Austin City Limits aired for the first time on Jan. 2, 1975. A stripped-down take on the musical variety show, ACL shed that glamour, glitz and cheeky comedy of the 1960s' musical television offerings. Originally intended to promote the artists and music of Texas, the show has now become a major platform for artists of all genres and locations, solidifying Austin as a musical mecca in its own right.
From its first show -- which featured Austin's own outlaw country star Willie Nelson -- Austin City Limits hasn't worried about appeasing traditionalists with its selection of stars and performers. In its 40-plus years on air, ACL has promoted artists on the fringes and introduced the world to superstars, featuring both up-and-coming acts before they hit the big time and world-class performers at their peak.
Austin City Limits is the longest-running music series on television; it's also the only TV show to have been awarded the Presidential Medal of the Arts. In its more than four decades, multiple offshoot TV specials, a two-weekend-long Austin City Limits Music Festival and the ACL Hall of Fame have all been established as well.
ACL has been the vehicle for countless epic musical moments: unlikely collaborations, once-in-a-lifetime performances and major debuts. Read on to see 10 of the best.
ACL was a groundbreaking show when it first aired on public television in January of 1975. Created to showcase local Texas artists and music styles, the first episode was originally planned to feature pop-country crossover BW Stevenson, but the recording was unusable, so Nelson's performance was used for the show. Originally pitched as part of the 1975 pledge-drive fundraiser for PBS, the show was so successful that it was picked up as a series.
Prine made his first of many ACL appearances in 1978. That time, he was joined by Steve Goodman and Willie Nelson.
In June of 2018, Prine performed on ACL for the eighth time. “I guess I’m just going to keep on doing it 'til I get it right,” Prine says of his many appearances. “It’s a damn good place to come to, and it’s hard to leave.”
True to ACL's boundary-pushing reputation, Williams Jr. appeared on the show in 1980 to promote his then-new song "Family Tradition."
"King George" was a fresh-faced 32-year-old when he performed on ACL in 1984 -- his second appearance on the show, during which he played a number of his hit songs. Strait's first appearance came in 1982, shortly after the release of his debut single, "Unwound."
Campbell appeared on Austin City Limits in 1985 to play his hit song "Wichita Lineman."
The Allman Brothers(1996)
Country-rockers the Allman Brothers Band took the stage in Austin in 1996, playing their iconic hit "Midnight Rider."
Alison Krauss & Union Station(2000)
Krauss & Union Station appeared on ACL for the first time in 1992; they showed up again in 1995, that time sharing an episode with Merle Haggard. Krauss was back in 2000, along with Trisha Yearwood, and then in 2002. The bluegrass standout's latest appearance on ACL took place in 2005.
Isbell played ACL for the first time in 2013, following the release of his breakthrough solo album, Southeastern. He returned to the show's stage in 2018, this time with his band the 400 Unit (including his talented wife, Amanda Shires).
A 40th Anniversary Blowout(2014)
In 2014, ACL celebrated 40 years on the air with a star-studded show hosted by Jeff Bridges, Sheryl Crow and Matthew McConaughey. The lineup for the landmark episode included Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and Kris Kristofferson as performers.
Stapleton played Austin City Limits in a 2017 performance that aired as the final episode of the show's 43rd season, in February of 2018. After his stripped-down set with his wife Morgane, Stapleton ceded the stage to the Turnpike Troubadours.