Archive for April, 2016
How The Willie Nelson Pilot Turned ‘Austin City Limits’ Into A Musical Institution
by: Andrew Husband
Whether you’re a flannel-wearing hipster who listens to The Avett Brothers on repeat during a daily bike commute, or a red-in-the-neck redneck who thinks Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” is second only to “The Star Spangled Banner,” you know at least two things about modern country music. First, that much of it owes its existence to the long-running public television music program, Austin City Limits, and the two-weekend festival it inspired. And second? Neither the show nor the festival would have happened without Willie Nelson.
Born in the small north Texas town of Abbott on April 29, 1933, Nelson made his first musical marks in Nashville throughout the ’60s and early ’70s. However, the singer-songwriter was never completely satisfied by the famous country music scene in Tennessee, so he semi-retired in 1972 and moved to Austin, Texas. That’s when the so-called “Outlaw Country” subgenre was born — a movement whose hippie influences and musical menageries were enticing enough to bring Nelson back on stage.
Nelson’s popularity soon began to skyrocket, especially when he and other progressive country music acts attended the 1972 Dripping Springs Reunion and the Fourth of July Picnics it inspired. As Nelson’s appeal grew, so too did other venues’ desires to feature him at their events or on their television programs. According to Tracey E. W. Laird, author of Austin City Limits: A History, this attraction “culminated in a late 1973 live production featuring Willie Nelson, Michael Murphey, and the [Armadillo Country Music Revue’s] house band, Greezy Wheels.” The performance was simulcast in Austin and San Antonio by the latter’s PBS affiliate KLRN. That’s when program director Bill Arhos, the man who would become the main driving force behind ACL, entered the picture.
Arhos, who joined KLRN (and then its Austin spinoff, KLRU) in 1961 and worked his way up the ladder, wanted to respond to PBS’ “push for KLRN to create programs of NOVA-size stature.” Public television in the Texas Hill Country didn’t have the budget that NOVA‘s home station in Boston did, so Arhos acquired $13,000 in grant funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and set out to create a new live music program.
Depending on what you read, a lot of people had a hand in inspiring and creating ACL. Laird notes that Arhos named local writers Jan Reid and Joe Gracey as the parties responsible for suggesting the idea. However, per the program’s official website, the program director “hatched the idea” for the show with director Bruce Scafe and producer Paul Bosner. Scafe brought his experiences from directing another public television music program, The Session, for WSIU in Carbondale, Illinois. As for Bosner, his fandom for the progressive country music scene in Austin is what turned Arhos onto the subgenre and determined ACL‘s focus. He also inspired the title, because he “saw the sign every week when he commuted from Dallas to Austin” for work.
Yes, all of this matters if you truly want to know who helped usher Outlaw Country onto the televised (and later nationally syndicated) stage, but there wouldn’t be a live music program if it weren’t for the music. Arhos and his team needed a pilot to show PBS, so on October 13, 1974, they filmed one with then-progressive country big shot B.W. Stevenson. Laird quotes a TIME magazine article that at the time named Stevenson “the most commercially successful of the young Austin musicians,” which was true, but it wasn’t enough to populate the studio with an audience big enough for the cameras. Arhos “scuttled the show” because of the poor turnout, though the ACL website suggests “the recording was deemed unusable.” Either way, they still needed a pilot.
So they booked Nelson the following night, October 14, and recorded a second pilot. Stevenson might have been more “commercially successful,” but Nelson’s appeal in Austin and the surrounding region was guaranteed to draw a large crowd to the venue for taping. According to the New York Times, Arhos had $7,000 left for the second round, but that was plenty of money for putting on a concert and filming the results. Besides, as Laird explains it, ACL only pays its artists “union scale.” That’s how a PBS affiliate was able to afford the likes of Stevenson and Nelson for two back-to-back concerts, as well as how the show is still able to afford the talent it attracts over 40 years later.
For a solid hour, Nelson and his band mates played 16 songs for a live studio audience that was almost too big for the venue — especially because stands were put behind the stage to accommodate the numbers. The then-41-year-old singer belted out older tunes like the 1970 hit “Bloody Mary Morning” and the more recent “Whiskey River,” which would go on to become a modern country classic. It was a lot of music for what seemed like such a small endeavor at the time, especially because the production wasn’t exactly equipped with the best video and audio equipment by the day’s standards, but that didn’t matter. The homemade quality was by design, and Nelson loved it.
So much so that he agreed to help Arhos raise money and awareness for the ACL pilot during his 1975 tour. According to Clint Richmond’s Willie Nelson: Behind the Music, which was based on the VH1 series, spent time at PBS affiliates throughout the country. He performed at station pledge drives, offered clips from the ACL pilot and spoke up about the show whenever he had the chance. Arhos did the same, albeit in a more direct manner with the top brass at PBS. He offered the pilot as part of the 1975 pledge drive, sent tapes to fellow program directors and general managers at other stations, and fought for as much exposure as possible.
The result? PBS picked up ACL in 1976 and provided the team with enough funding to invite more acts, big and small for 10, 60-minute episodes. Arhos was, as the Austin-American Statesman put it when he died in 2015, the “driving force” behind its initial and continued success. However, Nelson didn’t stop his association with Austin, the KLRU family and the television show that broadcast his music onto a much larger national stage. Quite the contrary, as he would return to perform on the program eight more times — including for the 40th anniversary special in 2014.
As Laird concludes her book’s section about Nelson’s relationship with ACL, “the pilot’s timing coincided with Nelson’s far-reaching critical buzz in 1975 and placed [the show] right there with him in his uniquely hip corner of the musical universe.” From the mid-’70s and on, both Nelson and the once-fledgling local music program exploded onto the national stage, where they both remain decades later.
by Billy Dukes
Happy Birthday, Willie Nelson! But don’t take it from us. Nearly two dozen country stars gathered to wish the country legend a happy 83rd birthday recently. See special messages from Thomas Rhett, Brothers Osborne, Kelsea Ballerini, Charles Kelley and more.
Cole Swindell, a Thousand Horses, Clay Walker and Dustin Lynch are a few more who were eager to wish Nelson a Happy Birthday. The “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” singer was born on April 29, 1933. His country music career began after a short stint in the military and some time as a radio deejay. First he was a burgeoning songwriter, but beginning with “Willingly” in 1962, Nelson became a hit recording artist, as well.
Lynch and Mickey Guyton were sure to thank for all he has done for country musicians. Rhett and Swindell say meeting the legend tops their bucket lists. Kelley and Jana Kramer refer to Nelson’s favorite habit — you know the one. In all, eighteen country hitmakers took time during the 2016 ACM Awards to offer well-wishes for a country music original in his seventh decade of recording and touring.
Nelson has a lot ahead in 2016. His tour schedule begins in May with a show in Florence, S.C. and he’ll stay busy through the summer. New music is always on the horizon. Just last year he released the Django and Jimmie album with Merle Haggard. The critically acclaimed project inspired a tour with two country icons. Sadly, Haggard became ill before he was able to finish the tour.
If You Go:
WHAT: Willie Nelson and Family – Live in Concert
WHEN: 8 p.m. May 19
WHERE: Florence Civic Center
ADMISSION: A limited number of tickets to the May 19 show are still available. Tickets range from $30 to $55 and can be purchased online atwww.florenceciviccenter.com or at the Florence Civic Center box office.
by: Deborah Swearingen
FLORENCE, S.C. – The Florence Civic Center has announced a new lineup for the May 19 Willie Nelson concert after the unexpected death of the show’s co-headliner, Merle Haggard, in early April.
Kris Kristofferson and a country group called The Strangers, featuring Haggard’s sons, Ben and Noel, will join Nelson on the stage for the show that will now honor Haggard’s legacy.
“Obviously no one could ever replace Merle Haggard,” said Nick Hooker, senior marketing manager at the venue. “That was not the objective. It was to bring in someone of the same stature in more of an honorary role.”
Hooker said he knew the tour was working on some big names that would be appropriate for the concert but did not have confirmation of the new lineup until Thursday afternoon.
“It’s great news. We’re very excited,” he said. “Kris Kristofferson is one of the original outlaws of country music, one of the original members of the Highwaymen just like Willie Nelson.”
Kristofferson is a three-time Grammy-award winner and has recorded 28 albums, including three with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings as part of the Highwaymen.
Plus, Hooker said, it will be a wonderful experience to have Haggard’s two sons join the lineup in honor of their father.
“I think that is a deeply passionate and wonderful notion that they’re willing to hop on the tour, head to Florence and perform for all of Merle’s fans,” he said.
There was a lot of concern when Haggard died, Hooker said, but fans were considerate of the situation.
“The fans were very patient through this ordeal, and we really appreciate their understanding and their support,” he said.
A very limited number of tickets to the May 19 show are still available. Tickets range from $30 to $55 and can be purchased online at www.florenceciviccenter.com or at the Florence Civic Center box office.
Jessica Simpson took some time out on Friday to wish the legendary country singer a happy 83rd birthday, whom she bonded with after the two starred together in 2005’s The Dukes of Hazzard. Simpson played Daisy Duke in the movie version of the hit TV series to Nelson’s Uncle Jesse.
“Happy Birthday” Simpson captioned an Instagram pic of the two gazing at one another. “You are the best human this lady knows. Are you even human? #willienelsonforpresident.”
Several of us gathered around the Willie Nelson statute in Austin and made this video for Willie’s 80th, but it’s still fun to watch.
Dave Thomas continues his week-long celebration of Willie Nelson’s birthday and see more photos
Willie Week: Want to know the Red Headed Stranger? Read these books
By Dave Thomas
If you’re not an anti-marijuana crusader, if you don’t have a Justin Bieber poster above your day bed, there’s a pretty fair chances you like Willie Nelson. But being a Willie Nelson superfan requires a little more education.
It’s easy to like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” It takes commitment to know all the words to “I Never Cared for You.” It’s easy to know Willie’s guitar is named “Trigger.” It takes some research to know the name of the fellow that takes care of it on the road. It’s easy to remember Willie Nelson was born in Abbott and lives near Austin. But do you know his connection to Fort Worth? San Antonio? Bandera?
Fortunately, the Red Headed Stranger is no more a stranger than he is red-headed these days. All you have to do is want to learn and Willie Nelson U. is in session. Here is your required reading:
“The Facts of Life And Other Dirty Jokes” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road,” by Willie Nelson: When Willie rolled out the “Roll Me Up and …” book to go along with his 80th birthday and his “Heroes” album, everyone else got the memo: “Don’t be a critic, the man is 80 years old. Just say it’s great.” But this one jerk couldn’t be dissuaded from saying “Hey, it’s the same book he released 10 years ago! Right down to the same golf jokes!” I couldn’t help it. It was true. Pick either book for a mix of philosophical musings, history and humor, but you don’t need to read both.
“Willie Nelson Family Album” by Lana Nelson and “Willie Nelson: Heartworn Memories” by Susie Nelson:The “Family Album” is essentially a scrapbook, a trove of not-seen-elsewhere photos, some news clippings a little biographical exposition and enough song lyrics to pad out the effort to a respectable thickness. But “Heartworn Memories” is a surprisingly effective effort, written through the perspective of a daughter who saw a side of Willie even the most dedicated biographer couldn’t reach. Surprisingly frank at times, it’s the go-to source for understanding Willie’s tumultuous home life.
“It’s a Long Story: My Life” by Willie Nelson: The latest entry on this list and, for the superfan, superfluous. However, this relaxed and comfortable conversation with Willie is the perfect entry-level bio for the curious. A fast read, it covers all the bases, but doesn’t linger long on any.
“Willie Nelson: The Outlaw” by Graeme Thomson: Written by an Englishman, “The Outlaw” offers up a whole new perspective on Willie Nelson, albeit one with an odd spelling every few pages. Thomson left no stone unturned in conducting interviews, talking to heavyweights such as Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard in addition to longtime associates such as Zeke Varnon, Larry Trader and Johnny Bush. In only a few pages, the book offers perhaps the most definitive look at the most off-limits topic in the Willie universe — the suicide of his son Billy.
Willie Nelson, An Epic Life” by Joe Nick Patoski: This is the definitive biography, though, like every other book on this list, it kinda skates through everything that happened after the IRS thing was settled. Still, when I’m old and gray, I’m going sit in my South Texas barn every morning and read a little bit from the gospel of Patoski-describes-Willie-in-Austin-in-the-1970s.“Willie” by Willie Nelson with Bud Shrake: This 1988 book was the top word for a long time, if you liked your Willie recollections unsullied by tiresome and lengthy examinations of his IRS troubles (which happened in the early 1990s). The genius — and the lasting significance — of the book is that most chapters are followed by “The Chorus” … stories, explanations, memories by his friends and family. Particularly telling is the one from first wife Martha, who clarifies that she did not sew up a passed-out Willie in a bed sheet and beat him with a broom handle: “The truth is, I tied him up with the kids’ jump ropes before I beat the hell out of him.” Sewing, she says, would’ve taken much too long.