10 Best Country Music Performances on Austin City Limits

YouTube/Austin City Limits

Some of the best performances on Austin City Limits have been from country music artists.

When the pilot for Austin City Limits (ACL) aired on Oct. 14, 1974, no one knew it would become as iconic as it is now. The show was originally pitched to PBS as a pledge drive, where its success as a fundraiser earned it a permanent spot on the network’s schedule. 

ACL has become the longest-running music series in American television history, bringing fans across the country 40 years of televised performances. And, since its inception has grown to become a music festival and a permanent venue, ACL Live at Austin’s Moody Theatre.

Some of the best names in country music have shared the spotlight on ACL’s stage. Here are our 10 favorite performances:

10. Reba McEntire – 1998

Flickr/Connor Conundrum

Reba McEntire has come a long way since Red Steagall brought her to Nashville in 1974. She’s won numerous awards and had a rewarding acting career. Between the mid-1980s and 1990, Reba’s music career was being catapulted towards superstardom. Her 1988 performance on ACL followed the release of her double-platinum album Reba.

9. George Jones – 1990

The 1990’s were a turning point in country music. George Jones saw himself losing airplay to the younger, pop-influenced country. It was also during this time when he dropped his record label, Epic, and switched to MCA after an unsuccessful release of You Oughta Be Here With Me. His 1990 performance at ACL was his last before disappearing from the charts.

8. Allison Krauss – 1995

Flickr/Ethan Lundgaard

Alison Krauss is one talented lady. At the age of 13 she won the Walnut Valley Festival Fiddle Championship and was named her the “Most Promising Fiddle Player in the Midwest.” Her success only grew from then. Two years after being the then-youngest cast member of the Grand Ole Opry she released an album of her older songs and covers in 1995. Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection became Krauss’ first double-platinum album, leading her to an ACL appearance in 1995.

7. Merle Haggard – 1978

With eight ACL performances on his resume, it’s tough to pick his best, but our favorite is 1978. Merle Haggard and his band, The Strangers, helped create the twangy Bakersfield Sound. In the 70’s, Haggard’s popularity was growing with the popular outlaw country movement.

6. Waylon Jennings – 1985


The 80s proved to be a productive, yet not necessarily successful decade for Waylon Jennings. In 1985, he joined with USA for Africa to record “We Are The World” but never finished the project because he didn’t want to sing it in Swahili. He also appeared in the live-action Sesame Street film, “Follow That Bird”, as a turkey farm truck driver in 1985. That same year he happened to appear on Sesame Street and ACL, he recorded Turn The Page completely drug-free.

5. George Strait – 1982

Flickr/Craig O’Neal

George Strait’s 1981 debut album, Strait Country, had three singles that stayed on the country charts until the 1990s. In 1982, he released another album, Strait from the Heart, which featured his first number one hit. The critical acclaim of his second release landed him a spot on ACL.

4. Hank Williams Jr. – 1980

Hank Williams Jr. played ACL at the peak of his career. Nashville was reluctant about his sound and he gradually accepted it, but regardless, there was no way he could be ignored. Between 1979 and 1992, Williams released 21 albums that were all certified gold. 

3. Loretta Lynn – 1983

Loretta Lynn’s 1983 ACL performance showcased her in her prime. Lynn released her last solo Top 10 album, I Lie, in 1982. She followed that up with the unsuccessful album, Lyin’, Cheatin’, Woman Chasin’, Honky Tonkin’, Whiskey Drinkin’ You the year she performed on ACL.

2. Garth Brooks – 1990

Garth Brooks had a breakthrough year in 1989. He released his first album, Garth Brooks, which peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart and No. 13 on Billboard’s Pop charts. The following year, Brooks released No Fences, solidifying his status as a powerful force in country music. His 1990 performance on ACL showed the world his gung-ho live performances.

1. Willie Nelson – 1974

Willie Nelson wasn’t yet the iconic figure he is today when the first taping of ACL took place. He was the only performer on the show’s first episode in 1974. That same year, he released a concept album about a couple’s divorce titled Phases and Stages. The next year he went on tour to promote his next release where he raised funds PBS-affiliated stations in the south while promoting ACL. The rest is history.

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10 Best Country Music Performances on Austin City Limits