37 years ago, Austin City Limits was founded to be the visual accompaniment to a book called The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock by Texas author Jan Reed. The book set out to chronicle the formation of the Austin, TX music scene that transpired in the late 60’s and into the 70’s, along with its many artists and side characters.
As time went on and it became evident that what was happening in Austin wasn’t just a “scene,” but one of America’s most important and influential movements in music, Studio 6A on the University of Texas campus was commandeered to help capture these amazing artists in their own time in hopes of further preserving the legacy of Austin’s musical heritage. The tapings were shown on the local PBS affiliate KLRU, and as interest in the Austin City Limits program expanded, eventually it began to be broadcast nationwide.
Over the years ACL branched out to include many national acts, but up until recently, the program rarely strayed from their duties of preserving the legacy of Austin music, and stuck mostly to the country and roots realm. During the early 2000’s, “Austin City Limits” began to be seen as a powerful, nationally-recognized music brand despite its not-for-profit, PBS roots, and ACL launched a big music festival and began bringing in larger, non roots acts for show tapings—artists and bands that didn’t need the ACL boost, and didn’t have ties to Austin like Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, Cheap Trick, and Coldplay—while some artists seminal to the Austin music scene seemed to be ignored.
ACL brought on big corporate sponsors like Budweiser, Lexus, and Dell Computers. During their 30th season, they axed their long-running theme song: Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues.” They also moved out of the small studio on the UT campus into a multi million-dollar facility in downtown Austin, complete with luxury boxes for the show’s corporate donors and Austin’s power elite. ACL Fest is now a two weekend festival, rivaling in size, revenue, and attendance any of the massive corporate music festivals around the country.
But continuing on the 2013 theme of positivity, Austin City Limits has decided to finally give a taping to arguably one of the most important performers in Austin’s current country scene, Dale Watson. On November 25th, ACL will bring in what they call “Austin’s king of country music” in a show that will also include fast-rising country star and native Texan Kacey Musgraves.
Over the last few years, Dale Watson has become synonymous with Austin music, playing multiple gigs a week when in town at some of Austin’s most legendary venues and honky tonks like The Broken Spoke, The Continental Club, and Ginny’s Little Longhorn that Dale Watson recently paid to keep open. But the Austin City Limits invite always alluded him except for a small appearance on a songwriter showcase, despite being an obvious pick for a featured artist on the show. A Facebook page was even started over the issue. Just like another Texas legend, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Dale made his initial network television debut this year not on the Austin City Limits stage, but some 1,800 miles away in New York City on the Late Show with David Letterman (though Hubbard did appear as Hayes Carll’s guest once on ACL), showing just how juxtaposed the television outlets for country and roots music have become.
Recently another roots show that still caters to up-and-coming acts called Music City Roots, located at The Loveless Cafe in Nashville announced they will begin to be broadcast through PBS stations. A lot of the same spirit that initially surrounded Austin City Limits seems to be embodied in what Music City Roots is trying to build today.
Without question Austin City Limits still, and has always showcased excellent country and roots talent from Austin and beyond, regardless of the big, international names they may court in any given broadcast season. But doesn’t it always seem the way of things—when something gets swept up in growing, they lose their focus, and the heart and spirit of where they started. But just like Old Crow Medicine Show being asked to join the Grand Ole Opry, or Dale Watson’s ACL show mate Kacey Musgraves getting nominated for as many CMA Awards as anyone this year, 2013 has been a year full of re-trenchings, of re-affirmations and reflections on what is important in roots music, and making sure what is most important is being preserved and pushed forward by entities not always known for doing so.
To artists from Texas and beyond, the Austin City Limits stage is a hallowed as any. Kudos to ACL for finally giving Dale Watson his due. Now if we could just get Ray Wylie Hubbard….