In addition to its reputation for being flamboyantly and self-proclaimedly “weird,” Austin also touts the title of Live Music Capital of the World. Whether the honor is a result of that seemingly inherent “weirdness” or the grit and determination that’s unique to Texans is still in question. But one determining factor in the acquisition of the title undoubtedly lies in a simple acronym: ACL.
Austin City Limits is the longest-running music program in history, its stage showing up weekly on PBS since 1974. Back then, in ’74, it was more of a passion project than a popular program. At the time, PBS issued a request to their affiliate and member stations for original programming. Austin’s station, KLRN (now KLRU)—including program director Bill Arhus, producer Paul Bosner, and director Bruce Scafe—began brainstorming ideas that would appeal to PBS and their local audiences. Bosner was an avid fan of the new genre of “Cosmic Cowboy” progressive country music, a sound that was prevalent in the early ’70’s in Austin—a confluent sound of traditional Texan and new-age hippy tunes. When Bosner suggested to Arhus and Scafe that their new program focus on the Austin music scene—complete with coverage of cosmic cowboy musicians—the directors were justifiably hesitant to invest in the concept.
But Bosner prevailed. The group read Jan Reid’s book The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, which profiled the progressive country scene, and found inspiration in her depiction of a revolutionary type of music and scene. Austin wasn’t just home to strange breeds of musical innovators like cosmic cowboys; it was rich with a larger variety of sounds than most people in the nation could even imagine. Country, blues, folk, and psychedelia—and later, alternative rock, hip-hop, and R&B—all filled the streets of Austin with their beats, harmonies, and notes. Why not bring those sounds into the studio?
Convinced, the trio decided to go forward with Bosner’s idea to profile Austin’s prolific music scene. The pilot was recorded on October 14, 1974, for the 1975 PBS pledge drive. Although they had originally intended to feature footage of B.W. Stevenson filmed the night before, the directors decided the recording was unusable and instead shot new film of a young and freshly famous Willie Nelson. Nelson, who’s famously camera-shy, appreciated the no-nonsense set-up with simple production and a pure, live music-style recording. When it came time to name the program, it was once again Bosner’s inspiration that won out. During Bosner’s weekly commute from Dallas to Austin, his eyes would always alight on the Austin City Limits sign as he entered the city, welcoming him to the musical streets. The program would do the same, serving as a signpost of entry to the music of the city—and the country.
The pilot episode featuring Willie Nelson aired and was greeted with such positive feedback and praise that the network decided to greenlight the series. The rest, as they say, is history. Since that first show, Austin City Limits has earned countless awards and accolades, including the only Presidential Medal of the Arts ever awarded to a television series. TIME Magazine recently included Austin City Limits in their roundup of the top ten most influential music programs of all time.
And it’s no wonder, considering the breadth and plethora of the artists who have set foot on the ACL stage. From classic and timeless musicians like BB King, Etta James, and James Taylor, to modern country artists like Kenny Chesney, Eric Church, and Tim McGraw, to indie rock groups like Kings of Leon and Arcade Fire, to ’90’s grunge groups Radiohead, R.E.M., and Pearl Jam, to hip-hop icons like Mos Def and Kendrick Lamar—the list is seemingly endless and increasingly impressive.
Over forty years ago, three humble TV producers came together to brainstorm about a musical-themed program. Today their legacy is an award-winning program that regularly features the most seminal artists of the moment and of history and a music festival that stretches across two weekends and welcomes visitors from around the globe. If only when Bosner could have anticipated what was to come when sitting in traffic all those years ago, his eyes lazily resting on that Austin City Limits sign.
Watch and Listen to a Younger Willie Nelson Play the Pilot Show for Austin City Limits
See More Austin City Limits Photos Here