Austin City Limits: A History
by Tracey E. W. Laird
New York: Oxford University Press, 2014
248 pp. $24.95. cloth
In Austin City Limits: A History, Tracey E. W. Laird presents an engaging narrative history of the enduring and influential television show that in many ways brought the city of Austin into the nation’s collective consciousness. Austin City Limits began as a local television show, grew to national and international reach, and spawned an enormously successful annual music festival as well as a modern performance and recording space. ACL, Laird argues, is an important symbol of the growth and transitioning nature of Austin itself, as both a tool of change, and a reflection thereof. By examining the development of the television show, and evaluating its growth, success, and offspring, she persuades that ACL, in aggregate, is a whole that is much more than the sum of its parts. She places ACL in a pivotal position of mediating regional and national identities as it shaped the aesthetics of an ever-increasing audience, bringing to them artists who challenged the conformist desires of the mainstream music industry.
For the most part, this book is a chronology, filled with vivid descriptions, remembrances, and a roster of musical acts that supports the centrality of ACL to the greater musical culture. Laird begins with the pilot episode in 1974 and ends with the creation of the ACL Live Moody Theater in 2011, adding a “Postlude” that brings the reader into a taping in that theater in 2013. Laird covers the early vision and its attendant challenges, noting that the show hit its stride in its fourth season when the current executive producer, Terry Lickona, took the helm. She explores the corresponding growth and transforming identities of ACL and its namesake city in the 1980s and 1990s, and Laird claims that both have had profound influence on the culture and industry of popular music throughout the United States.
By the show’s twenty-fifth anniversary, Laird argues that ACL underwent two key changes. First, it acknowledged its distance from its original “progressive country” identity that kept it tied to a particular genre and to an Austin that was long gone. It embraced a new identity—that of a nationally influential purveyor of what Lickona called “original, authentic, good” music, unbounded by genre. Next, it matched its more expansive identity with a brick and mortar expansion, creating the music festival and the performance space. Although Laird gives little attention to those who opposed this vision, and felt that what was “authentic” about Austin was being erased, her discussion of the development of ACL is as convincing as it is appealing.
This is Laird’s story of ACL—rich, vivid, and sure to delight all who revere the program and its brand, not to mention the city and its legend. However, as a history, it suffers from a few key flaws. Laird makes numerous comparative assessments of ACL’s influence, without offering evidence to support her (at times overstated) contentions. While her language is smooth and compelling for the most part, it is lightly peppered with academic jargon. Without a discernable analytical framework, this tends to render many of her conclusions vague, and unfortunately casts some doubt on her interpretive perspective as the author of a scholarly history. Still, it is a topic and a story well worth telling, and Laird tells it well.
Deirdre Lannon has a masters in history from Texas State University. Her thesis was “Swingin’ West: How Hollywood put the ‘Western’ in Texas Swing.