AUSTIN, Texas — As if his introduction of veteran art-punk band Sonic Youth weren't enough proof that change is afoot at the country's longest-running TV music show, producer Terry Lickona told an excited crowd at a recent taping, "It's a historic time here at Austin City Limits."
Sonic Youth was one of the final tapings for the PBS series' 36th season, its last season inside the cramped, rustic but acoustically blessed landmark studio on the University of Texas campus. Willie Nelson taped the first ACL episode in 1974, during the heyday of Austin's redneck hippie era.
It's a sharply different city now. Austin entered a new era in the 2000s, flush with fast-rising condo towers and two internationally popular music festivals, one of which is named after the PBS series. Austin City Limits, the TV show, is moving on up and modernizing with its namesake town.
Early next year, the series — the only TV show to be awarded a National Medal of Arts — will move to a new $40 million studio attached to a posh W Hotel in downtown Austin. The lineup for the current season (which kicked off Oct. 2) demonstrates how far the show has come in constructing a younger, hipper, more diverse array of performers.
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Instead of the Clint Blacks and Pam Tillises whom you might have seen 15 years ago, Season 36 will include shows with John Legend and the Roots, Brandi Carlile, the Black Keys, the National, Band of Horses and Sonic Youth. The last four acts taped their shows in the days around the Austin City Limits Festival in early October.
"The festival has been a great tool in helping us expand the brand," Lickona said. "We're appealing to that younger demographic, but I think we're still a show their parents may want to watch, too."
He and other ACL reps proudly donned hard hats and safety glasses to show off their new building to news people and agents who were in town for the festival. Only 320 fans could squeeze into the old studio, but the new venue can hold more than 2,700 with its two towering balconies. It will double as a full-time concert venue and will include VIP suites for sponsors — a possible financial boon for the non-profit TV show.
Lickona showed little remorse about ditching the old studio, which hosted departed artists Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Stevie Ray Vaughan and living greats Bob Dylan, B.B. King and Loretta Lynn.
"We'll always have the history and are very proud of it," the producer said. "But the old studio was never designed for a music show. That's a fact we've dealt with for a long, long time."
There's at least one sure sign that Austin City Limits staffers and current city leaders haven't forgotten their roots, though: The Second Street signs outside the new studio were recently changed to say "Willie Nelson Blvd." The man who immortalized Whiskey River and I Gotta Get Drunk — and who also happens to be an investor in the Austin City Limits Theater — will soon be immortalized in a bronze statue outside the studio, across the street from the new City Hall.
ACL is no longer just for PBS stations, though. Episodes can now be watched on the show's Web site, Austincitylimits.org. They also are being sold as albums and DVDs.
The new studio could bring new shows, too. The ACL staff plans to develop a Latin-music counterpart to the series. A stand-up comedy show also is being considered.
Despite all the newness, producers are committed to maintaining the integrity of ACL: its intimate vibe and its focus on live performance and songwriting as art forms.
"We'd be run out of town if we messed up the things that have made this show special," Lickona said. "The one thing that will never change is the No. 1 thing we look for in a performer, which is originality."
Perhaps the most emblematic thing about the show will have to change, though: its backdrop of the Austin city skyline. The state Capitol and the famed/infamous University of Texas tower (where a sniper killed 16 people in 1966) are no longer the most prominent structures in the Austin skyline.
"We'll downplay the condo towers," Lickona promised. "We don't want it to look like Houston."