Austin City Limits is having quite a year. First, the well-known television show out of Austin, Texas teamed with Time Life to release Austin City Limits Country, select performances from more than 40 years of music on the world-famous stage. Plus, the show’s Austin City Limit Festival, which had to be cancelled last year because of the pandemic, is scheduled for two weekends in October, 1-3 and 8-10, featuring everyone from George Strait to Miley Cyrus and Modest Mouse.
The longest running music show in television history, Austin City Limits has never issued a collection of its magical musical moments for sale to the public. This special release covers 40 years of Austin City Limits, including a free Bonus DVD of the 1974 pilot episode featuring the complete Willie Nelson concert!
Performers on the 10 disc, 164 stellar performances include legends Marty Robbins, Loretta Lynn and Buck Owens to current hitmakers Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert and Brad Paisley. Additionally, there are once-in-a-lifetime collaborations like Sheryl Crow and Kris Kristofferson singing “Me and Bobby McGee,” Vince Gill and Pure Prairie League singing “Aimie,” Roger Miller singing “Old Friends” with Willie Nelson, Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam performing “Streets of Bakersfield” and Emmylou Harris singing “Crazy” with Willie Nelson, who wrote the song. In addition to the music there are exclusive interviews with many of the artists who are featured on the discs. Additionally, there is a special collectible Memory Book with photos and a history of the show.
The man who has been executive producer and the driving force behind the show for 40 years, Terry Lickona, was a young man when he joined the music show. When the original executive producer, producer and director all left because they thought the show wasn’t going to last (it originally featured only Texas music talent), he ended up as the executive producer.
“There was more to it than just that,” Lickona hastens to explain. “The original people were older than me and they had families and were concerned about job security. I was the new kid on the block, I was 26 at the time, so I wasn’t so much concerned about 10 or 20 years. I just thought it was an opportunity too good to pass up. I was the only person who had an idea of how things were run, and to be honest even I didn’t expect the show to last more than a few years. When we reached 10 we were all excited about it.”
Lickona admits that he felt that there was something special about the show that went beyond Texas music. “It seemed like it had potential to appeal to a broader audience, and we’ve managed to capture a whole lot of country music and the people who are in country music over the years.”
Lickona became producer in the show’s fourth season. He says that after the first three years they had basically featured all the prominent Texas talent and it seemed time to expand. Also word had come back to them that some of the PBS stations in other parts of the country were not that crazy about having only Texas music on the show.
“We thought adding other styles of music would increase our distribution, reach a bigger audience. We used the same formula that worked for country with the other genres so that over the years it became broader — basically anything goes as long as it’s good music and original.”
Lickona has his own philosophy as to why the show has lasted so long. “I think it’s the fact that there are no real tricks to the show. The way it operates is the same as from the beginning. We want people to come in and do their show and we try to create an environment where the artist feels comfortable. Doing TV is not natural for most people. We have an advantage of being in Austin where music is so much a part of lives and culture. We have fans who come out, they are genuine fans of the artist, and they are not intimidated by the lights and cameras, they react naturally. We let artists do what they want to do. We have a very relaxed Texas approach and it seems to work. Once the artist gets on stage, they forget they are on TV cameras and the rest is history. It sounds simple but it is genuine.”
Those who watch ACL know there are a variety of entertainers who grace the stage. That is something that Lickona strives for. And you can bet that he has either seen the artist live, seen them on video live, or had a highly trusted peer recommend them. “I look for someone who is unique and different. It’s all about the live performances. There are people who can crank out one hit after another, but when they get up on stage you don’t have auto tune and other tricks you have in the studio. We place great emphasis not just on video but the audio quality. We have always produced shows in stereo since way back.”
When you book a show there are always people you wish you could get and it just doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. Lickona says he has been fortunate to get most of the country artists, but there are a few others, like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, who are still on his wish list. He’s not giving up, however, because he says sometimes he just wears them down and say yes. Once they come on the show, they always wish they had said yes sooner.
“When Johnny Cash came to do the show, even though he was late for rehearsals, he went around to shake hands with every member of our crew and introduced himself before he started the rehearsal. Right before the show he was standing backstage, looking fidgety and a little nervous. I was about to go out and introduce him so I walked up and asked if he needed a drink of water or something, and he said ‘I know this is a real music show and I want to get it right.’ At this point he was a legend, he had had his own music show, so to me that meant a lot when someone like Johnny Cash said he wanted to get it right.”
Another special remembrance for Lickona is the only time Roger Miller did the show. “He and Willie were great friends. That was at the time when Willie was shining bright, and he was afraid if he came he might create a commotion. I told him we could go in this place where no one would know he was there. So we climbed up these spiral stairs, and on the catwalk above the stage, and stood there for half of the show looking down. It was special for me that no one down there in the audience knew he was there. Roger knew he was there and he called him out, and Willie went down to do a couple songs with him.”
Austin City Limits is one of those shows that new artists look forward to being on. Lickona remembers that Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves, who grew up in Texas, were nervous but really flattered to be on. Garth Brooks was another artist who had a history with the show because he grew up watching it with his dad. “Garth told me that getting to do it was like getting to play the world series. It still blows my mind an artist like that, an artist of that statue, would say something like that. Alan Jackson told me where he grew up the only TV they could get was local stations and PBS. He would watch ACL and he would see heroes like George Jones, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. He said that watching our show made him want to be a country singer.”
Lickona says watching the footage from the DVD set brought back a lot of memories. “I shouldn’t brag but over the years we’ve only had two major technical problems. One with Alabama, when the sound system blew up. It just went off grids and we had to stop the show. It took an hour to get it back up and running so we could get that show in the can.
“When Kris Kristofferson was there with his whole band, it was our eighth season, there was a lot of excitement about him being there. The place was packed. I was about five words away from saying ‘Please welcome Kris Kristofferson,’ and the lights went out. We kept thinking surely the lights will come back on any second, so five minutes went by, then 15, then we got the message that the entire UT campus was blacked out with some major power failure. We waited half an hour, then found flashlights so we could lead everyone out the door and down the stairs in single file by flashlight. Kris was so kind, he said ‘I don’t have a show tomorrow night so lets’ try to do it again.’ So he came back the next night and we did our show.”
With Austin City Limits closing in on its 50th anniversary, Lickona’s goal is to get through the pandemic, then figure out what they will do for that anniversary. His outlook on music is very positive. “I definitely think music is in good shape. I think it will survive the pandemic and come out stronger than ever. The people who work in the live music industry really suffered the most, crews who go out with touring acts, people involved in production, but once we get back to business I think they will get back to what they love to do the most and things will be fine. There may be a lot of adjustment and it may not ever be the same. When it comes to streaming shows, that didn’t exist before. There’s nothing quite like being there in person with thousands of other people. On the other hand, if you are of a certain age and like the streaming you can do that. Hopefully ACL will continue to lead the way to bring live music into people’s homes.”
For those interested in attending the Austin City Limits Festival the weekends of October 1-3 and October 8-10 in Zilker Park in Austin, go to https://www.aclfestival.com for more information. The festival will feature eight stages and over 130 bands, including Asleep at the Wheel, Tanya Tucker, George Strait ,Miley Cyrus, Band of Horses, LeAnn Rimes, Jon Pardi, Modest Mouse, Samantha Sanchez, KennyHoopla and Calder Allen.