While flipping through channels, true music fans will always pause on Austin City Limits as soon as they see that signature skyline backdrop. Longtime viewers might have seen Willie Nelson in the 1975 pilot episode. It’s almost impossible to fathom the country music stars who have graced the stage since then.
Now the PBS staple is moving — to a new downtown theater which should be ready in the next two or three years. The black, rectangular, wooden stage is going, too. There’s no way you could leave something like that behind.
“It weighs heavy on your mind the whole time you play that this is no less important than recording an album, as far as securing a record of who you are as a performer,” says Brad Paisley, whose third episode aired in January. “It’s a real humbling experience having seen the high points hit on that stage by legendary performers over the years.”
On a quiet day in the studio, producer Terry Lickona finds a comfortable spot on the stage and explains his theory about why the show brings out the best in performers.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the freedom you feel and the casual environment that we deliberately create in this room. It’s more like another show on the road, with the exception that it’s being recorded by Austin City Limits and will live with you for the rest of your career,” he says with a laugh. “And the crowd’s great. These are music fans. These are Austin’s people who come not just because it’s a TV show. Another part of it is because of the free beer we have always served to the audience from the beginning. It loosens people up, and they don’t feel intimidated or inhibited by the TV cameras and lights.”
Of course, the feel of a concert — whether it’s relaxed or electrifying — is the hardest thing to capture on tape. Isn’t he worried that he’ll lose that in the move downtown?
“Our foremost goal, above all else, is to maintain the same vibe, the same atmosphere that was created here, that has worked so well,” says Lickona, who has produced the show for 30 years. “The last thing we want is to open this place, after all the dreams we had in the three years of designing and planning, and then have people come and say, ‘They ruined it. They had a great thing and destroyed it.’”
The new theater will hold around 2,000 people and can host concerts when the show isn’t in production. Lickona says the famous backdrop would fall apart if they tried to move it, so they’re considering a 3-D model since they now record the show in high definition. In the 1970s, about 900 people could be accommodated in the small studio located at the University of Texas. Today, due to fire regulations, only 300 seats remain.
Wait — what? The studio is on a college campus?
It often comes as a shock to viewers (and some musicians) that Austin City Limits is not filmed on a perfectly clear hilltop overlooking the twinkling city. Paisley says, “It’s like finding out that the Death Star in Star Wars was a 23-inch by 23-inch globe. It’s tiny and intimate … and indoors! And it’s on the sixth floor of a building. It is a rare treat for the few hundred who ever get tickets to these shows because you rarely get to see touring artists in that intimate of a setting.”
Consider the musicians who have performed there over the years. In the ’70s, you might have caught Texas-based musicians such as Asleep at the Wheel or Townes Van Zandt. Alabama, Reba McEntire and George Strait filmed episodes in the ’80s, and so did Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and Dwight Yoakam. The big country boom in the ’90s brought in Garth Brooks, Dixie Chicks, Vince Gill and Alan Jackson, who told Lickona that watching Austin City Limits as a kid inspired him to become a musician. More recent shows have featured Dierks Bentley, Brooks & Dunn, Toby Keith, Miranda Lambert, Dolly Parton and Keith Urban.
“I learned so much about guitar watching that show,” Paisley says. “You don’t see musical creativity on award shows or variety shows or, especially now, reality shows. They restrict you too much. But Austin City Limits is up to the artist. I loved performances by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson, the Desert Rose Band, Steve Wariner, Thom Bresh, Chet Atkins. …. I guess all the guitar greats. It’s the perfect venue for a player to stretch out.”
The series has introduced itself to a new generation with a massive music festival and a series of CDs and DVDs released by New West Records, featuring full concerts from the Austin City Limits archives. Some day, Lickona wants to post every show online after decades of being asked by viewers how they could see their favorite episode again.
“We may be one of the few places left where you can tune in and enjoy a performance of five, six or seven or more songs, as opposed to just one shot, without commercial interruptions, so it really does feel like a concert experience,” Lickona says. “Obviously, there are enough people out there who like it and keep coming back for more.”