TERRY LICKONA: Well it started back in 1974, and I can’t take the credit for creating the show — it was not my original idea. It was the idea of a fellow by the name of Bill Arhos. He was the program director at KLRU at the time. Back in the mid – 70s, you know the Austin music scene was just beginning to take off and there were all kinds of people coming to town. Also at that time, Willie Nelson moved to Austin from Nashville. He was from Texas originally and decided he had enough of Nashville and really wanted to go back home. He chose Austin to be his new home.
Bill at the TV station decided that it might be an interesting idea to tape a music concert as an experiment and see if maybe they could turn it into a regular kind of a thing. And Willie, since he was a bigger name than any other acts, seemed like the logical person to go to. So they approached him and he said sure. It was kind of simple — its sounds simple when you think back on it.
They had just built the new building at the university campus where we are which is the Communications Center, and we had these huge new studios and we really didn’t know what to do with them. So it certainly seemed big enough to shoot a music concert in that studio and Willie agreed to do it.
In October of 1974 they taped the show with Willie Nelson that turned into the pilot show for Austin City Limits. It aired on quite a few PBS stations around the country. Nobody knew what kind of a response it would get or if anybody in Chicago or California or Timbuktu cared about Willie Nelson. But it got a great response. Everybody loves Willie whether you’re a country music fan or whatever kind of music there’s just something about Willie — he has a way of connecting with people. So the show was very successful and based on that success we were able to get the funding to do our first season of shows — so in other words 13 new programs for that first year. And that’s how it started.
Now I came along in the third year — I missed out on the first two. I’m from upstate New York, and I was working in radio at the time so when I moved here I went to work for KUT — the public radio station. And it was a just coincidence that it’s in the same building as the PBS station. I had never worked in television, I had never set foot in a television studio in my life or even thought about working in television but I have always loved music. Although I have no musical talent whatsoever I have always hung out with musicians and always been involved in one way or another: running the sound system, or when I used to do a radio show I would always have local artists come in and perform. So I kind of talked my way in the door of Austin City Limits back when they really needed some help — I volunteered basically for free for that first year. And that’s how I got my start.
AD: How did the name come about?
TL: I wasn’t there when they came up with the name but I know the story. They kicked around a lot of ideas for names — they had 20 or 30 different names. The inspiration for Austin City Limits was really pretty simple: one of the peo- ple at the station was driving back from Dallas on interstate 35 and in Austin, he saw the sign “Austin City Limits” and just thought, “Hey that’s got a ring to it; sounds kind of cool; let’s call it that”. It beat some of the other ideas that they had at the time. One idea was “Room, City, Country” or something like that which I don’t think would have had the same lasting appeal that Austin City Limits has had. So it was really just kind of an inspiration and it stuck ever since.
AD: What has been the hardest part about keeping the show on the air?
TL: I think, and most people would be surprised to hear this, is that the hardest part has been finding the funding to keep paying the bills every year. As with anything else live, you know whether you’ve got a magazine or a restaurant or a television show, you have your ups and downs. There are times when business has been better than others. We have always been dependent on outside funding so even though our show has been very economical compared to other TV shows –our budget has been very low — we still have to depend on outside funding in order to keep it going. And for the most part our funding has come from a combination of PBS — in other words the stations around the country that show the show — or from sponsors. We call them underwriters in PBS lingo.
In the early days we had Lone Star beer as an underwriter. Over the years we have had a couple of different beer companies and car companies — Ford and Chevy. We’ve had Frito Lay and currently our major underwriter is AT&T, Anheuser-Busch, The Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau and AMD. So we are in better shape now than we have ever been in terms of our funding. But there were some years, literally, when we thought me might have to pull the plug. In fact, there was one stretch where for ten years our budget did not increase one penny –and that was tough. Nobody got raises; we couldn’t afford to buy new equipment or anything. But we hung in there and I think that’s more than anything the reason the show has survived — because of our determination to keep it going. We felt like it was really something special and unique. It certainly did help to put Austin on the map.
AD: How do you choose the talent that plays? Is it easy to get the bands?
TL: Well, it’s easier now than it used to be in the old days when the show was still new. Back in those days a lot of people in the music business didn’t know what it was or they thought it was some local music show. I can remember when I first tried to book Ray Charles — I was very ambitious right from the start — I went for the big stars as well as the Austin, Texas talent — and his manager said something like, “Well, we don’t do local TV shows”. So I had to explain, “It’s not a local show, it’s on all over the country on public TV”. So it was more difficult back in those days. Over the years as the show has become more and more successful everybody knows about it. It’s almost rare, if ever, that I’ll talk to someone who hasn’t already heard of the show and has a great deal of respect for the show and its reputation.
I think another reason for the show’s success is that we always try to come up with the right mix– the balance of different types of music and different types of artists. There was a time, especially in the beginning that it was mostly Austin and Texas music. And frankly, after the first three years or so we kind of ran through the best of what we had going here and besides we decided it would be a smart thing to kind of expand our musical horizons. There was so much other great music that deserves to be seen and heard on TV that never did seem to have any exposure and we figured that we could help. You know, we could help give that kind of music the exposure it deserves. So, we started booking acts that were not strictly Austin or Texas or country type music. Over the years we’ve kind of reached a formula that seems to work where we try to mix it up. Certainly we continue to feature Austin music like this year we’ve done Alejandro Escovedo and The Gourds and we are going to be doing another show with Los Lonely Boys. We certainly include country music, blues, and folk. We are starting to mix in more Latin music from time to time; certainly rock and roll. My attitude frankly is: anything goes. I’m interested in maybe stretching the limits a little further than we already have.
AD: How does a band go about getting on the show?
TL: They have to demonstrate some success. In the early days it didn’t even matter if a band was signed or not. Because of the reputation of the show and because we only do 13 new programs a year, we want to make sure when an artist does a show they are ready.
AD: Ready, as in well known?
TL: I think they should have at least one or two records out and done some touring besides playing in just the clubs here in Austin. And it would help even if they had done some limited television — even if it’s just local. Like on the Austin Music channel. But the thing I look for more than anything in an artist or in a band is originality. To me that’s the most important criteria — whoever it is. If they have something original to say either in their songwriting, or in the way they sing, or the way they play guitar. And if you think of some of the artists that have been on our show, I mean Stevie Ray is probably the perfect example of somebody who is totally unique and original. Of course he learned and borrowed from a lot of heroes over the years but still, nobody quite compares to Stevie Ray. Willie is another example or Lyle Lovett. There are a lot of people. But I think that originality is what matters more to me than anything else. I don’t want somebody who is going to come out and do a bunch of cover songs or copy somebody else’s style because you hear a lot of that on the radio and that’s not what we want.
AD: Do you hunt down bands or do they get a hold of you?
TL: It’s works both ways. I mean, I still like to go out to hear music. I go out to the clubs here in town. Although I must admit I’m kind of spoiled by Austin City Limits. Our studio is the best place to see and hear music you can imagine because you’ve got a comfortable seat, you can see, you can hear, it’s not too loud and you don’t get home too late and all that sort of thing. But I still like to get out and do the clubs and see who is out there.
But everyday, I mean everyday in the mail I get at least a dozen promo packs from artists from records labels — big labels and little independent bands from West Texas who are just fans of the show.
AD: Do the bands on the show play for free?
TL: Almost — almost play for free. Because our show is a non commercial, non profit show we don’t pay much. But we do pay everybody a scale. The scale is based on the American Federation of Musicians. We have an agreement with the union and it really only amounts to a few hundred dollars per musician. So they don’t do it for the money. But they do it obviously for the exposure and the opportunity to have their music recorded for Austin City Limits.
AD: Tell us some of your favorite moments from the show.
TL: Well that’s a tough one because there are so many. This is coming up on my 30th year as the producer — it amazes me when I think about that. People tell me all the time that I have the best job in town if not maybe in the world and I realize it is a great job. I still love what I do and I still get inspired by the music.
I remember the first time Stevie Ray did Austin City Limits — he did the show only twice. At the time he was still kind of new, his career had just kind of kicked off, and he was still having some drug problems and doing this and that. I remember he was just totally wired when he performed that night. He was just drenched in sweat and he just got there and played like a mad man. But he kept coming off stage and saying, “No, I’m terrible. This is not working for me. I have to go do that song over again”. And he was just too messed up to know what was going on. So I was back there just kind of reassuring him, “No, no, no, you’re great. Everybody loves it. Just go up there and be yourself”. And he did. He just got back up there and kept playing.
I remember the time that Ray Charles came in to do the show — finally I got him to do it after his manager had turned us down in the beginning. And to me, standing there and seeing Ray Charles walk up on the stage — he was such a legend, even early on — made me realize that Austin City Limits had become something much bigger than it used to be — than it started out as. That it suddenly was important enough for somebody like Ray Charles to come do the show.
And the same thing happened with Johnny Cash. When Johnny Cash finally came and did the show, I remember standing back stage with him literally just a couple of minutes before he went on stage and he seemed really kind of agitated; kind of nervous. I wasn’t sure what was wrong. So I went up to him and asked him if he needed something; if he was upset about something or what. He said, “This is different than any other TV show. This is a really serious music show and I just want to make sure I do it right”. Again, somebody like Johnny Cash, he’s done a gazillion TV shows. That he would be nervous about coming to perform on Austin City Limits just really touched me. I got emotional about it. That is still one of my favorite performances because afterwards Johnny Cash said he thought it was the best performance he had ever given on TV.
I think the thing about Austin City Limits is that it does seem to bring out the best in people. Artists realize it is an important show, they realize it’s being recorded for posterity so they better get it right. And you know, frankly, even some artists who may be average and not be the most original in the world, when they get up there on that stage it just seems to work its magic and bring out the best.
If you ask me what was the show that you liked the most last year, the show that we did with Cold Play I thought was an amazing show. The fact that they went flew all the way from England to Austin just to do Austin City Limits was incredible. It was because they respected the show’s reputation. They turned down an offer to do Saturday Night Live and decided to do Austin City Limits instead.
There is a story about every show, basically. Someday I’ll have to write a book about those stories but I might have to wait until I retire so I can tell it all.
AD: Do you have any stand out nightmares?
TL: Yeah. There have been shows that didn’t come off quite as well. I remember when Bonnie Raitt did a show — this was probably 15 years ago or more. I think Bonnie is great and people love Bonnie’s music and her live shows. We had no idea that anything was wrong until she left the stage at the end of her show and just burst into tears because she had “Just done the worst show of her life and that she had ruined her career because she was so bad”. I didn’t know what to say. She went down to her dressing room and wouldn’t talk to anybody and finally we talked her into coming back upstairs to watch the tape–the playbacks of the show. She didn’t want to do it at first but she finally sat through it and she watched it and she started liking it. The more she watched the more she liked and by the time it was all over she was hugging everybody and she thought it was great.
The show we did just a couple of years ago with Ryan Adams was kind of a weird experience because he was having some kind of temper tantrum that night. He couldn’t get his guitar in tune and he kept blaming the guitar tech for not doing it right. After every song he would hand his guitar back to this guy and then he would go sit there on the corner of the stage and wouldn’t say anything. And the audience is sitting there saying, “What’s up with him? What’s his problem?” And finally, at the end of the show he was so pissed off he took his guitar — I don’t know what kind of guitar it was or how expensive it was–but he just took it and smashed it to bits on the stage and handed it to the first person in the audience and walked straight out the door, out of the building and was gone. Nobody saw him for the rest of the night.
Some people come in and they are so easy to work with and other people come in and it’s completely different. I think a lot of it has to do with insecurity, stage fright, state of mind of where they are at, and what’s altering there mind. It’s not quite like the old days of Austin City Limits. In the early days of Austin City Limits, when somebody would come in and do the show it was like a party. They would have a couple of six packs in the room and smoke a joint and go upstairs and do the show and it was like, “Wow, we’re doing TV, isn’t this fun?” But now nobody drinks today. It’s like, “We aren’t going to do anything before we go on stage we have to be perfect; take two days off so we can rest our voice and we have to go to the doctor to get shots.”
AD: Why is it like “Mission Impossible” to get into the show?
TL: Well, it is the hot ticket in town. First of all, it’s free – it’s kind of ironic they are so hard to get. Part of the reason frankly is because the capacity of our studio has been cut back quite a bit over the years. When we did that original show with Willie, we had almost a thousand people in that studio. But over the years the fire marshal keeps revising what our limit is — what our capacity is.
The studio wasn’t really designed to hold hundreds of people when it was built. I wish they had put it on the ground floor instead of up on the six floor. Also, there aren’t enough exits and only two elevators and that sort of thing. Right now our capacity is only 320. When we do a show, we have to set aside a certain number of tickets for our sponsors — people who keep us alive. We give a certain number of tickets to the artists so that they can use them for their friends and families and then we give the rest of the tickets to the public and they go like that. We usually make one announcement on the radio the day before the show and poof, they are gone.
There is a plan in the works right now to build a new home for Austin City Limits — a new studio. If this happens — it looks like it is going to happen — we would be able to increase our capacity up to 1,000 which is still small enough to be intimate but it will allow three times as many people to come to the shows.
AD: So this city changed so much since you have been involved with the show. What in your opinion has gotten better and what has gotten worse for the music scene here in Austin?
TL: Well it definitely has changed and in fact it seems like Austin City Limits is one of the few things that hasn’t really changed all that much over the years — it’s one of those institutions. But one thing that has changed compared to the early days is it’s a lot harder for musicians to make a living playing music in Austin today than it used to be back then. Back then, rent was cheap. I remember when Austin was known for having one of the lowest costs of living of any city in the country, which is certainly not the case today. So I think, number one, it’s tougher for people who want to get started on playing music and try and make a living playing music. Number two is the club scene. It’s a real struggle for music clubs just to survive. Now that Clifford is gone I know a lot of people are worried about Antone’s — whether Antone’s is going to hang in there any longer. There are still places like the Continental Cub that just keep going and going and God bless them, I hope they keep going forever. And there are some other funky spots that still have live music. But I don’t even count Sixth Street when I think of the live music scene because most of that is just kind of cover bands. About the only time I go to Sixth Street is if I go to Stubb’s to see a show and then I might walk over there just to check it out. I might even go to Emo’s from time to time. The Parish is still a good place. It’s still just not as easy as it used to be for musicians to get together and try and pay the bills and play music.
As far as some of the good things that have changed, I think there’s more diversity in the music now than there used to be back then. I think really if you look hard enough, you can find just about every kind of music. You can certainly still go down to the Broken Spoke and hear country music on any night of the week. You can go to Antone’s and hear blues. There are places you can hear hip hop. Saxon Pub is another kind of mainstay. There is the jazz on Congress Avenue at the Elephant Room. And thank God there is some place like Waterloo Records to support the music scene and actually have live music in the store. There are so few independent record stores left anywhere in the country. It’s a great thing to me that people in Austin still prefer to keep Austin weird. Places like Hard Rock Cafe couldn’t make it. House of Blues looked into coming to Austin and decided that people might not want to come there that often. People in Austin would still rather go to Waterloo than Tower Records. They would die to get into Austin City Limits.
AD: Do you come up with the interview questions at the end of the show?
TL: I do. That’s something we just started doing about five or six years ago. I wish we had done it a long time ago. But I do those interviews myself. They are very short: maybe only five to ten minutes max because we do them at the end of the show and by that time the artist is kind of tired or ready to party or go eat or just kind of unwind. So we do the interviews in the dressing room and I really enjoy it because it does give the artist a chance to talk or reflect a little bit about their music or the show they just did. Even personally I enjoy the opportunity to have that one on one. It’s like a conversation — I can sit there and talk to them without being distracted. It’s tough to try and decide — I’ve only got five minutes — what do I want to ask them?
AD: What do you think of the festival year four?
TL: First of all, nobody was even sure there would be a year four. It’s kind of like when the TV show started, you know? We didn’t know if it was going to last one year, two years, five years, or what. But the festival was just like a home run right out of the box there. In the first year it made money which is almost unheard of. And it just seems to get better each year. It’s almost getting too successful. That’s why last year we had to put a cap on the size of the crowd — we don’t want it to become an unpleasant experience for people. If we could only put a roof and air condition on Zilker Park it might be more comfortable for people.
I’m really pleased with the way the festival has come together. Every year we try to change things up a little bit; maybe make it a little different. I think we still probably need to work on the diversity of the music. In other words if you go to the ACL Festival, it’s basically a young crowd of mostly young white people. There aren’t a lot of other ethnic groups. There’s not much music that would appeal to the Hispanic people that live in Austin or the African Americans. We have talked about it among ourselves and tried to come up with ways to diversify the line up and try to offer something for different groups of people who might be able to come and enjoy it. But everything about the festival in the way that it is staged is like Austin City Limits the TV show. It’s really done with the artist in mind. To make them comfortable. To make it a good experience for them to come and perform. Everything I’ve heard from all the artists and their managers and people who I have talked to, they say of all the festivals that they play, it’s the best one.
AD: Are the bands that play the festival required to do a taping or vice versa?
TL: They aren’t required to but more and more we try and tape some of the artists when they are hear to play the festival. So like this year we are going to tape a show with Van Morrison. I’m really excited about that. I’ve been trying to book him since 1978. I’ve got a file that’s so old it’s falling apart of all the different times I’ve tried. We are also going to do a taping of The Raconteurs – Jack White’s new band–on that Sunday. Cat Power is going to tape a show after the festival.
AD: This year’s line up is absolutely stellar at the fest. Who are you looking forward to seeing?
TL: Well I’m really thrilled about Van Morrison being part of it this year. And Tom Petty playing Sunday night as the headliner is exciting. I wish I had a schedule in front of me so I could remember who all was playing when. A really big deal is the fact that Willie is going to play. We’ve tried to get Willie to perform every year at the festival since it started but he was always booked or I think part of the problem in the past was that it was right around the time of his Farm Aid — so that came first. There wouldn’t be an Austin City Limits Festival and there wouldn’t’ be an Austin City Limits TV show if it wasn’t for Willie Nelson. It’s great that he’s finally going to come and play at our festival.
AD: Anything else?
TL: As you can tell I love to talk about this. This is my life, it’s been my passion and I’ve given it my heart and soul and a lot fun too has gone into this show.
It takes a lot of people to pull this off and a lot of the people that work on Austin City Limits had been there as long as I have and some longer. It’s really become like a family. We all started this out when we were in our 20s and we’ve all kind of grown up and grown old together. We all get along — I mean we all have our disagreements and all that–we know each other so well we don’t even have to talk. It makes my job a lot easier to have a staff that are so sharp and have done this for so many years. People just do their job and they do it well. ***