A hall of fame is reserved for the greats: people who have made a lasting impression in the field in which they excel. The same holds true for the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame class of 2015 inductees. On Thursday night, Asleep at the Wheel, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Flaco Jimenez and Loretta Lynn were inducted by the peers who hold them in the highest regard.
Besides sheer talent, what ties all of these artists together is their contribution to America’s longest-running music television series, Austin City Limits, on which they've all appeared multiple times.
Asleep at the Wheel was featured alongside The Texas Playboys on the program’s first official show in 1976. The band has appeared on 10 more occasions. "It’s the simple things. The way they present you," Wheel leader Ray Benson says of the show’s appeal to musicians and music lovers alike. "When Willie did Austin City Limits that first year he said, 'We finally have a show where we can just play music and we don’t have to do golf jokes with Bob Hope!'"
That format helped put bands like The Wheel on the map. "It’s been incredible," Benson says. "People who have never seen us before see us on PBS. You can imagine how important it was to guys like us who didn’t get on mainstream television."
Last year, the folks behind Austin City Limits started the Hall of Fame to celebrate artists and individuals who contributed to the show’s four decades of success. Thursday night, the second round of inductees were honored.
Dwight Yoakam served as the evening’s host, and country powerhouse Patty Loveless kicked off the night by paying tribute to the woman she calls "our queen," Loretta Lynn. Lynn was not in attendance, but a video of her accepting the award was shown. Loveless flawlessly belted out "Coal Miner’s Daughter" and "Don’t Come Home a Drinkin.'" Vince Gill joined his long-time friend for a playful duet of Conway Twitty and Lynn's "After the Fire Is Gone."
An always suave and humble Lyle Lovett inducted Guy Clark and accepted the award on his behalf, calling the songwriter his friend and his hero. Lovett sang Clark’s "Step Inside This House," the first song Clark ever wrote. "That this is the first song someone ever wrote — it just isn’t fair," Lovett joked. Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell gushed with admiration for Clark, calling him "one of the best we have" before performing "Desperados Waiting for a Train" and "Black Diamond Strings."
You could feel the energy level in the theater heighten with Flaco Jimenez’s induction by Yoakam. The crowd gave Jimenez a rousing ovation as he accepted the award. The masterful accordionist and multiple Grammy winner has appeared on Austin City Limits several times, including during the show’s first season. After a sweet acceptance speech that resulted in another standing ovation, Jimenez gladly played some accordion. Joined by Los Texmaniacs, David Hidalgo and Yoakam himself, the Tex-Mex Conjunto musician tore it up.
The festivities continued as singer-songwriter Gillian Welch shared funny stories and touching remarks about her friendship with the late, great Townes Van Zandt. "Townes is gone but he is not forgotten," she said. "He saw to it with his extraordinary songwriting and artistry."
Townes' son JT Van Zandt accepted the award on his father’s behalf. JT reiterated how important it was that his father and Clark, who he said represent both sides of the songwriting coin, were inducted on the same night. And much like his father, JT sang from the heart, his eyes mostly closed, on "Nothin.'"
The night wrapped with the induction of a band that’s almost independently kept Western Swing hip. Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson accepted the award from good friend Gill. Asleep at the Wheel has evolved over the years with more than 100 musicians playing a part in its 45-year history. A crowd favorite, Benson and the band had everyone clapping during "Miles and Miles of Texas," "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66," "Take Me Back to Tulsa" and "Blues for Dixie."
And in what is becoming a Hall of Fame tradition, all of the artists returned to the stage for the big finale, Van Zandt’s "White Freightliner Blues."
Benson captured the importance of the award with a sentiment that puts it all into perspective. "It’s a great honor. I don’t know that I’ll ever be in the Country Music Hall of Fame, but it doesn’t really matter, because I’m in the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame!"