40 Fantastic Years

Austin City Limits kicks off 40th season with star-studded primetime special

Austin City Limits kicks off 40th season with star-studded prim

Austin City Limits 40th anniversary taping willie nelson
Willie and friends perform "Texas Flood."  Photo by: Scott Newton
Eric Church Austin City Limits Debut Performance
Eric Church's debut performance.  Photo by: Scott Newton
Brittany Howard Bonnie Raitt Austin City Limits
Bonnie Raitt, Gary Clark Jr. perform on the ACL stage.  Photo by Scott Newton
Austin City Limits 40th anniversary taping willie nelson
Eric Church Austin City Limits Debut Performance
Brittany Howard Bonnie Raitt Austin City Limits

Austin City Limits' recipe for success is seemingly simple: invite some of the best musical acts in the world to perform in an intimate setting and have a talented crew thoughtfully film it all. Those basic ingredients have resulted in the longest-running music series in American television history (not to mention thousands of hours of great entertainment).

This season, the show celebrates four decades since its groundbreaking 1974 pilot, an occasion that has already been marked by several special events, including the first ever Austin City Limits Hall of Fame event and an all-star 40th anniversary concert.

On October 3, a two-hour primetime special featuring footage from both events airs across the country as part of the PBS Arts Fall Festival. Hosted by Sheryl Crow, Jeff Bridges and Matthew McConaughey, "Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years" includes performances by Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Randolph, Lyle Lovett, Gary Clark Jr., Jimmie Vaughan and Robert Earl Keen.  

And on the following night, the 40th season of Austin City Limits premieres with an hour-long performance by Beck (who headlines Austin City Limits Music Festival this weekend). The landmark season includes performances by Ed Sheeran, Nine Inch Nails, Valerie June, The Avett Brothers, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Sam Smith and Eric Church.

 "I'm looking for an artist, or band, who has a unique way of expressing their music," says Terry Lickona, executive producer. 

Church is one of several artists making his Austin City Limits debut this year. At his September 23 taping, the country outlaw had the at-times-rowdy crowd on its feet for most of his 18-song set, which featured his biggest hits and a few new tracks from his latest record, The Outsiders.

A long-time fan of the show, Church says he got hooked on an episode featuring singer-songwriter Iris DeMent. "What I’ve always loved about the music element part of [the show is] that it didn’t matter how successful somebody was or whether they had sold a bunch of records or had much radio play," he says. "It was about the art and I’ve always respected that."

Willie Nelson was the first of many legendary performers to sing on the show, a fact not lost on first-time performer Church. "I don’t ever get really nervous or anxious, but I was a little nervous [about the taping], and that’s out of respect because of that stage ... and the type of artists that have been on it."

The experience, Church says, is one he will never forget. "This goes on that handful of special nights. The first time I played the Opry was one and playing with George Strait during his last shows ... I have a few of them, but this certainly goes in that category of one of the most special things we have done."

Like those before him, Church was handpicked by Executive Producer Terry Lickona. "My most important criteria is originality," Lickona explains. "I'm looking for an artist, or band, who has a unique way of expressing their music — whether through their singing, songwriting or virtuosity, or a combination of all three." 

Each season, Lickona melds musical styles and genres with a healthy mix of well-known artists and newcomers. "It's always been a showcase for discovering truly original artists you probably won't find anywhere else — and that is certainly a part of ACL's appeal," Lickona says.

"I'm thrilled to have Beck as our season premiere at a time when he's making and performing the best music of his career," Lickona says of this season. "Valerie June is also a personal favorite."

The show's spectacular programming has kept audiences tuning in for four decades, and artists coveting the opportunity to go down in ACL history. "I loved it," Church says of his time on the stage. "There was a point when I think we all lost ourselves in the show — and that’s what it’s about."

Below is the schedule for the anniversary special and the first eight episodes of Austin City Limits' 40th season.

  • October 3: Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years (9-11pm ET)
  • October 4: Beck
  • October 11: Ed Sheeran | Valerie June
  • October 18: Nine Inch Nails
  • October 25: Tweedy
  • November 1: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds 
  • November 8: Los Lobos | Thao & The Get Down Stay Down
  • November 15: Eric Church | J. Roddy Walston & The Business
  • November 22: ACL Presents: Americana Music Festival 2014