Austin’s latest guitar great, Gary Clark Jr., didn’t first learn about the blues from knocking around the club scene in his hometown. In fact, his introduction to the world beyond the pop radio dial came through television, when Austin City Limits aired a three-episode tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan.
As music legends and ACL vets like Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow and Jeff Bridges buzzed backstage at Thursday’s 40th anniversary taping of the popular live music series, Clark talked about the impression those shows made on him as a developing musician. “As a young guitar player I soaked that up because it was just different and new and it was from my home,” he told Rolling Stone. “I couldn’t believe this was going on in my own town. After that Stevie show I would watch religiously because I had to know what was going on.”
Testimonials like this were easy to come by at an event that drew an all-star lineup of performers including Kris Kristofferson, Alabama Shakes, Jimmie Vaughan, Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely, Doyle Bramhall II and Latin funk rockers Grupo Fantasma.
The four-hour show hosted by Crow and Bridges – and set to air on October 3rd as the kickoff to the series’ new season – featured plenty of the dream collaborations these kind of nights are built on. The wish list pairings kicked off with Raitt, Clark and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard teaming up for the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “Wrap It Up” and Crow and Kristofferson taking the stage for “Me and Bobby McGee” soon after.
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Howard’s simmering blues wail was a highlight throughout the night, both on her guest appearances and on a pair of her own band’s songs, including the restrained and slow-building “Gimme All Your Love.”
Raitt praised both the young singer and the aforementioned Clark, suggesting that the quality of talent in the room spoke to the influence the show has attained since debuting with a Willie Nelson performance in 1974. “It feels like home to me,” she said of her multiple ACL appearances, the first in 1981. “It’s perfect for roots musicians, and to see Brittany again and have two generations of blues and rhythm & blues artists – this is a perfect chance to just hang because these people are like family to me.”
Thanks to a house band of Austin musicians led by famed producer and steel guitar player Lloyd Maines, the show’s Texas roots were apparent throughout the night, with Keen and Ely even teaming up near the end for a run through the Highwaymen’s “The Road Goes On Forever” that saw the audience clapping and singing along loud enough to nearly overtake the performers.
Another surprise came when a video showed the Foo Fighters performing Roky Erickson’s “Two-Headed Dog” in the original Austin City Limits studio earlier this year. The video will air as part of the 40th anniversary special broadcast, with lead singer Dave Grohl giving praise to ACL’s legacy and telling the camera that being invited to tape an episode in 2008 was a career milestone for his band.
Crow shared a similar thought during a break backstage, recalling how her first taping, soon after the release of 1993’s “Tuesday Night Music Club,” helped to validate her work. “It was the biggest deal for me because it was a show for musicians,” she said. “It was where you got to see authentic singer-songwriters, authentic players and it was the mark of real musicianship. The show gave you the opportunity to see an artist stretch out and do something different from a recording and demonstrate they’re able to play their stuff live and reinterpret it.”
The Grammy-winning singer returned to the stage for a final time when the entire cast closed the program with a raucous cover of the Buddy Holly rave-up “Not Fade Away” that saw nearly all of the 10 guitar players grab a solo turn. The closing number acted as an exclamation point on the night, one last affirmation of the show’s prestige and ability to draw an all-star lineup of grateful musicians.
Bridges, himself a recording alum of the show, put ACL’s legacy in perspective, sharing his own Stevie Ray memory. “I mean, it beat out American Bandstand, what more can you say?” Bridges said. “I remember the first time I caught it Stevie Ray Vaughan was on and I thought it was cool that he got to get on TV and just play. I didn’t know what it was when I saw it – I thought maybe it was one of those TV specials.”