The History, Representation, and Unmatched Success of Austin City Limits

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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Summer 2020 Issue

The longstanding and historic success of PBS’ weekly live music show, Austin City Limits (ACL), is something not even its creators could have envisioned. Founded in 1974, and still airing, the TV show has broken records, breached genres, and continuously reminded us what good music sounds and feels like.

Featuring hundreds of musicians, from Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King to Radio Head and St. Vincent, ACL’s 40-plus-year evolution has included numerous genres and memorable performances. Much to its credit, Austin City Limits is now the longest-running music program in television history and an important and vital component to the Austin music scene.

In 1974, PBS called for original programming from its member stations—this included KLRN-TV (later KLRU-TV) in Austin. Austin City Limits became the response to this request and was the brainchild of program director Bill Arhos, producer Paul Bosner, and director Bruce Scafe. Originally, ACL was intended to showcase Austin’s musical diversity through country, folk, blues, and psychedelic acts. Its name, now a recognizable brand, came from a sign Bosner drove past each week on his commute from Dallas. Equipped with both a name and mission, the pilot for Austin City Limits was shot on October 17, 1974, and starred Willie Nelson.

Austin City Limits has experienced an evolution of music and featured genres since its inception. Still, one key element has remained and kept artists coming back: performers on ACL have freedom and control over what and how they sing and play. This freedom prompts authenticity and produces raw, unique, and captivating performances.

The show’s many female artists include Joan Baez, Marcia Ball, Björk, Brandi Carlile, June Carter Cash, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, the Dixie Chicks, Florence + the Machine, Indigo Girls, Etta James, Norah Jones, Miranda Lambert, Loretta Lynn, Kacey Musgraves, Dolly Parton, and more. This level of representation over numerous decades on a nationally broadcasted network aids in the growth of female artists receiving the exposure and accolades they have so long deserved.

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Some of the male heavy hitters to take the ACL stage three or more times include Chet Atkins, Beck, Ray Charles, Guy Clark, Gary Clark Jr., Rodney Crowell, Charlie Daniels Band, Fats Domino, Vince Gill, Buddy Guy, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Los Lobos, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Carl Perkins, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, and many others.

Austin City Limits’ ability to encompass and represent such a broad scope of artists and musicians is a tribute to its creators, staff, and the Austin music scene. This inclusive and evolving element is what may also contribute to ACL’s unmatched capability to transcend time and become a television show not of just one generation, but six and counting. Due to this lengthy success, Austin City Limits has become the only television show to have been awarded the National Medal of the Arts. ACL has also been deemed by Time magazine as one of the ten most influential music programs of all time and has been enshrined as a Rock & Roll Landmark at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Now with its own music festival and Hall of Fame, Austin City Limits continues to grow, showcasing the outstanding musical and cultural influence of Austin, the current and past generations’ sound, and what musical performance programming is truly capable of when it’s inclusive and willing to evolve.

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