Nearly 42 years ago, Willie Nelson took the stage for the first episode of Austin City Limits. In the next four decades, that little show filmed on the University of Texas campus would go on to reshape mainstream America’s perception of country music.
The pilot episode with Nelson was just the beginning of a long battle for the show. Creator Bill Arhos knew that Austin’s blooming progressive country scene had national potential. But as with any public TV show, funding was tight.
Arhos pitched the 1974 Nelson pilot as part of the 1975 PBS pledge drive. And when the episode landed on 34 PBS stations across the country, the network cut Arhos a deal. Get five stations to support the show, and they’d green light a whole season.
With literally just minutes to spare before the deadline, the PBS affiliate station all the way in San Francisco agreed to air it. Arhos had his five stations, and his series, and country music had a new spotlight.
America’s Perception of Country Before ACL
Of course, ACL really is boundless in its scope of influence. Country music is far from the only genre to benefit from the show. Since its inception, the show has featured legends like Ray Charles and Stevie Ray Vaughan alongside new icons like Foo Fighters, Kendrick Lamar and Eric Church. And everything in between.
It’s why ACL is an official member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The only television show awarded the National Medal of Arts for its contribution to American art and culture. An icon that, more than any other single thing, defined Austin, Texas as one of the world’s music bastions.
But what it did specifically for country music goes even further. In the late 70s and early 80s, the modern perception of country music wasn’t flattering. And while the Urban Cowboy Movement helped popularize the country image, it also made it a novelty as opposed to a genuine reflection of American culture.
Music professor and historian Tracey E. W. Laird sums it up nicely in her book Austin City Limits: A History. “Country music,” writes Laird, “more commonly evoked negative images, epitomized either as dangerous as the homicidal rapist hillbillies from 1972’s Deliverance, or as simple as the cornball hayseeds hiding in the fields on TV’s Hee Haw.”
In other words, pop culture was not kind to country. And while the country world was all laughing along to Hee Haw, the prevailing notion was that, outside the core audience, they were laughing at us, not with us.
Additionally, the Nashville scene’s grip on country music had never been tighter. The 70s were one of the first big waves of pop-country crossovers. Ironically, the “pop country” of the 70s now joins the ranks of classic, traditional country to most folks. The Dolly Parton’s, Glen Campbell’s and Kenny Rogers’ of the world.
But at the time, if you weren’t Nashville, you weren’t getting heard.
Alternative Country Gets An Audience
As with all genres, there are dozens of “sub-genres” of country. But for the sake of ease, we’ll just call the kind of music getting booked on ACL “alternative country.” Because anything that wasn’t directly out of Nashville and on your radio dials was, well, the alternative.
The show started with a regional bent. After all, “Austin City Limits” was supposed to be about music from within the city limits. Country music, in particular. And the “progressive” country of artists like Nelson, Townes Van Zandt and Asleep at the Wheel fit right in.
But that didn’t mean the show turned away national acts. In fact, The Charlie Daniels Band played the third episode ever at the height of their popularity. The show’s popularity led to expansion in new TV markets. It’s unabashedly no-nonsense, stripped down style attracted musicians across the country who wanted their music, not their image, to be front and center.
As the 80s came, the show doubled down on its country brand. Of course, the bookings had always been a bit sporadic in nature. Tom Waits, Ray Charles, Flaco Jimenez, Jimmy Buffet and plenty of others made incredible appearances those first five years.
And yet acts like John Prine, Joe Ely, Guy Clark, Merle Haggard and Don Williams formed the foundation of the practically anti-pop aesthetic. The more America believed country music was all about kicker gear and getting lit in a concrete jungle of a honky-tonk, the more ACL highlighted storytellers, outlaws and classic legends.
But the show finally had the viewership and the market shares to actually make a difference. The rise of country music in the 80s may have been about Hollywood and big Nashville production on the surface, but underneath Americans were gaining a true appreciation for the heart of the country songwriter.
The show became an arbiter of country that wasn’t just popular, but really worth listening to. Even a fledgling band called Alabama got the ACL bump in 1980 on season 6, episode 7. The band struggled for 10 years prior to its 1980 appearance on the show. They went on to be one of the biggest country acts of the 80s.
The Show Spreads Its Wings
Around the time the Urban Cowboy Movement was losing ground, Austin City Limits embraced a wave of mainstream country acts. The show was no longer a funky little production out of Austin. It was a massive curator of critically lauded country.
An appearance on the show equated to a tip of the hat and a tacit endorsement of country cred. But longtime producer Terry Lickona never intended Austin City Limits to be about one specific genre or brand.
After George Strait’s 1989 appearance, the show really reached beyond the country and Americana world. The 90s brought about appearances from rockers and adult contemporary darlings, a harbinger of things to come in the 2000s.
In 2002, promoters established the Austin City Limits Music Festival. The festival gained permission to use the TV show’s name in homage to its importance. But the two entities remained largely separate.
As the festival’s popularity exploded, many of the multi-genre acts from the fairgrounds also made appearances on the show. That meant some of the world’s biggest acts from all genres found a home on an episode.
By the time the Austin City Limits show got its own new studio in downtown Austin, its legacy expanded far beyond its humble country roots. But that doesn’t mean the show left country behind. Not by a long shot. The show continues to shine a spotlight on some of Texas’ brightest songwriters alongside the world’s premier acts.
But from its humble beginnings, the country music world owes a great deal of debt to Austin City Limits. It brought the songs and sounds of a scene bursting with talent, but short on exposure, into the living rooms of countless kids looking for musical inspiration. And in doing so, it reminded America how poignant, diverse and influential country music — “America’s music” — really is.