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‘Austin City Limits’ Style Still Evolving After 35 Years

October 20, 2009 at 4:49 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown reports on the 35th anniversary of "Austin City Limits," the longest-running music series in television history.
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JEFFREY BROWN: On a recent Saturday in Austin, Texas, over the course of many hours, the equipment was loaded in and instruments set up. Sound system, lights, cameras were ready, as producers made last-minute adjustments, and then the band Pearl Jam took off for what turned out to be a special night for fans and the group.

EDDIE VEDDER, musician: God, this room here, it’s like driving an old Buick. It just… So, if you think we’re just going to play maybe one or two more songs, you’re wrong. They’re going to have to kick us out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, Eddie Vedder and the other members of Pearl Jam, one of the world’s leading rock ‘n’ roll bands for almost 20 years, have played in every kind of venue, including huge arenas.

But this night, with a new album atop the sales charts, they played for just 300, an intimate setting with wonderful acoustics on the famous wooden stage of “Austin City Limits,” taping a show for the PBS music program’s 35th anniversary year, the longest-running music series in American television history.

TERRY LICKONA, producer, “Austin City Limits”: But “Austin City Limits” started out as essentially a homegrown Austin and Texas music show.

JEFFREY BROWN: Terry Lickona has been at the helm for all but the first few years.

TERRY LICKONA: At the time, the Austin music scene was really beginning to take root. Willie Nelson had moved back to Texas from Nashville. There were clubs were just popping up like mushrooms. And a scene was developing.

Some called it progressive country, as a counterpoint to Nashville. And nobody had any illusions about the show lasting more than maybe a couple of seasons, and it would be a fun ride while it did.

JEFFREY BROWN: Willie Nelson, a local hero, was the star of the first show and helped define the program.

But Lickona realized that “ACL,” as they call it here, had to diversify to build an audience. And, over the years, the show has featured a wide array of talents.

A showcase for 'originality'

TERRY LICKONA: The primary criteria that I apply is originality. I look for an artist or a band or a singer or a songwriter or a musician who is expressing themselves in a unique and very original way through their music.

JEFFREY BROWN: In an age of over-the-top production of MTV-style fast-paced edits, "ACL" held on to a simple formula: Present those original voices just as in a live concert. That drew fans and also influenced a generation of musicians.

BEN HARPER, musician: "Austin City Limits," I think, was probably our generation's "Grand Ole Opry." I mean, and it's been that important to my musical awareness and musical appreciation.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of today's leading stars, Ben Harper, remembers watching "ACL" as a kid in Southern California. Making it there himself, he says, was a dream, as was the way he was treated. "ACL"'s producers give performers room to put on the show they want.

BEN HARPER: Not only do they give you that kind of a leeway when you're putting your set together. When it's done, they let you hear it. They let you take part in song selection, in edit points, in, you know, mix suggestions.

I mean, it's not to the point of censorship, but they're open to suggestion. "Oh, I think this song was strong. I think the second half of the song was stronger. This song went on too long. You can cut it here and save time. You know, if you edit these three songs, you can get a fourth song in."

And it's -- they're -- it's family. It is. It's family.

JEFFREY BROWN: A performance on "ACL" is even more important if you're still working to build a following.

Carolyn Wonderland, an Austin-based musician, made her first appearance last year.

CAROLYN WONDERLAND, musician: Subsequently, folks have been showing up to clubs where we would occasionally just draw the sound man and his girlfriend in the past. And they still took a chance on us. People show up now. And most of them say that it's because they saw us on "Austin City Limits."

JOHNNY CASH, musician: Hello. I'm Johnny Cash. Good evening.

JEFFREY BROWN: Johnny Cash, of course, didn't need a boost when he came in 1987. But, says Terry Lickona, being part of this was important to him.

TERRY LICKONA: I will never forget. I can remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday backstage in the corner right before Johnny came out to do the show. And he seemed a little bit restless. And I asked him if there was something he needed, maybe some water or whatever.

And he -- he shook his hands and said: "No. You know, I'm just a little anxious because I know this is a real music show. And I want to get it right."

JEFFREY BROWN: Earlier this month, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame went so far as to designate the "ACL" studio at KLRU-TV on the campus of the University of Texas as an historic site.

Hall of Fame CEO Terry Stewart:

TERRY STEWART, chief executive officer, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: It just became evident that here's a show, the longest-running musical show in history on television, that had chronicled some of the greatest artists in the world of what we call rock 'n' roll, even though others might not understand that this big tent that we celebrate at the museum in Cleveland includes country, jazz, blues, hip-hop, rhythm and blues, and this -- that's -- and bluegrass. That's what these folks here have been doing.

A stage with 'a magic of its own'

JEFFREY BROWN: "ACL" Has faced its share of funding problems over the years, losing corporate and other support.

It got a big boost in 2002, when Austin City Limits the festival began. KLRU licensed the name to a private company, expanding the brand and bringing in new funds. Today, the three-day festival has grown into one of the largest in the country.

This year, 65,000 fans a day sloshed around in the mud to hear more than 125 groups, including this year's headliner, Pearl Jam.

After rehearsing in the "ACL" studio, though, band members told us the small stage has a magic of its own.

MUSICIAN: It's obvious, just having sound check, like, you know, whenever we play a place like this and the sound is this good, you're like, how can we make -- take this on the road?

MUSICIAN: Yes.

MUSICIAN: How with can we like package this up and put it in an arena setting? So, it's musical, which is huge.

JEFFREY BROWN: Still, bass player Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron, veteran rock stars, had a case of nerves.

MUSICIAN: And you're imagining Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt and all those guys up here playing shows. So, it's pretty cool. There's a lot of vibe in this room.

MUSICIAN: You have got to bring it.

MUSICIAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have got to bring it?

MUSICIAN: You have got to bring it.

JEFFREY BROWN: A few hours later, Pearl Jam did indeed bring it, in a performance scheduled to air in November.

As for "Austin City Limits" itself, it's shaking things up. After next season, it moves to a brand-new theater, much bigger and up-to-date. But its producers vow, the sound, the style and the show will go on as always.

JEFFREY BROWN: On our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org, we have extended interviews with "ACL" producer Terry Lickona and several musicians. And you can watch performances by Pearl Jam, Ben Harper, the Dave Matthews Band, and others.

Also, two online-only features tonight: on health care, an interview with the head of the Children's Hospital in Denver on the overhaul effort, the latest in our series of "Voices of Health Reform." And, on our Business Desk, Paul Solman explains how unemployment can keep rising while the economy is growing.