One of the most respected names in American music doesn't have a recording contract.
Yet the power and influence of "Austin City Limits," now in its 20th season on PBS (airing on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 6 pm. Saturdays), carries the clout of multiplatinum record sales and truckloads of industry awards.
Ever since its 1976 debut, "Austin City Limits" has steadily carved a reputation for being more concerned about showcasing good music than chasing the trends and one-hit wonders that characterize so many music-oriented TV shows.
Remember "Solid Gold" and its blinding focus on glitz and cheesy lip-syncing? Even more revered television institutions such as "Soul Train" and "American Bandstand," once considered important barometers of the industry, lost much of their luster with the emergence of younger, hipper acts and audiences and the inevitable aging of hosts Don Cornelius and Dick Clark.
"MTV Unplugged," the more intimate side of the cable channel's diet of high-tech music videos, has fallen into a marketing rut: After the 7-million-selling success of Eric Clapton's 1992 "Unplugged" CD, the show seems nothing more than a crass commercial vehicle to hype sales of accompanying soundtrack albums.
But "Austin City Limits" has avoided all of those pitfalls.
"It really is the simplicity of the show that has accounted in large part for its success," says Terry Lickona, "Austin City Limits" producer for the last 17 years.
"We don't get caught up in fads, trends or gimmicks as other entertainment shows do," he adds. "It's good music, pure and simple."
Although "Austin City Limits" may have once been regarded as a program that catered strictly to country music, it has always featured a smorgasbord of genres and artists. In any given season, you can see and hear the traditional country sounds of George Strait, jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan and moody poet Leonard Cohen. This season, the show picked up on the Tejano explosion with an entire hour dedicated to the Texas-born sound featuring Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez and La Diferenzia.
"They have been able to both showcase big, sure-fire, hit-record-making George Strait and Willie Nelson and yet at the same time give a format for someone like Danny Gatton before he died, who's an amazing virtuoso guitarist," says Radney Foster, who has appeared on the show three times, twice (1988 and 1991) as part of the duo Foster & Lloyd and again in 1994 as a solo artist.
Among the artists who seemed right at home on "ACL" was Stevie Ray Vaughan. Highlights of his two appearances have been compiled on "Stevie Ray Vaughan: A Retrospective," which airs April 30. The special is the result of overwhelming public requests for tapes of Vaughan's guest spots.
With a makeshift view of the downtown Austin skyline shining behind the late blues guitarist's slim frame, Vaughan was given complete freedom to ferociously pick and belt his blues laments. No intricate camera angles, no flashy stage design, no commercial interruptions -- just Stevie Ray and his guitar.
"The whole studio was on a cloud that night," remembers Mr. Lickona. "He was at his peak."
Few artists have a bad night on "Austin City Limits." Bandera, Bandera, Texas, singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen says his 1989 appearance elevated him above his regional cult-hero status.
"They let you do music," he says. "They don't try to make you be an organ grinder's monkey. They stay out of your way and let you do what you do."
Sometimes even when nobody else wants to hear it. The program has almost single-handedly kept that eclectic folk-country-rock hybrid alive by showcasing artists who fall between the pigeonholes.
Before Nanci Griffith won a Grammy award and became one of America's most revered folk acts, she was a guest on "Austin City Limits" in 1985.
Before Texas-based Mexican-American folkie Tish Hinojosa gained enough renown to branch out of the independent label scene and graduate to Warner Bros., she performed on "Austin City Limits" in 1990. And before Vince Gill was Nashville's golden LTC boy, back when his country chart success was hit-or-miss, he taped "Austin City Limits" in 1985.
"Right now things are going with a format called Triple A radio, and that is totally great, but in recent years the 'Austin City Limits' show was the only national outlet that a person doing American music had," says Mississippi-born Steve Forbert, who appeared in 1993.
"When [1992's] 'The American in Me' came out," he recalls, "there was nothing for it, but fortunately I was doing 'Austin City Limits.' On the reruns, more people saw my segment. I got a few comments the first time, and the second time everybody had seen it."
Recorded live with a studio audience at KLRU-TV in Austin, the landmark show is watched by public-television viewers in 300 markets around the country. Many stations broadcast the program, taped in Dolby Stereo Surround, in stereo or with a radio simulcast to maximize the concert quality of the performances. Despite the fact it's on the small screen, an "Austin City Limits" show is an intimate concert experience: Sitting in your living room, eyes fixed on the television set, you feel as though the artist is playing just for you.
Simply put, there's a certain magic about an "Austin City Limits" performance. The music, the musicians, the singers come alive to deliver spirited sets that make believers out of skeptics. Even Aaron Neville, whose quivering falsetto can be a painful listen, was on target during a recent episode in which the New Orleans vocalist, accompanied by his brothers, sang a convincing rendition of George Jones' country classic, "The Grand Tour."
Now, that's the power of "Austin City Limits."