When Austin’s progressive country music scene coalesced around Willie Nelson in the early seventies, video content built on live music performances was all the rage, spurred by concert films like 1970’s Woodstock and NBC’s late-night program The Midnight Special. Around the state, a number of hungry, young creative types saw potential for something similar in the cosmic cowboys selling out Austin venues like Soap Creek Saloon and the fabled Armadillo World Headquarters. Starting in 1973, the Armadillo, Dallas PBS affiliate KERA, and Lone Star Beer each tried its hand at creating a syndicated Texas music series. The reason none of those efforts is likely ringing a bell is because in 1975 the Austin PBS affiliate KLRN aired the pilot episode of Austin City Limits.
Willie’s was the name on the marquee, but the real star was the Austin scene itself, the hicks and hippies sitting on risers in a studio on the University of Texas campus. Buoyed by donations that came in during that year’s national pledge drive, PBS picked up ACL for a full season in 1976, at which point the show’s Austin-centric musical emphasis widened to include the rest of Texas and like-minded national acts—think Houston’s Lightnin’ Hopkins and Chicago’s John Prine.
Eventually, ACL began booking global pop acts like David Byrne and Robert Plant, which led to the show’s game-changing moment, the 2002 launch of the ACL Music Festival, which brought the series long-elusive financial stability, ultimately leading to a new, much larger studio—which also serves as a live music venue—right in downtown Austin. Today, the show is the longest-running musical performance series in American television history. But as the who’s who sampling, below, of Texas-based guests makes clear, ACL never got so big that it turned its back on its home.
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “620 Episodes and Counting.” Subscribe today.