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Giving New Country Music Its Due

Long-running 'Austin City Limits' hosts hot Western acts - and a whole lot more

BANJO music seldom strays from hillbilly and bluegrass traditions, and Bela Fleck can fingerpick those styles with the best.

In his performance for an upcoming episode of "Austin City Limits," though, the banjo man makes an exhilarating flight into the jazz cosmos, delivering not a single stereotyped banjo lick.

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This kind of cross-pollination of musical styles occurs regularly on the show, which is produced out of Austin by KLRU, the city's Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) affiliate.

Clearly "Austin City Limits," whose 17th season starts Jan. 18, has evolved since its beginnings in the mid-1970s. Then, it served as a vehicle to export Austin's thriving musical scene to the rest of the nation. Musicians from all over the South flocked here because audiences were open to frisky new styles that kicked down the stall doors of shopworn Nashville formulas. Also, rents in the city were low, making it easier for performers to focus on their music, says Don McLeese, pop music critic for the A ustin American-Statesman.

Many of those musicians weren't "country" at heart, says William Arhos, who proposed the idea for "Austin City Limits" and remains its executive producer at KLRU. The collaboration that occured as they played together gave rise to rockabilly and "progressive country."

ACL's debut in 1976 cemented the city's reputation as the capital of "outlaw" country music.

But within a few seasons, ACL began to reach further afield for talent. "We've got several constituencies to serve," notes ACL producer Terry Lickona.

He and Mr. Arhos strive these days for a blend of nationally recognizable country-and-western performers, up-and-comers, home-grown singer-songwriters, and others difficult to categorize. The 17th season has its share of country headliners, and in addition it features Latino rock, zydeco, blues, jazz, bluegrass, and folk performances.

ACL is celebrated for being ahead of the pack in giving performers like Grammy-winner Bonnie Raitt a national platform. But while Mr. Lickona continues to scout local clubs for rising stars, he prefers they get their first break elsewhere. He looks for performers who already have a major-label recording contract or some independent releases, and who are managed well.

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"We just try to keep our ear to the ground," Arhos says.

Melinda Ward, the director of performance, drama, and cultural programming at PBS, says: "Billy Arhos and those people have an incredible eye for talent." She was barely interested a few years ago when Arhos gushed about a new performer, Garth Brooks, who has since made it big.

"Now, of course, we know," Ms. Ward says, laughing.

The performance list from previous seasons reads like a musical Who's Who: Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette, George Strait, Tanya Tucker, etc. Lesser-known musicians clamor to perform on ACL and shower Lickona with recordings of their garage sessions. Louisiana native Marcia Ball, who pounds out "Gulf Coast rhythm and blues" at the keyboards, counts her appearances on the show among the three best breaks of her career.

"From Ottawa to San Diego, people say, 'I saw you on 'Austin City Limits'; that's why I came out," Ms. Ball says.

Yet even top-draw talent receives union-scale pay, a sort of musical minimum wage. Otherwise the ACL season could never be put together for just $700,000, Lickona says.

Whether well-known or starting out, artists like to go on the show because the live audience and commercial-free format convey "the momentum that develops in a real performance," says country-jazz stylist Lyle Lovett of Houston. "It's natural. That's what makes it unique."

The popularity of contemporary country music, which downplays the old "drinkin' and cheatin themes in favor of home and family topics, has surged recently. Even broadcast TV is jumping on the bandwagon: NBC just launched its "Hot Country Nights" to showcase country and western performers.

Not everyone is rushing to duplicate ACL's success, however. Ron Rogers, president of radio station KVET, says that some of ACL's local acts won't air on KASE, his other radio station. "There are people you love in an Austin setting but lack the broad appeal for radio," he says. "They don't match today's sounds, which are more traditional than they have been in years."

Others commend ACL for staying true to its "Texas musical ethos" at a time when musical homogenization obscures local origins.

It remains to be seen if ACL's ratings benefit from the pro-country trend, Ward says. One hitch is that, while the program is seen on 280 PBS affiliates, some consign it to a poor time-slot.

"I sometimes think 'Austin City Limits' is a too-well-kept secret," she says.

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