(Above: Roy Orbison performs “(Oh) Pretty Woman” on “Austin City Limits” in 1983.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
The musical landscape of television was of a different world when “Austin City Limits” debuted on Public Television 35 years ago. Brief performances on late night talk shows or segments on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” were the only options for fans hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite act.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebrates the show that put long-form performances on the air with the new exhibit “Great Music. No Limits. Celebrating 35 Years of Austin City Limits.”
“There were certainly music shows on television before, like Ed Sullivan, ‘Shindig’ or ‘Hullabaloo,’” said Jim Henke, vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs for the Rock Hall. “But ‘Austin City Limits’ was the first show where the performers didn’t lip synch and were provided with a platform that extended beyond just a song or two.”
The exhibit includes photographs, setlists, documents and video footage of the show’s greatest moments.
“A big part of the exhibit are the photos from the show. We have 30 or more pictures of artists ranging from B.B. King, Dolly Parton and Elvis Costello to Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and the Dave Matthews Band,” Henke said. “We also have a lot of different documents, including lots of early stuff like the proposal for underwriting the pilot episode and several handwritten memos.”
The memos show the evolution of the show’s title from “River City Country” to “Austin Space” before finally settling on the current title.
“We also have three setlists from Wilco’s performance where you can see which songs were added and changed before they went on,” Henke said.
“MTV Unplugged,” “Sessions at West 54th Street” and “Soundstage” are but a few of the shows Austin City Limits has inspired during its run. In 2002, the show spun off into the three-day Austin City Limits Music Festival.
“The show started out with Willie Nelson on the first episode then expanded,” Henke said. “If you look at who’s appeared since then it’s been a nice mix of artists.”
Henke pointed out recent episodes with Ben Harper sitting in with Pearl Jam and Mos Def with K’Naan as examples of the show’s continued innovation.
“The producers don’t just book established artists. They’re looking at younger artists as well,” Henke said. “Our video reel has everyone from Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe to Damian Marley. It’s not just focused on one era or genre. I think this is not only what made the show so innovative, but has given it such longevity.”
For museum hours and ticket and general information, visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Website.
George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (Rock Hall photo exhibit)
(Below: The Polyphonic Spree party on Austin City Limits in 2004.)