AUSTIN CITY LIMITS: A HISTORY
By Tracey E. W. Laird
Published in 2014 by Oxford University Press.
Reviewed by Laura D. Sanders.
Austin City Limits (or “ACL” as it’s known to many) crossed, and crosses, borders of all types. So does Dr. Tracey E. W. Laird, in her 2014 book Austin City Limits: A History. The book is a fascinating look at the people and events surrounding the show over the last 40 years – from it’s roots in the Armadillo World Headquarters, to Willie Nelson and beyond, and is worth buying for that history alone. However, don’t expect a straightforward chronological history of the television show. Instead Laird offers an in-depth analysis of various facets of Austin City Limits, ranging from its birth as a PBS television show and then, as it began crossing boundaries of both music genre and business type, an exploration of ACL as brand, music festival, and audience experience.
Laird considers the impact of ACL, its venue, and its production crew on the musicians playing in what are basically filmed live events. She looks at the impact the PBS’ lack of commercial interruptions had in forming those events, giving musicians a chance to relax into their music and “just play” to their audience without having to alter a performance to fit commercial timing.
In addition, Laird explores academic theories behind ACL, taking a look at the differences between the experiences of live music audiences and those hearing and/or seeing the music filtered through the medium of radio, television, or other technological media. She also explores the more recent development of “live streaming” ACL productions: music recordings of a live event, almost immediately transmitted via streaming video to the audience, yet still mediated and edited by the production crew. Without using the term, Dr. Laird explores the dramatistic questions of “who is holding the camera?” and “what impact does their mediation have on the television audience?” In Chapter 3, Laird shows that in the case of ACL the show, the camera crew has a long history of intuitively taking the right shots to start with, which are then lovingly and expertly edited, giving audiences on the television viewing end their own consistent experience of “being there.” Laird also explores the difference physical venue makes as the television version of ACL moves from PBS Studio 6 in the University of Texas Communications Building to the new and larger studio in the W Hotel building downtown, and later spins off an outdoor version of itself, becoming the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
Finally, Laird takes a look at the future and offers some interesting suggestions for what it may hold for Austin City Limits, the show that, after 40 years, still perennially reinvents itself, and which remains a viewer and musician favorite.
Laura D. Sanders is an editor and writer who resides in Austin and has been a member of the Writers’ League of Texas for several years. She enjoys bringing out the best in others’ writing. Website: www.lauradsanders.com and on LinkedIn.