This is a big week for "Austin City Limits." Saturday marks the premiere of the 40th season of the landmark PBS television show — not to mention the 12th year of the music festival that kicks off Friday.
On the eve of the festival, it’s easy to get lost in the hubbub of planning and forget that "Austin City Limits" has been a local institution for four decades. But how did "Austin City Limits" go from Willie Nelson singing "Whiskey River" on the 1974 pilot to an internationally recognized phenomenon that includes a two-weekend festival with headliners like Eminem and Skrillex?
For that we turn to Tracey Laird, author of Austin City Limits: A History, which was released this week — just in time for the landmark anniversary premiere. Austin City Limits: A History is a 10-year labor of love in which Laird tells the full story of the "Austin City Limits" brand, one that's also the story of Austin and our city's dedication to developing its kaleidoscope musical culture.
Though she's not a native Texan (Laird was born in Shreveport, Louisiana and currently resides in Georgia), "Austin City Limits" has long been part of Laird's life. "Certain parts of [my] life can be marked by who was on Austin City Limits at the time," says Laird, a professor of music at Agnes Scott College.
After writing about another landmark musical program, Louisiana Hayride, Laird's interest in "Austin City Limits" resurfaced when, in 2002, she spoke on a panel regarding its then 30-year significance. That re-ignited fascination led to an additional decade of research for the newly released book.
In Austin City Limits: A History, Laird packs 40 years of history (and that decade of research) into a short, entertaining read full of interesting tidbits and a compelling narrative. To fully grasp the legend of "Austin City Limits," Laird doesn't just tap into people's stories — she embarks on an expansive history of both the television show and the festival.
The book begins by explaining the popularity of Austin’s progressive country scene in the 1970s and how booking Willie Nelson for the pilot episode was a monumental decision. Building off of Nelson and other local “cosmic cowboy” artists gave Austin City Limits the attention it needed to start attracting a wider audience and a broader spectrum of musical styles, Laird explains. As a result, ACL moved away from showcasing local progressive country tunes within the first two seasons, but never lost sight of its inherently "Austin" roots.
The innate ability to honor its heritage while also looking to the next music trend, Laird says, is the magic “balance” that has kept Austin City Limits on the air for 40 years and let the name grown into a nationally recognized brand. “'Austin City Limits,'" Laird says, "creates a space where Willie Nelson can be there and Eminem is at the festival.”
As the “Austin City Limits” experience moves and evolves, it never forgets where it all began. Former KLRU general manager Bill Arhos, the man credited with “creating” ACL, had a business card in the '90s that described the show’s genre as “free form country folk rock science fiction gospel gum existential bluegrass guacamole opera music.” Even now the phrase could not be more true to the spirit of "Austin City Limits" and the music that the show and the festival embrace year after year.
This weekend, whether you’re at Zilker Park for the Austin City Limits Music Festival, at home watching the 40th season premiere with Beck, take the time to remember your roots. You live in Austin — and “ACL” is as much a part of this city as Austin is a part of its name.
You can find Austin City Limits: A History by Tracey E. W. Laird at BookPeople or at Barnes and Noble.