By: Arlene R. Weiss
It’s a bright Spring day, the sun shining, as Lickona, a genuine, affable, and now, a longtime native Texan, chats with me from his true home, his office at PBS affiliate KLRU in Austin, Texas, home to “Austin City Limits”.
Lickona begins with how “Austin City Limits” all came about. Its inception was the brainchild of its original creator, Bill Arhos. Arhos was already the Program Manager for the local PBS affiliate. Lickona relates what initially sparked the show’s idea for Arhos. “Back in the 70’s there were two things, one was the very prolific Austin music scene, which had just exploded with the arrival of Willie Nelson who had moved here from Nashville, and a place called The Armadillo World Headquarters, which was a huge cavernous music club which featured all kinds of music from people like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings to Bruce Springsteen, Fats Domino, and Ray Charles, and just anything you can imagine. That, plus the fact that the television station, KLRU, which is the PBS affiliate here in Austin, had just built brand new studio facilities on the University of Texas Campus. It had this huge studio which was designed for large productions. The management at the time, including Mr. Arhos, really had no idea what they were going to do with it. But between the large studio and the active music scene, it seemed like a natural idea to produce a music show.”
Arhos invited Willie Nelson to come in and tape a show, (in actuality, the first show featuring B.W. Stevenson never aired via some technical problems and lack of sufficient audience.) The 1975 show with Willie Nelson went exceedingly well with a huge, enthusiastic audience and so it was chosen as the pilot which was aired on PBS stations nationwide. PBS was more than pleased enough with that groundbreaking pilot to “agree to fund an entire season of 13 programs’ worth of shows.”
PBS trusted Arhos’ and Lickona’s creative instincts and both then and up through to the present, PBS has stepped back to allow the two to develop “what the appeal was about of this homegrown Texas music show from Austin. The show was well received by the stations and by the viewers around the country”, and so PBS was happy to give Arhos and Lickona creative control.
Arhos never had an inclination to take the show to the networks. PBS had always made more sense in developing the viable music program based on his experience in Public Broadcasting, KLRU’s new studio facilities, and according to Lickona, “The station was anxious to become a major player in National Production, and wanted to do some original programming that would establish us here in Austin at KLRU as a National Producer, much in the same way as stations like WGBH in Boston and WNET in New York.”
Then there was the sticky situation of choosing a name for the show that would have just the right ring to it. Lickona relates, “The legend goes that Bill Arhos and Executive Producer Howard Chalmers were sitting in a restaurant, or maybe it was a bar, and they were writing ideas on a napkin and one of them was “Austin City Limits” because they had seen it on a Texas Interstate road sign and that struck a chord.” But not everyone was as enthused or even able to catch on to the show’s indigenous title at first.
Lickona expounds, “I must admit that the show’s title was quite a liability for the first several years. Back in 1975, I must admit that some people didn’t quite get it. Some people also thought that it was a local music show. I can remember as Producer, calling artists’ managers and booking agents in Los Angeles or New York, trying to book their artists to appear on “Austin City Limits” and some of them had no idea what it was. They thought it was some local cable access show or some local Austin music show. But after five or six years, people figured it out and they realized once the show’s reputation was pretty well established, that it was much more than that.”
How did Terry get involved with the show? “After graduating from college with a Master’s Degree in Political Science of all things, I started working in radio.” Terry moved from New York to Austin and worked for a year and a half at the local NPR Public Radio Station in Austin, which not coincidentally, happened to be in the same building as the television station. Lickona elaborates, “The fact that we shared the same facilities, and although I was working in radio….I have always had very eclectic musical tastes and I was very intrigued by the whole television thing.” The fledgling “Austin City Limits” was still struggling its first few years “trying to get off the ground and book talent. It had an incredibly small staff, most of them part time people, so I volunteered to be an unpaid assistant during that third year.”
After the third year, there was a major turnover in the staff. Lickona relates, “Bill who was the Producer, found his time torn between producing “Austin City Limits” and his other job as the Program Manager for KLRU. He had to make a choice between one or the other. So he chose his programming job because he felt it offered more security for the future. The Director resigned, the Executive Producer also left, so suddenly having been an unpaid volunteer assistant, I became the senior staff person remaining. Not being one to miss an opportunity, I managed to talk my way into the Producer’s job. They were willing to give it to me, I hopefully, quickly proved myself, but it definitely was being in the right place at the right time, serendipity, providence.”
Lickona details further, “It also was a major turning point in the show’s evolution, because by then, the Austin music scene itself had begun to evolve and to drastically change. The original progressive country or Cosmic Cowboy scene as they used to call it, had really changed. By that time, a lot of the Renegade country artists, Willie, Waylon, and the boys, were no longer the “Outlaws” they once were. They had been accepted into the mainstream and were selling millions of records. Also, a lot of the original musicians and bands had either left Austin or had broken up.” By then, “Austin City Limits” had already featured nearly all of Austin’s musical finest and so it was time to scout both talent and stylistically different music from elsewhere.
As Lickona affectionately regales, “My mission, during my first year as the Producer, was to expand the horizons of the show, start doing more than Austin or Texas artists. I looked everywhere….to Nashville, to Los Angeles, to Appalachia, just to see what kind of music would fit the format for this kind of show. I started booking Bluegrass, Cajun music, Cajunto, Hispanic music, even off the wall stuff like Tom Waits, who was one of the first artists that I booked. That was really quite a stretch at the time.”
Terry exuberantly tells me that, “But then when we booked Ray Charles, that was a milestone to me, because having Ray Charles on our show validated the concept of “Austin City Limits” as being more than just a Texas music show. There was room for Austin and Texas musicians, and singer, songwriters, and also for the legendary American artists who I felt deserved to be seen and heard on a show like ours”, and of course that includes “Austin City Limits’” stellar roster of the world’s premier, esteemed guitarists.
That’s where Terry and I pick up on this mutually affectionate, enduring relationship that “Austin City Limits” has continually maintained with many of music’s most gifted and esteemed guitar players. From there, the hours melt away as the fond memories and warm anecdotes regarding the endless cavalcade of glittering guitar greats unfolds. Listening in wondrous awe and joy, I realize that that’s the very magic for Terry and the staff at “Austin City Limits”.
As Terry relates, “There’s a tremendous sense of pride and satisfaction in what we do. It’s for the love of the music.” For the staff at “Austin City Limits”, every day has that celebratory joy.
So without further adieu, this is but a portion of the countless, extraordinary tales of the legendary six string artisans who have graced the “Austin City Limits” stage. All I can say is that it’s not the studio lights which light up the “Austin City Limits” stage, it’s the glow radiating from these musical luminaries, their incandescent presences and their celestial performances, outshining the spotlights to illuminate a special place in musical history.
Arlene: Getting back to Eric Johnson, being both a hometown and an international guitarist, born and raised in Austin, he’s continued to live there, to work there, to make his music there. When he made his very first appearance on “Austin City Limits”, that first appearance, from what I understand, helped to introduce him to the world and to the music industry, and helped to launch his career, resulting in his first major recording contract and record deal. What motivated you to give Eric his very first opportunity to showcase his extraordinary talents on the show in 1984 (which aired in 1985)?
Terry Lickona: Well, it was from having seen him play in the clubs around Austin. That’s still where I get the inspiration to book a lot of Austin talent. People like Junior Brown, for instance, having seen him perform live in a club. Nancy Griffith is another example. She had no major recording contract and was not really known outside of Austin at the time. But because of the fact that “Austin City Limits” has no restraints, we have no one from a network or sponsors who are looking over my shoulder telling me who we should book or not, we can take a chance.
If we think somebody has the raw talent and they deserve to be exposed so that people can see and hear it, we can book an Eric Johnson to do a show. I knew that once we had Eric on our stage in front of our cameras, that he would just blow people away. Sure enough, it wasn’t long after that, that Eric Johnson started appearing on the cover of Guitar Player Magazine, winning all of the popular awards for “Best Guitarist”, and got himself a major record contract and started selling records.
Arlene: What about when you have the chance, as in Eric’s case, where in his first appearance on the show, he performed his signature tune, “Cliffs of Dover” and his jazz piece, “Manhattan”, his tribute to Wes Montgomery, pieces that he recorded five and ten years later, down the road, but you had the opportunity to hear and see him perform those songs as a young man, long before they were ever released for the rest of the world to hear. What was it like to see and hear Eric Johnson’s very first appearance on “Austin City Limits”, as well as his performance of these radiant songs?
Terry Lickona: His first performance was spell-binding. I had seen him perform live in Austin clubs as part of the band, The Electromagnets, so I knew he was an exceptional talent. But I wasn’t sure how that would translate to TV, whether he would freeze or find the right groove. He was nervous, but as always happens when an artist hits our stage and feels that energy and love from the audience, he aced it.
Arlene: Can you reflect on the contrasts in how Eric has developed and evolved creatively from a young man, to a seasoned, mature artist, via his four performances over the years in 1985, 1989, 1997, and 2000?
Terry Lickona: The changes weren’t dramatic. They were more a gradual evolution from the young artist to the mature artisan. Eric has always been so precise and obsessive about his music and so he has always exuded control. The more he played, the more he recorded, the more he wrote, the better he got. I think that his basic style is unchanged from his early years, but perhaps his music is more eclectic and his self confidence has risen.
Arlene: How has Eric’s resulting success based somewhat on his receiving his first National exposure on “Austin City Limits”, how does that make you and the crew feel? Is there a special sense of pride, satisfaction, and joy in that, knowing that you can help launch him and other artists?
Terry Lickona: Arlene, there’s a special sense of pride in just about everything we do. At the end of the day, or at the end of the night, after a show’s finished….you know, working on a Public Television series in Austin certainly is not the most lucrative way to make a living for any of us. We could have long ago, gone off and found work in commercial television or somewhere where we could make a lot more money.
But the rewards that we get from doing our show, working with the caliber of artists ranging from the legends like B.B. King and Ray Charles, to the new kids like Jonny Lang and Doyle Bramhall II, and helping to discover people like Lyle Lovett and Nancy Griffith….and to give them the stage, a national stage where they can be seen by millions of people, gives us a tremendous sense of pride and satisfaction in what we do. And that extends right down to the entire staff, everybody who works on the show seems to feel that same sense, that pride in what we do. Being able to live and work in Austin just adds to it. We’re the big fish in the small pond here, whereas if we worked in Nashville or Los Angeles , we’d be one of many, many people who do the same thing.
Arlene: How does that feel, as in the case of Eric with his 1984 performance of “Cliffs of Dover,” “Manhattan,” as well as “Soulful Terrain” and “Bristol Shore,” with him and with other artists, when you get to hear those songs before they’re ever released, or maybe those songs are never released, but you have that special joy and opportunity to see and hear those songs?
Terry Lickona: And that happens a lot. We just recently for our current 25th season, did a songwriter’s show with Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, and Dave Matthews. Dave Matthews came on and he sang two songs that he had literally just written. He hadn’t even decided what they were called yet, he didn’t have a title for them.
A lot of artists will come out and do that because they can. They don’t have to come out and just do their hits. They can come out and do songs that they just wrote yesterday or songs they’re still working on. If it works, we’ll keep it in the show, if it doesn’t work or they’re not satisfied with the way it came out, then we may not use it. I still think that a lot of these shows, whether it’s Eric Johnson or Stevie Ray, or whomever, that I prefer the live performance that they give on our stage over the studio version.
Arlene: Yes, and the spontaneity. You just can’t capture that in a studio.
Terry Lickona: Sometimes, it’s just overproduced. When it’s done in the studio, it just doesn’t come across the same way as when it’s live.
Arlene: With Stevie Ray, being such an unbelievable, legendary player, did he have any particular gear, guitars, or requirements that he needed when he would perform?
Terry Lickona: The biggest problem that we had with Stevie Ray, and this happens sometimes with other guitar players, was getting him to turn the volume down on his amplifiers, because a lot of these guitar players of course, crank it up to the max! That’s the way they’re used to playing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well when you’re in a tiny TV studio with only 450 people. Plus, technically, when it’s turned up that loud, it can create distortion when you’re trying to record.
This is hard to explain to people sometimes, but when you’ve got a TV camera so close to the stage, literally five feet away, the distortion from the amplifier, if it’s too loud, it actually causes the camera to vibrate and it creates these ripples, a rippling effect in the picture, which almost looks like a Venetian blind. This of course, can destroy the entire picture of the show. So we often have to negotiate with an artist during rehearsal to please turn down the volume of their amplifier and explain why and sometimes they don’t understand. They think we’re just being pushy. But nine times out of ten, they understand. Sometimes, we’ll have to show them what happens and demonstrate what the problem is. The only problem we had with Stevie Ray, was just getting him to turn it down, which he did.
Arlene: Do you have any special fond anecdotes regarding the many types of guitars and set-ups? You’ve had artists who play Gibsons, Strats, Dobro, six string. Junior Brown, what about his double necked….
Terry Lickona: Guit steel.
Arlene: That’s one of the most amazing looking guitars and he’s so proficient at it, yet he’s got this cute, hilarious sense of humor in some of his songs. The two go together.
Terry Lickona: And he’s so expressive in the way that he plays his music.
Arlene: Any fond or humorous anecdotes that you would like to relate?
Terry Lickona: Well, sometimes it’s just difficult keeping all of those guitars in tune, and it’s not our challenge, but it is for the guitar player or for his tuner, who may be along. We’re in a television studio, so it tends to be cooler than in most nightclubs or outdoor stages where they may be playing. It’s heavily air-conditioned because of all the bright studio lights that we have, and that can affect the tuning of an instrument.
One especially fond moment that I have is when we did a show with Los Lobos back in the 1980s. They were playing, remember their acoustic album, La Pistola Y El Corazon, meaning “The Pistol and the Heart”. Everything on it was acoustic. And they had the most gorgeous array of acoustic instruments that I have ever seen, including really exotic Vintage Mexican guitars with these big, kind of bowl shaped guitars. I can’t even tell you what they were called, but there must have been twenty of them that they had set-up on stage. Guitars, large acoustic bass guitars, different instruments, that were just beautiful. We took several pictures just of the instruments because it looked like a museum quality display of musical instruments.
Arlene: Aren’t there plans to release CDs and DVDs highlighting some of the guitarists, particularly Stevie Ray Vaughan, as well as other premier guitarists’ performances on “Austin City Limits”?
Terry Lickona: We’re negotiating right now with a couple of different companies. We haven’t signed a deal with any of them yet, but I think we’re getting close, so that we can release some of the programs from our library, including DVD’s and CD’s. I think you will see that happen and that there will actually be product out there before the end of this year. We’re also looking to the future, and hoping that in the years to come, we’ll be able to make some of these programs or certain songs available on the Internet.
Arlene: Regarding your 25th Anniversary Book that you put out last year, it’s so comprehensive. You’ve been with the show for so many years, and there have been so many unbelievable performances, when it comes to the guitarists. There’s so many wonderful artists and so many memorable performances. Scott Newton, your house photographer for years, collaborated with you in choosing the photos for the book. How challenging a process was it to choose which artists, which particular performances, and significantly, which particular photos would most eloquently capture the very essence of each guitarist, or as you say on page 138, when referring to Eric Johnson, in how each artist, “Is at one with their guitar”?
Terry Lickona: Well, it was almost painful, is the best way to describe the process. First of all, Scott Newton and I did it all ourselves, without any other outside input, because we felt it was just too complicated to get a committee involved. We literally went through thousands and thousands of images, black and white, and color, from all these shows down through the years. We tried to pick images that are not your standard publicity shots of people standing there smiling. We did use some of those, of course, but we also looked for those special moments.
On top of that, Scott and I collaborated on writing all of the captions for every photograph. They were written by one or both of us, and Scott wrote a lot of them himself from his personal perspective as a photographer. Scott’s approach is to try to capture that special moment, that spirit, or as he calls it, “the muse”.I think we did a good job and I also hope that it’s helped people to discover our show. We’re also advertising the book on our shows now at the end of each program. People can call a 1-800 number and order it if they want to.
Arlene: When you get around to doing the DVD’s and CD’s, are you also going to advertise and promote them at the end of each show, so that people will know it’s available in stores and on your website? The availability of DVD’s and CD’s is the number one question people keep asking about.
Terry Lickona: Well I have been frustrated for many years, because we get calls, we have been getting calls ever since they invented the CD, DVD Player, and the VCR, people calling and asking, “Is there any way that we can buy a video of that show?”, whatever show it happens to be. And up until now, it’s been basically impossible for us to do something like that on our own. It’s one thing to produce a program for Public Television, since it’s non-commercial, non-profit. But as soon as you start talking about legalities, rights and clearances. We don’t have the resources or the staff to deal with it.
That’s why we need a partner, somebody, who does this sort of thing all the time and who has the money who can capitalize a venture like that. This 25th Anniversary that we just celebrated, has really helped us find the means to do these things. It’s been a tremendous promotion for the show in itself. We have been approached by people who are interested in distributing the shows internationally, by several very prominent industry people who are interested in doing the videos and the CD’s, and even by people talking about doing a syndicated radio series with music from the past as well as new music, from the show. So, with all of these opportunities coming along in just the last few months, that’s why I say, we hope to close these deals so that we can start getting product out there, I hope by the end of this year, if not sooner.
Arlene: When it comes to guitarists, tell me about your strides to continue to attract and showcase world class guitar greats, as well as a continuous, supportive audience for these legendary guitar players.
Terry Lickona: It’s really not that difficult. Everybody knows about the show now. I could probably pick up the phone and call B.B. King’s manager and set a date for him to come back and do a new show, because I know he loves the show and he loves coming back to do it. And people like Buddy Guy…. Of course, the problem is that a lot of these old guitar greats are no longer with us. One of the few who is still alive, but who has continued to resist my plea to perform on the show, is John Lee Hooker. I’m almost afraid that it may be too late, because although he’s still alive, I know he’s had some health problems. Understandably it’s his age. Both I and his Manager have begged and pleaded, but to no avail.
So there aren’t as many of the great legends who are still either alive or in form and health to play. But we will continue to nurture the current, new generation, and I am constantly approached every day by people representing the latest, hot, fifteen year old guitar player who is “the next Stevie Ray Vaughan”, or whatever. Although I don’t just automatically book everybody who comes down the street, it’s reassuring to know that there are still people out there who are playing the traditional Blues, incorporated with their own style, their own touch added, as well as preserving that tradition that’s been going on for generations. So we don’t have to go out and beat the bushes like we used to.
One of the greatest honors that the show has received was two years ago, when The Blues Foundation in Memphis awarded “Austin City Limits” with their special category called, “Keeping The Blues Alive” Award. I went to Memphis, to the annual Blues Foundation Awards Ceremony, and it was great to get that kind of recognition for what we have done over the years to not only preserve the legacy of the Blues, but to give these artists an opportunity to showcase their music to a National TV audience of millions of people who enjoy it and who don’t get to see it in many other places if any.
© Copyright June 19, 2011 by Arlene R. Weiss-All Rights Reserved