Originally created to celebrate the unique music in Texas, Austin City Limits has expanded to showcase various other genres. The series got its start in 1976, and it has become the longest-running music program in history. The show has also inspired the popular Austin City Limits Music Festival, which held its first event back in 2002. Over the decades, the television show has featured performances from artists as varied as The Allman Brothers Band, Buena Vista Social Club, Kendrick Lamar, and Queens of the Stone Age.
Here we’re taking a look back at some of the first musical acts to perform on Austin City Limits, during its earliest days. Wait until you see some of the important and influential stars who’ve appeared on this iconic show!
Musician and activist Willie Nelson retired and moved to Austin in 1972, but the city inspired him to start making music again. He performed on the pilot episode of ACL in 1974 before it became an official weekly series the following year. Fun fact: he also produced the episode! In total, the singer/songwriter has performed on the show 13 times. His first appearance on ACL happened right around the same time that he began his annual Fourth of July Picnic, became more closely associated with the growing Austin hippie scene, and started growing out his hair into the look we’re more familiar with now.
Iconic bluegrass banjo player Earl Scruggs, perhaps best known for creating the theme music for “The Beverly Hillbillies,“ appeared on ACL three times, first in 1976 and then twice more in 2000. Bill Arhos, the show’s co-creator producer shared this embarrassing personal story in tribute after Scruggs’ sad 2012 death.
“In the early 70s, we were…at the Waldorf Astoria in New York and, during a break, I heard an incredible sound of a band coming from somewhere in the hotel and proceeded to try to track it down. I can only describe the sound as Bluejazz or Jazzgrass. It was a rehearsal in the ballroom but it broke up just as I was approaching it down a hallway, whereupon a man with a really elaborate banjo came walking toward me. I said, “Gee mister, you REALLY can play that thing” and he said, “Thank you, son.” Arhos later found out that he had complimented the legendary Earl Scruggs for knowing how to play a banjo well. Eek.
The next artist on the list might surprise you.
“Island escapism” musician Jimmy Buffett graced ACL’s stages for the first time in 1977 and later in 1984. Best known for his hit tune “Margaritaville,” Buffett is now involved in a variety of business ventures, from a chain of restaurants to video games to beer production. But in 1977 he had just begun to become very famous as a musician after opening some shows with the Eagles and embarking on his own “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” tour. Buffett hit ACL on June 7 and performed his standard style of southern music with and island flair. His set was followed by local Austin musician Rusty Wier.
Next up, a singer from a musical dynasty.
Rosanne Cash was blessed with the benefit of having the legendary Johnny Cash as a father, but she is a mega talent in her own right. She’s performed on ACL eight times now, with two of those appearances in 1983 – one of which was with her then-husband Randy Crowell). Cash was battling a substance abuse problem during her first ACL performances, and sought treatment for addiction in 1984. In 2017, Cash will be inducted into the esteemed ACL Hall of Fame, along with other icons including Roy Orbison and The Neville Brothers. She has four Grammy Awards to her name.
You might not have heard of the next band, but you’ll get a great description of the ACL studio.
Balcones Fault was a band that combined a unique mix of swing, reggae, rock, blues, jazz, and country music. The band made its ACL debut during Season 1, in 1976. Howie Richey, author of the book Party Weird: Festivals & Fringe Gatherings of Austin was present for Balcones’ Fault’s performance and described it in depth.
“In the lobby, you could get a cup of Lone Star Beer and then find yourself a seat in the Ushaped bleachers. Two floors above you soars the ceiling, and grids of spotlights, floodlights and fill lights illuminate the audience and the stage. The backdrop is a downtown Austin skyline drawn in realistic detail. It gives viewers back home the notion that ACL takes place outside. The backdrop was periodically updated as construction changed the cityscape. If you looked extremely closely, you could see a person’s silhouette waving at you from a tiny window.”
The next artist has a surprising punk connection.
Joe Ely Should Stay
Joe Ely’s first performance on Austin City Limits was in 1980, and the Texan made six more appearances on the show, which included a 2002 appearance with his band The Flatlanders. He is best known for his singles “Sweet Suzanne,” “Musta Notta Gotta Lotta,” and “Highways and Heartaches.” His last studio album was 2015’s “Panhandle Rambler.
Fun fact: Ely sang backup vocals on the hit Clash song “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. In turn, the punk band mentioned him in one of their other songs: “Well there ain’t no better blend than Joe Ely and his Texas Men”.
Merle Haggard’s Fugitive Dedication
The great country singer and songwriter Merle Haggard, who made his ACL debut in 1978, appeared on the show a whopping nine times. The first time Haggard performed on ACL, he was joined by The Strangers, his longtime band that included then-wife Bonnie Owens. Rolling Stone wrote a piece about the episode, including a portion where Haggard asked the audience for their requests.
“Haggard prefaces their performance of his first Number One hit ‘I’m a Lonesome Fugitive’ — the title of which he shortens to ‘The Fugitive’ — by remarking, ‘We’ll go into what is known as our prison segment. We’ll dedicate it especially for all the shut-in friends over at the county jail.'”
ACL’s producers were excited to book the next artist on our list.
Rockin’ Ray Charles
Soul music pioneer Ray Charles appeared on Austin City Limits in 1980 and 1984, and he was one of the biggest artists on the show at that point. In a 2014 issue of Austin Monthly, ACL’s executive producer Terry Lickona spoke of the importance of having Charles on the show.
“‘Getting Ray Charles, when the show was still so young and didn’t have that much of a reputation in the music business, spoke volumes,” Lickona says. “It validated that we had achieved some level of recognition and credibility that we hadn’t had before.’”
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
Blues rock band Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble made their first appearance in 1984 to promote their debut album “Texas Flood,” which became a commercial and critical success. The band’s appearance on ACL was their first ever live television performance. They played the show again in 1989. Tragically, Stevie Ray Vaughan was tragically killed in a helicopter crash the following year (1990). He was posthumously inducted into the ACL Hall of Fame in 2014, and he and Double Trouble were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
Steve Goodman and the City of New Orleans
Steve Goodman made two performances on the show, including a collaboration with John Prine. Goodman is best known for writing the song “City of New Orleans,” which was recorded by Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson. On September 20, 1984, the artist died from leukemia at the young age of 36. “City of New Orleans” won a Grammy Award the year after Goodman’s death.
In 2003 a video (in VHS and DVD format) of both performances was released under the Red Pajamas logo. The video features a behind-the-scenes look at recording the ACL shows, as well as interviews with Goodman and other musicians.
Nanci Griffith, Trailblazer
Folk-rock singer Nanci Griffith got her big break after appearing on ACL in 1985. Prior to that, according to BigOZine2, “when Nanci Griffith did these shows, one could say that Griffith was probably known to a small circle of fans and folk/country listeners.” That all changed after Austin City Limits. Griffith, an Austin native, would go on to release hits such as “Once in a Very Blue Moon,” “Cold Hearts/Closed Minds,” and “Trouble in the Fields.” Her last appearance on Austin City Limits was in 2002. She was the 2008 recipient of the Americana Trailblazer Award from the Americana Music Association.
Our next musician only made one appearance on ACL.
Roy Orbison Only Needed One Time
Roy Orbison made only one appearance on the show in 1982, but he made it a good one. When he and his band performed on the ACL stage during Season 8, their performance was so incredible that it was one of the very firsts to be released on CD and DVD afterward. On December 6, 1988, the artist passed away from a heart attack at the age of 52. A year before his death, Orbison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2010, he was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 2017 he was inducted into the ACL Hall of Fame.
Full Circle With Emmylou Harris And Willie Nelson
Grammy Award-winning artist Emmylou Harris made her ACL debut in 1982. At that time she was receiving much chart-topping success and moved to Nashville that same year. She has since appeared on the show eight more times. One of the best songwriters in the business, Harris has worked with countless musicians over the years including Gram Parsons, Dolly Parton, Mark Knopfler, Neil Young, and Ryan Adams. In 2012, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and has received 13 Grammy Awards over her career so far.
Emmylou and Willie Nelson, the show’s original performer, debuted on the ACL 40th Anniversary Season Finale in 2015.
Flaco Jiménez with Ry Cooder and Augie Meyers
Accordionist Flaco Jiménez appeared on the show in 1976, 1980, 1995, and 1999. At their debut ACL performance, the Tex Mex trio played hits like “La Polaka,” “La Nueva Senida,” * “Morenita Mia,” “La Estrella,” and “La Bamba.” In 2015, Jiménez was inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, which featured a special appearance from the Texan during his own tribute. His last release was the 2014 collaboration album with Max Baca titled “Flaco & Max: Legends & Legacies.” Jiménez was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.
Next up is an artist with a colorful reputation… and a story involving a riding lawnmower.
“No Show” George Jones
Also referred to as the “Possum,” country musician George Jones appeared on ACL in 1981, 1986, and 1990. Over six decades, the Texan became one of the most influential singer-songwriters in the country scene, and he has written over 150 hit singles, including “I Always Get Lucky with You” and “Walk Through This World with Me.” Jones might be almost as well-known for his antics out of the recording studio as for his music. He once took a riding lawn mower on a five-mile-per-hour trip through town to get to the liquor store after his wife took the car keys away because he was drunk.
Loretta Lynn, The Coalminer’s Daughter
In 1983, country music icon Loretta Lynn made her first ACL appearance in support of her album “Lyin’, Cheatin’, Woman Chasin’, Honky Tonkin’, Whiskey Drinkin’ You.” She was a huge star by this point, having been the subject of the blockbuster 1980 film Coalminer’s Daughter. The Kentucky native didn’t shy away from taboo topics georgthat many female musicians would have avoided: she sang about booze and sex and cheating, and everything in between. Lynn would appear on the show again in 1998. In 2015, she was inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame.
Blues singer-songwriter Delbert McClinton made his ACL debut in 1977. The following year, Emmylou Harris had a smash hit with a McClinton-authored song “Two More Bottles of Wine.” McClinton, a Texan, has made seven other appearances on the show since his first performance. He is best known for the singles “Giving It Up for Your Love,” “Shotgun Rider,” and his duet with Tanya Tucker titled “Tell Me About It.” His last studio album was 2013’s “Blind, Crippled and Crazy.”
Interesting tidbit: his recording of “Weatherman” is the one used over the opening credits of the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day.
Guy Clark, A Desperado
Folk/country singer Guy Clark made his first appearance on Austin City Limits in 1977, and the Texan had six more performances on the show, including a collaboration with Lyle Lovett in 2000. In 1999, Clark released an album called “Live from Austin, TX” which was a recording of his 1989 performance on ACL.
On May 17, 2016, the star died at the age of 74 from lymphoma. A year before his death, he was inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, in a ceremony that included a tribute from Jason Isbell. Isbell performed Clark’s signature hit “Desperadoes Waiting For a Train,” about the way music can bond people across the ages.
Singer/songwriter Gail Davies comes from a musical family and seems to have inherited the gift herself. Her father is country singer Tex Dickerson and her brother is the songwriter Ron Davies.
Gail Davies has had three performances on Austin City Limits, including a 1986 collaboration with Emmylou Harris. The country artist is best known for making hits such as “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me),” “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” and “Someone Is Looking for Someone Like You.” She’s also known as the first female record producer in the field of country music. Davies continues to tour today.
Michael Martin Murphey (And Son)
Michael Martin Murphey made his debut on ACL in 1978 to promote his album “Lone Wolf.” The artist is known for the singles “Wildfire,” “A Long Line of Love,” and “What’s Forever For.” He also performed on the show in 1981 and 1983.
Murphey frequently writes and plays music with his son. Speaking about his son Ryan in an interview with Red Dirt Nation, Murphey said “He may have even been five when he first went on ‘Austin City Limits’ with me. He played guitar and sang a Hank Williams’ song with me.”
In 2009, Murphey received his first Grammy nomination.