Over its 40 years, Austin City Limits has become an institution and appointment viewing for music fans across the country. In Austin City Limits: A History Tracey Laird digs in to the shows origins and its evolution. Tracey was nice enough to talk to us a bit about the book.
Music Tomes: When approaching something like Austin City Limits, which is a television show, but also a cultural touchstone, how do you decide how that story should be told?
Tracey Laird: It was important for me to tell the story from the present tense — in other words, to resist two competing impulses. On the one hand, there is the tug of nostalgia for the wonderful music and vibe of the progressive country era that begat the show. On the other hand, there is an impulse to reify Austin City Limits so that it seems more museum piece than living, dynamic entity whose story continues to unfold. The image that guided the project from very early on was that of a prism — figuratively speaking, a person could walk around the story of Austin City Limits and see something new, depending on the perspective or angle. Each chapter of the book feels to me like a different side of the prism, so my goal was to describe how I see it from different points of view and to connect the dots so that the picture becomes as complete as possible. I loved searching for ways to communicate both its changes and its continuity over 40 years, and at the same time convey the passion and enthusiasm of the remarkable people who make the program.
MT: Is it possible to strictly separate the show from its location, Austin, Texas, when talking about the rise of the perception as a music center?
TL: Not for me. We are not talking about a simplistic, causal connection and yet, at the same time, the show and the city cannot be separated. Austin City Limits grew up in a place where cultural boundary-crossing was normal. White, black, brown — Austin’s location made it a place where people of different heritage mixed it up, musicians included. Progressive country itself, the musical moment that gave rise to the show, encompassed a wide range of styles. Austin’s lively and constantly changing music scene attracted broader and broader notice over the course of the same years as Austin City Limits deepened its reputation. The city’s reputation spread in part because of efforts from many different corners — musicians, business people, civic leaders, and so on. By the time the city coined its well-known moniker “Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin City Limits was the best-known evidence for the claim.
MT: For many years ACL was associated primarily with country music with a sprinkling of blues and roots musicians thrown in. In the last ten years or so they’ve seemed to expand to more “indie rock” artists and world music. Is that a reflection of Austin, or an acknowledgement of how the reach of the show has grown?
TL: I think of the early 1980s as ACL’s country music phase in very general terms, but even then memorable shows include people like Ray Charles or B. B. King, Flaco Jimenez or Pete Fountain. The 1990s leaned more on the term “roots music” but programmed shows with performers like the Manhattan Transfer. In other words, there was never a time when any general framework of genre ruled the bookings for Austin City Limits, although there are larger patterns.
Since the turn of the century, Austin City Limits has expanded even in the sense for what that identifies: not just a show viewed on TV, but available to stream on a laptop or mobile device. Now Austin City Limits encompasses the festival and the new venue as well. Those are forces that bear both on ACL as a media entity and on the city of Austin as its home, and it all expands the reach of ACL in terms of its meaning, its musical breadth, and its audiences. In some sense that breadth links back to the wide open spirit of progressive country, and certainly to the particularly expansive season 4 (the first one booked by longtime producer Terry Lickona). Perhaps that kind of wide-ranging musical span has come into its time, and audiences are ready to take in more.
MT: You wrote an excellent book on the Louisiana Hayride. Are there any similarities between ACL and the radio barn dances of old?
TL: What comes to mind is spontaneity. In its day, the Louisiana Hayride unfolded according to a general plan devised by the producer but remained very in touch with the spontaneity and energy that makes live music exciting. Radio has that “theater of the mind” aspect and a wonderful thing about live radio was the presence of the unexpected — the lingering sense that one never knows what will happen next.
Austin City Limits as a television production doesn’t tap into that imagination element of radio, but does convey a sense of emotional immediacy that comes from close-up camera angles. It also maintains the sense of spontaneity that most music on television misses because production norms favor multiple takes and a heavy editing hand. Austin City Limits director Gary Menotti sketches out a time-based plan during rehearsals, and that loosely guides the camera shots during the performance itself. When the music begins, however, the production stays out of the way. Artists don’t get asked to repeat a song or part of a song for the sake of the cameras because that kills the live energy. Austin City Limits shares that appreciation for concert energy with the Hayride and other live radio barn dances.
MT: This is the 40th season of ACL. Where do you think the future will take it?
TL: There is really no telling. ACL dwells in a unique space defined by quality performers across a broad range of genres. People who are excited and passionate about music come to ACL for a substantive encounter with musicians they already love, or with musicians they figure must be quality for them to appear on Austin City Limits.
It has an ability, then, to act as a sort of taste filter, an identity that springs from uniquely overlapping elements that define the show: Austin hipness, PBS quality, production excellence, and just plain good musical taste on the part of Terry Lickona, Jeff Peterson, and other members of the production team. And they really all do work as a wonderful team.
How could that extend? Perhaps it could be the kinds of movie theater live streaming events like those for the New York Metropolitan Opera or London’s National Theater. Perhaps it could be a live show that brings multiple high quality musicians — from different genres — to tour under the auspices of Austin City Limits. Most likely it will be something I find it hard to imagine right now.
MT: What are you currently working on?
TL: With my spouse (also a writer — with a Kindle book called Future Great), I am working on the prose for a coffee table-style book about Austin City Limits that features the wonderful photos of Scott Newton, ACL’s longtime still photographer. That’s scheduled to be out in the spring. Other things on my plate include an article about the Battle of New Orleans in music and popular culture, which will appear in an edited collection next year. I’m also working on a more wide-ranging essay about roots music as an idea and a genre label. As for bigger projects, I’m part of a task force for the National Radio Preservation Board charged with collecting information about radio archives. That work along with two years I spent doing a weekly Atlanta AM radio show reminded me how much I still love thinking about radio and how much else I have left to learn. I’ll see where that takes me.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
TL: One of the best music tomes I have read in the past year is Stephen Wade’s The Beautiful Music All Around Us, which resulted from twenty years of archival and ethnographic research, and focused on 13 Library of Congress historic field recordings. The book is a lovely piece of work, and beautifully written. The music department at Agnes Scott College (where I teach) brought him to campus for a short residency during which he performed and reflected on his work, which brought the whole project to life still further.
A lot of my reading during the academic year is connected to my courses, so recently I discovered the edited collection of writing by Ellen Willis called Out of the Vinyl Deeps. A course I’m doing on the Beatles led me to two good reads: a book by British journalist Leslie Woodhead, How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin, and another by Geoff Emerick, Here, There and Everywhere with Howard Massey. The former conveys a perspective on pop culture’s significance far afield from the U.S. The latter springs from Emerick’s work as sound engineer on many Beatles recordings — his memories of those experiences are pretty fascinating.