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'Austin City Limits' pioneers concert-style music on TV

Before "MTV Unplugged" or "VH1 Storytellers" - even before MTV and VH1 - there was a little public TV program called "Austin City Limits." When it began airing in 1976, its goal was to showcase that city's burgeoning music scene to a national audience.

Today, the award-winning show attracts stars from all over North America, who return repeatedly because they appreciate its integrity, its intimate atmosphere, and, for many, the career springboard it provided.

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A who's who roster of performers has graced Studio 6-A's stage at KLRU-TV on the University of Texas campus: from Texans Willie Nelson ("ACL's" first act), Lyle Lovett, the Dixie Chicks, and brothers Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, to Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow, Tammy Wynette, Bruce Hornsby, Bonnie Raitt, and even Lionel Hampton. It's an amazing list, lovingly chronicled in a new book, "Austin City Limits: 25 Years of American Music."

In its foreword, Lovett writes, "Every time I'm on the show, I'm thankful for the opportunity. Because the performer gets to play a real concert, the viewer gets to see a real concert. 'Austin City Limits' lets a performer be himself."

When executive producer Bill Arhos conceived "ACL," there weren't many forums through which a musician could reach TV audiences in a way that felt natural to both player and viewer. Cable music channels with incessant commercial breaks were years away.

"We're public television ... and except for pledge drives, it's not interrupted," notes host and producer Terry Lickona. "So it's really, as Alan Jackson put it, the closest you can get to the experience of watching a full-length concert, even if it is edited down to half an hour or an hour."

As Bela Fleck and a coterie of bluegrass stars rehearse at a recent taping, Mr. Lickona, who took on his roles in 1978, reminisces on his 21 years with "ACL."

"Stevie Ray Vaughan has a special place in my memory and in our hearts," Lickona says. "He did his last show just a mere six months before he died in that helicopter crash [Aug. 26, 1990] and was really at the peak of his performing talents."

John T. Davis, the book's author, and Scott Newton, who photographed its 300 images, also call that show a favorite. By then, Vaughan was famous. When he first appeared in 1983, he was not. For the Vaughans and other Texans, Davis says, "This was their door to walk through."

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Many artists attribute their fame, or inspiration, to "ACL." Jackson has said he became a musician because of watching the show. Lovett, Williams, George Strait, and even Nelson saw their careers take off after "ACL" appearances. Nelson's pilot performance was so strong, Davis says, "That sold the show to PBS."

When Ray Charles appeared in season No. 5, Lickona says, "To me, that really validated that 'Austin City Limits' was about more than Austin or Texas artists. It was about American music." Tom Waits's 1978 show "still ranks as one of the best things he's ever done," says Lickona, who's trying to lure Waits back. Leonard Cohen's performance is another classic.

As for Lickona's wish list, only Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Dolly Parton have remained elusive, and Parton is expected to do a 25th-season show. Negotiations are on to book Beck, not only because of his popularity with younger fans, Lickona says, but because "he also has a deep appreciation for the roots of many different styles of music."

Other anniversary-season performers include Wilco and Clint Black, who marks his first time on the "ACL" stage - which, incidentally, is indoors, despite its deceptively realistic outdoor look (400 free tickets are released the day before a taping).

Though rap and heavy metal aren't "ACL" fare, Lickona noted the program has showcased many artists who would not otherwise get TV exposure. Nelson will kick off the 25th anniversary season in February. Viewers also might see "ACL" on a commercial network or cable special; reportedly, David Letterman, HBO, or MTV may produce an anniversary celebration.

"Just having one show on [a commercial] network would exponentially increase viewer awareness," Lickona says, "and encourage more people to find us on PBS...."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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