'Austin City Limits' Turns 25 With Eclectic, Rootsy Fare

PBS program that boosted careers of Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett and others celebrates its silver anniversary this season.

Long before they became familiar names, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams, among many others, got a boost early on in their careers by virtue of their exposure on "Austin City Limits," the PBS-TV show that's turning 25 this year.

For its silver anniversary season, Public Broadcasting Service's acclaimed roots-music television concert program is highlighting some of those groundbreaking performances and is continuing its tradition, in new shows, of raising the visibility of otherwise overlooked artists.

" 'Austin City Limits' is a lot more than country or bluegrass. It's an eclectic mix of what I like to think of as American roots music — contemporary country, traditional country, folk, blues, bluegrass, regional music like Cajun and zydeco and Tex-Mex," the show's producer, Terry Lickona, said.

The 25th season, beginning this spring, includes performances by Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Bela Fleck, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Jewel and Clint Black. Though these are now high-profile entertainers, many of them were not so well known when they first played the sixth-floor studios of Austin's KLRU-TV, Lickona said.

Grammy winners Nanci Griffith, Williams and Lovett, for instance, were ACL performers before they were known outside Texas.

"I think the reason the show has been able to last so many years," Lickona said," is that we've been able to strike a balance between well-known and newer talent. I mean talent," he emphasizes, "not fads or trends."

"There's nothing off-limits," Lickona said. "If we find something that we think fits what we do, we'll make it work."

Along with its urban-based counterpart, "Sessions at West 54th," "Austin City Limits" offers artists a chance to perform in a relaxed, intimate atmosphere, where the focus is on the music.

While hosting a songwriter special featuring her friends Buddy and Julie Miller, Dave Matthews, Patty Griffin and Kimmie Rhodes, which will begin airing in May, Harris — who recorded with Buddy Miller on "Cruel Moon" — reflected that "in the early days, one of the things I hated most was doing TV — all the lights in your face and doing things over and over. But on 'Austin City Limits' it's not like that. You can play the music the way you want to."

"I was captivated by the show the first time I saw it. This was a show that spoke to me," said Lovett, who returns during season 25 to host a gathering of Texas musicians.

While providing an intimate studio showcase for headliners such as Harris, Reba McEntire, Jerry Lee Lewis or B.B. King, "Austin City Limits" also has hosted Little Joe y la Familia, Dave Alvin, Kelly Willis, Tish Hinojosa

(RealAudio excerpt of Hinojosa's "Corazon Viajero")) and Guy Clark, who are well known in their own fields but not household names to ACL's national television audience.

As superstar Bonnie Raitt said, "You get a chance to stop and see some people that you never have a chance to hear on the radio, not in the amount of airplay that is commensurate with how talented they are or how well loved they are."

As he watched a sound check for a bluegrass jam by Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Vassar Clements, Stuart Duncan, Earl Scruggs and Mark Schatz, Austin music critic John T. Davis, who collaborated on the book "Austin City Limits: 25 Years of American Music" (Billboard Books) said that "this is what it's really all about. It's like capturing lightning in a bottle."

Season 25 broadcasts began in February. Twelve shows still are upcoming in the new season. Many will be rebroadcast later this year. For more information, check with your local PBS station or visit the Austin Cyber Limits Web site (http://www.austincitylimits.com).

Remaining 'Austin City Limits' broadcasts this season:

Show #2506, April 1:

Lynyrd Skynyrd

Show #2507, April 8:

Texas Tornados with a tribute to Doug Sahm

Show #2508, April 15:

Kenny Rogers

Show #2509, April 22:

The Mavericks/The Warren Brothers

Show #2510, April 29:

Wilco/Bela Fleck and Friends

Show #2511, May 6:

Songwriters Special with Emmylou Harris, Dave Matthews, Patty Griffin and Buddy and Julie Miller

Show #2512, May 13:

Joe Ely/Indigenous

Show #2513, May 20:

Lyle Lovett and Friends

Show #2514, May 27:

Trisha Yearwood/Alison Krauss

Show #2515, June 3:

Jewel

Show #2516, June 10:

Garth Brooks