"I wanna go home with the armadilla' / Hear country music from Amarilla' to Abilene"
— from "London Homesick Blues"
A Texan songwriter named Gary P. Nunn, not Jerry Jeff Walker, penned that familiar passage and for the better part of three decades it's been the opening/closing refrain to the PBS live music showcase Austin City Limits. With much of the CMT network since co-opting this type of themed presentation, ACL has nonetheless held steadfast with the best of 'em while incorporating new, untetsed elements into its lineup.
Licensed and issued by the Austin City Limits show and New West Records, the recently released Live From Austin, TX discs have stepped up as one of the more extensive music series in recent memory. Thus far such icons as Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard have been immortalized in the series, as have lesser knowns like Sir Doug Sahm and Delbert McClinton. Recent additions to the series continue to present notable past performances (in their entirety) from the show's rich catalog.
The 1986 appearance of Antoine "Fats" Domino has long been a much requested rerun. Thankfully, a hard copy of his whole performance is now available. "The Big Man" wasn't exactly topping Billboard charts during the '80s, but that did absolutely nothing to detract from Domino's cordial, spirited performance as classics like "Blueberry Hill" and "Walkin' To New Orleans" reverberate tremendously with the crowd. Appearances from such legendary artists also did much to expand the show's artist/audience demographic.
A 1982 show from Delbert McClinton is another recently dusted-off gem. Belting out no nonsense blues 'n' soul anthems like "Lipstick, Powder and Paint" and Otis Redding's "Dreams To Remember," his rapport with the appreciative Austin audience is both inherently casual and emotionally electric. Another soulful band of mostly Austinites, the Sir Douglas Quintet, deliver another show-stopper that presents a rare 1981 TV appearance by the mock British Invaders. SDQ leaders Sahm and Augie Myers, with Freddie Fender and Flaco Jimenez, would later return to the ACL stage as the Texas Tornados.
Though household names are customary to ACL shows, that doesn't mean each individual performance is remembered as legendary. For instance, the Outlaw Country volume — which pairs Willie Nelson, Waylon, and Kristofferson with Lone Star songsmiths Billy Joe Shaver and Kimmie Rhodes — presents several of the songwriters playing loose and shrugging off missed chords. That doesn't mean the show is a flop, though. When Jennings flubs a couple lines of "I'd Have Been Out of Jail," you can witness the casual camaraderie among the musicians. The appearance also features much seldom heard material — such as Kristofferson's "Fighter" and Nelson's "Too Sick To Pray" (from the now out-of-print Spirit album) — making it a very interesting anomaly within the bunch.
Austin City Limits has also debuted many newer acts that've gone on to carve their own unique niches. A fine example is the 2003 debut appearance of ingénue Neko Case. Accompanied by vocalist Kelly Hogan and guitarist Jon Rauhouse, Case is obviously nervous when taking the stage but her emotional set gradually overwhelms that anxiety. When she and ace-in-the-hole Hogan harmonize on Catherine Irwins' sultry " Hex," cold chills are bound to rush down the spine.
Case's recent DVD has since been followed by volumes including Texan swingsters Asleep at the Wheel and jam faves String Cheese Incident. With barely two seasons' worth of material already released, there's an ongoing treasure trove of ACL episodes yet to be unearthed and many of the shows from the 1970s still remain untouched. That means Tom Waits, Los Lobos, Wilco, Ray Charles, Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt, and Loretta Lynn, among others, wait in the wings. —Michael Andrews