On a High Note

Music Professor Tracey Laird finds out how Austin City Limits hits a high note every show

Tracey Laird

Tracey Laird is professor of music and chair of the Agnes Scott Department of Music. Her courses at Agnes Scott include American Popular Music, History of Jazz, Intro to the Art of Music, Issues and Methods of Ethnomusicology and a First-Year Seminar entitled Writing About Music: Rock, Rap, Country and In Between. She also regularly leads the senior seminar in music, with recent topics like music's relationship to neuroscience, to politics or to the experience of meaning.

We sat down with Laird to get a closer look at her recently published book, Austin City Limits: A History (Oxford University Press, 2014), which explores the significance of the 40-years-and-running PBS television music program.

You specialize in ethnomusicology. What is ethnomusicology?

I grew up playing the piano since the age of eight, and when I got to college, I was a music major. Music is traditionally studied through music theory and music history, both of which tended to focus on “the score” as the central object of musical concern. When I was a junior, I heard the term ‘ethnomusicology,’ which is the study of people making music, and I said to myself, ‘Yes, that’s it!’ Ethnomusicology binds together music, writing, folklore and anthropology—everything I was interested in. I eventually got a doctorate from the University of Michigan in ethnomusicology. Originally I thought I was going to specialize in Latin American music, particularly festival traditions in the Dominican Republic, but I ultimately concluded that subject would make a great dissertation for someone else.

You grew up in the South and listened to country music, which led you to write one book, which then led you to write about Austin City Limits.

I grew up in Shreveport, La. We had a 50,000-watt AM radio station, KWKH, that hosted the second- most popular radio barn dance in the country. The Grand Old Opry hosted the biggest. For four hours every Saturday night, KWKH played live country music with a live audience, from 1948 to 1960. The story of that became Louisiana Hayride: Radio and Roots Music Along the Red River, published in 2004. While finishing that book, I was asked to serve on an academic panel to talk about the long-running PBS show, Austin City Limits. In doing research for that, it occurred to me that somebody should write a book about this show So I did. (Austin City Limits: A History was published in October by Oxford University Press.)

Austin City Limits has aired on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) continuously for 40 years. What is the magic behind this show?

The show puts a strict emphasis on the music performance and the energy between the performers and the audience. That contrasts with a lot of music on commercial television. Musical performances on commercial television are subject to 15-minute increments because airtime has to be sold to a sponsor. Performers on Austin City Limits can just play their music before the audience and are not beholden to limits structured around commercial breaks. In other words, this kind of show wouldn’t happen outside of PBS.

How has the show progressed? 

The pilot aired in 1974, and for the first season’s 13 shows, 80 percent of the bookings were progressive country music performers such as Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker. But progressive music was on its way out of Austin’s local scene. The show moved into more variety, first with more mainstream country, then roots music, and then with the much broader musical styles that characterize it today. Yet, all the while, artists appeared who didn’t fit any predetermined mold in terms of musical genre. Ray Charles was on the show twice in the 1980s. Manhattan Transfer was on the show during its 1990s “roots music” phase. Once again, PBS allowed the show the space to explore different music styles.

BookBut the show hit a snag in the early 1990s. What happened?

Because PBS funding runs year-to-year, Austin City Limits never knew if it had a life beyond the end of the fiscal year. By the early 1990s, both network TV and PBS were in trouble because cable was encroaching on their audiences. PBS decided to restructure, and put the show into a higher programming bracket, meaning that local PBS stations had to pay more if they wanted to air Austin City Limits. About one-third of the PBS stations across the country dropped the show from their lineup. When the show was again picked up, it had lost its prime-time spot in many markets.

During those tough budget times, beginning in the 1980s and peaking in the 1990s, came formal discussions in Austin between musicians, the Austin Music Industry Council, civic leaders, lawyers for the arts, etc., on how to brand the city as the ‘Live Music Capital of the World.’ People see the show, Austin City Limits, and the city of Austin as intertwined and wonder which one came first.  It’s more accurate to say that the two entities rose in tandem. 

And then came ACL Music Festival in 2001.

Austin City Limits helped the festival win buy-in from city leaders because the show already had credibility. In return, the festival ended the show’s budgetary night sweats by guaranteeing earnings through a licensing agreement. The show was able to expand its bookings through the festival. It’s what Austin City Limits people often refer to as the ‘Coldplay effect.’ Coldplay was the first stadium band to play Austin City Limits.

Though the original arrangement was a formal business partnership, it has since evolved to more of a licensing agreement, but Austin City Limits and the ACL Music Festival remain joined at the hip.

What did you like about hanging out in Austin?

Definitely the breakfast burritos. In 2011, Austin City Limits moved to a new venue that doubles as a TV studio when it’s time to tape a show. It’s called the ACL Live at the Moody Theater, and the acoustics there are incredible. I would recommend catching a show there anytime you visit Austin. When I was researching the book, the best part was talking with the crew of Austin City Limits. So many of them are musicians themselves and have worked on the show for many, many years. The way they talk about what they do is inspiring. And the end result—the fluidity and intuitive camera work—is so different than what you normally see on television. The show is mapped out, yet there is also so much spontaneity.

TVWhat is your favorite performance on Austin City Limits?

If I had to pick just one, it would probably be Tom Waits in 1979 (season 4). It’s a fantastic performance, and it also represents a turning point for Austin City Limits. It sloughed off any bounded, over-determined expectations for who might appear on stage. What other media outlet in the United States would have aired an hour of Tom Waits? But over the years there have been so many episodes that I’ve loved. Fats Domino is another one I will never forget. And I recently watched an episode with Raphael Saadiq, and I was excited about his music in a way that I wouldn’t have been if I had just heard a studio recording. This happens over and over again with Austin City Limits.