Austin City Limits, a television program of concert performances featuring distinctive styles of music from around the world, was founded in 1974 by PBS affiliate KLRN-TV (later KLRU-TV) in Austin and is carried by hundreds of stations nationwide. The program has showcased performers such as Ray Charles, Leonard Cohen, B. B. King, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Bonnie Raitt, Merle Haggard, Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, Buena Vista Social Club, Mos Def, and Pearl Jam. In the 1980s the show’s success was credited with contributing to the rise of several major country performers and coincided with the growing popularity of country music. By the 1990s and 2000s the program was a beacon for music fans looking for unadorned performances of both cutting edge acts and veteran performers in a variety of genres. The show also lent its name to the successful Austin City Limits Music Festival and the downtown Austin venue ACL Live at the Moody Theater.
Originally known for its “redneck rock” or “progressive country” music (a combination of traditional country music with folk and rock influences that flourished in Austin in the early 1970s), the show was developed in 1974 from the desire of Bill Arhos (1934–2015), then program director at KLRN, to develop locally produced programming that could attract national attention. With producer Paul Bosner and director Bruce Scafe, Arhos approached PBS’s Station Program Cooperative (a program fostered by the network to help individual stations produce national programming) for funding for a pilot. Bosner and Scafe filmed a show featuring Willie Nelson. Then Arhos and Bosner sold the show to PBS by convincing station executives, accustomed to shows like Masterpiece Theatre and Sesame Street, that Austin City Limits was not too far outside the public broadcasting mainstream.
In 1975 Arhos persuaded Greg Harney, program acquisition head for PBS’s annual national membership drive, to show the pilot at the Station Independence Project meeting, a forum for planning the next year’s national pledge drive. Thirty-four stations aired the show; subsequently, PBS and Arhos agreed that if five stations would support it, the program could remain in the market for at least a year. With the help of KQED-TV in San Francisco, Arhos got the five stations only minutes before the network deadline. Videotaping began in September 1975 with Asleep at the Wheel and a reunion of Bob Wills’s Original Texas Playboys. Aired in 1976 and drawing on a growing Austin music scene, the first season defined the show’s unique progressive country style, challenging the dominance of Nashville.
Program highlights in the 1970s and 1980s include the premiere of the longtime ACL theme song (Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues”) and Willie Nelson’s performance of the complete Red-Headed Stranger album, returning it to the Billboard charts for a forty-eight-week run (both in 1977); a rare TV showcase for Texan singer–songwriter Townes Van Zandt (1976); performances by Ray Charles and Chet Atkins (1979); the adoption of the Austin skyline backdrop (1981); and the three-hour special “Down Home Country Music,” which won Best Network Music Program at the New York International Film and Television Festival (1982). Other high points from the period were the tenth-anniversary show featuring the Texas Playboys which was taped before an open-air crowd of more than 5,000 in front of the Texas Capitol (1984); the debut appearance by B. B. King (1982); the first (1983) and final (1989) appearances by the late Austin blues hero Stevie Ray Vaughan; an all-female “Songwriters Special” with Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, and others; a performance by Fats Domino and the first of many appearances by Lyle Lovett (1986); shows by Johnny Cash and Reba McEntire (1987); and a rare full-length television performance by legendary singer–songwriter Leonard Cohen (1988).
In the 1990s Austin City Limits faced a declining PBS budget and network demands that the series raise more than a quarter of its own funding, which it did through patronage by national sponsors like Chevrolet and AT&T. By its nineteenth season (1993), ACL was focusing less on mainstream country music and more on other kinds of music and featured an eclectic mix of rock, country, blues , and folk. Highlights included the first appearances by Garth Brooks (1990) and Sheryl Crow (1996); a multi-artist tribute to Townes Van Zandt, featuring Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, and more (1997); and the debut shows by the Dixie Chicks (1998) and alternative rock pioneers Wilco (1999).
By the 2000s the series boasted the tagline “Great music–no limits,” incorporating not only rock, blues, folk and country, but jazz, hip-hop, Latin and world music. The show expanded its musical focus and fan base with well-received performances by Phish and Dolly Parton (both 2000); Cuban supergroup Buena Vista Social Club and ex-Talking Heads leader David Byrne (2001); Robert Plant, Bonnie Raitt, and jazz great Pat Metheny (2002); Steve Winwood and Keith Urban (2003); John Fogerty and Elvis Costello (2004); Coldplay and R&B icon Etta James (2005); Van Morrison, Ray Davies of the Kinks, Bob Marley’s son Damian, and Latin superstar Juanes (2006); John Mayer and Arcade Fire (2007); R.E.M., Sarah McLachlan, and Foo Fighters (2008); Pearl Jam, Kenny Chesney, hip-hop star Mos Def, Grammy-winning jazz artist Esperanza Spalding, and a long-gestating collaboration between Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel (2009); and Jimmy Cliff, John Legend, and comedian-turned-bluegrass musician Steve Martin (2010). In the 2010s the program continued to offer a variety of artists and styles including Lyle Lovett, Bob Schneider, and The Decemberists (2011); Radiohead (2012); Guy Clark, Jr., and Phoenix (2013); Kacey Musgraves and Beck (2014); Sam Smith, the Black Keys, and Cassandra Wilson (2015); Kendrick Lamar and Heartless Bastards (2016); and Alejandro Escovedo and the Pretenders (2017). In 2018 Austin City Limits began its forty-fourth season and was America’s longest-running concert music program, having featured hundreds of artists in multiple genres.
The inaugural Austin City Limits Music Festival took place in Austin’s Zilker Park in September 2002. Inspired by the show, the event featured an array of regional, national, and international acts from different genres, and has continued to draw large crowds each September or October. The festival celebrated its fifteenth anniversary in 2016.
In 2014 Austin City Limits established its own Hall of Fame with Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Darrell Royal, Lloyd Maines, and founder Bill Arhos as the inaugural inductees. Subsequent inductees have included Asleep at the Wheel (2015), Guy Clark (2015), Flaco Jiménez (2015), B.B. King (2016), Kris Kristofferson (2016), Roseanne Cash (2017), and Roy Orbison (2017).
Austin City Limits was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2003. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized the series as a Landmark Series in 2009; the hall received the archives of the series in 2012. Austin City Limits won a Peabody Award in 2011. The series has also been recognized by Time magazine as one of the ten most influential music shows of all time. The show moved production in 2011 from Studio 6A on the University of Texas campus to the state-of-the-art downtown Austin concert venue ACL Live at the 2,700-seat capacity Moody Theater. Many episodes have been made available on the program’s website and for sale on DVD. A documentary, produced and directed by Keith Maitland and titled A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story, recounts the long history of the program and was premiered at the 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival. Terry Lickona still served as executive producer in 2018.