly changing music industry, and what makes ACL perennially appealing to viewers.
What is the biggest challenge that Austin City Limits (ACL) has faced over the years?
One of the show’s biggest challenges for the first 25 years was funding. In the ups and downs of the public broadcasting world, largely dependent on fundraising and philanthropy, Austin PBS affiliate KLRU could never be certain that the show’s current year would not be the last. This anxiety peaked during the mid-to-late 1990s with a change in structure for PBS program distribution. Stations that once received Austin City Limits as part of their basic subscription package suddenly had to pay extra for the show. To make matters worse, a PBS competitor, Sessions at W. 54th, launched around this time, with slicker production and full Sony underwriting (I still recall seeing Beck on that show, where his performance was interspersed with footage of him walking down the street, looking hip in an all-white suit). Ultimately, for reasons I talk about in the book, Sessions survived only 3 years. That whole crisis time — when Austin newspapers ran stories about whether or not Austin City Limits would endure — led to a major turning point when the people behind Austin City Limits made the radical decision to redefine its modus operandi.
How has ACL managed to transcend the many changes that have taken place in the way we listen to and discover music?
ACL producers made a conscious decision right around the 25th anniversary to operate differently, recognizing that changes in the television industry and in the way people engage with music demanded flexibility and openness to new ideas. The alternative was obsolescence. They very deliberately articulated the core vision and mission for the show in broad musical terms that crossed a wide range of genres. Sincerity and quality are characteristics that might apply equally to, say, Esperanza Spaulding and Brad Paisley, Grizzly Bear and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. They also conceived ACL as a musical experience that includes the core television broadcast but expands outside it as well. Festival, venue, DVD, website, and so on, are all predicated on an outlook that is open to building on that core in new ways without diluting it.
How are the live performances on Austin City Limits different from other live performances?
That “live-ness” distinguishes ACL from other examples of televised musical performance. It goes back to the show’s beginnings. Its originators were motivated mainly by their own transcendent experiences seeing live music. Trying to capture that experience has been the central goal for Austin City Limits, despite any shifts in equipment, style, or genre. That differs from the central goal for most television productions, normally to produce a highly polished end result that fits the time constraints for commercial broadcasts. They require performers to repeat a song, sometimes multiple times, to allow the best possible camera angles and to tailor a song to fit time parameters shaped by commercial rather than artistic concerns. ACL, by contrast, lets its cameras and mics capture the music that has always been center. It is so unusual to see a televised performance unfolding according to the energy and communication between musicians and a live, interactive audience. It’s so simple, yet so rare.
What is your favorite ACL performance, and why?
If I had to pick one it would probably be Tom Waits in 1979 (Season 4). Most of all, it’s a fantastic performance, but it also represents an early turning point for Austin City Limits when it sloughed off any bounded, over-determined expectations for who might appear on its stage. It also shows how important the show’s PBS context is for its long and momentous history – no other media outlet in the United States would have aired an hour of Tom Waits. It is a treasure. But, then, over the years there are so many episodes about which I might say the same. Fats Domino is another one I will never forget. Oftentimes my favorite episode is the one I’ve just seen. I recently watched an episode with Raphael Saadiq that I had missed — they had it streaming on the “acltv” website — and I was excited about his music in a way that I wouldn’t have been if I had just heard a studio recording. I had a similar experience last year when I saw a DVD of a performance by Susan Tedeschi. This happens over and over again with Austin City Limits.
What’s one of your favorite behind-the-scenes stories about ACL?
I love the stories the crew tells about their work, like when sound engineer David Hough explained how they cover up the tally lights on the cameras so that performers never know which one is feeding into the master cut. A little trick like that helps insure that the performer stays focused on performing for the audience in the room. I also love to hear crew members talk about particular shows that stand out to them. To hear them talk underscores the very personal nature of musical performance; a performance that might leave me flat can deeply move someone else. Everyone there loves the work, so it’s a joy to listen to a staff member reflect. To return to Hough, for instance, when I interviewed him he went into a kind of reverie talking about his approach to mixing the sound for a given show. He’s a wizard – the end results sound good whether you listened through a mono TV speaker in 1976 (as in the first full season) or a digital 5.1 Dolby surround sound. He has been with the show that long, and listening to a wizard talk about his magic is fascinating. Many other crew members are equally inspirational to talk with. Outside that, there are well-traveled stories, the most famous of which describes how the electricity went off just as a performance (by Kris Kristofferson) was about to begin. 800 or so people filed down six flights of stairs and out the building via flashlights and cigarette lighters, amiably singing “London Homesick Blues” together. Anecdotes don’t get much better than that.
Featured image: Night view of Austin skyline and Lady Bird Lake as seen from Lou Neff Point. Photo by LoneStarMike. CC BY 3.0n via Wikimedia Commons.