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TV's Austin City Limits branches out but retains intimate feel

By Corrie MacLaggan

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - As tens of thousands of music fans converge on the Texas capital for the Austin City Limits Music Festival this weekend, one performer will make a stop at the original "Austin City Limits" - the longest-running music show on American television.

Jack White, the former White Stripes rocker who plays the festival on Saturday, is scheduled to tape an "Austin City Limits" TV episode on Sunday. Last year, five ACL festival acts - Coldplay, Arcade Fire, the Head and the Heart, Gomez and Randy Newman - made the same trip.

"The festival is raucous, loud, tons of people, tons of stages," said drummer Tyler Williams of the Seattle sextet the Head and the Heart. "The TV show is a very intimate thing."

What was once a humble TV show focusing on the music of Texas has now become a multi-headed juggernaut that pulls in international artists: TV show, live music venue, and annual outdoor music festival. The ACL brand name has become widely known beyond Austin, which calls itself "the Live Music Capital of the World."

The Public Broadcasting Service show, now in its 38th season, began as a showcase for Texas singers and songwriters, with a 1974 pilot that featured Willie Nelson.

But it later expanded to include a wide variety of genres, from jazz to rock. The current season, which began October 6, features artists as disparate as Radiohead, Bonnie Raitt, Norah Jones, Bon Iver and jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding.

"Austin City Limits" moved into new, bigger digs last year, but still has its signature backdrop of the Austin skyline, which has been updated to reflect the city's changes. The show manages to retain its feeling of intimacy by having the stage jut out into the audience, with the crowd wrapped around on three sides.

The show's new home doubles as a concert venue known as ACL Live at the Moody Theater.

ANYTHING GOES

It is all part of the ACL experience, said the TV show's longtime executive producer, Terry Lickona.

"If you can imagine just taking an artist or a band and giving them a stage and telling them that they can do anything that they want and we're going to record it so that millions of people can enjoy their music," Lickona said. "We try to capture the natural essence of an artist at work."

The outdoor music festival, which began in 2002 and is expanding to two weekends in 2013, this year runs October 12-14 and features the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young and Crazy Horse and the Black Keys. The festival licenses its name from KLRU-TV, which owns the TV show.

The TV show came about in the 1970s when Austin's country music scene was beginning to emerge as a sort of alternative to Nashville. It settled on the name Austin City Limits after considering other options, including River City Country and Travis County Line, Lickona said.

In the gallery of the new downtown building, near a marker designating the show as a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame landmark, large photographs of past TV show performances line the walls. Dolly Parton. Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. Ray Charles.

"Every time I walk through here, it brings back a flood of memories," said Lickona, who joined the show in 1978 and became producer the following year.

Austin and Texas music remain an important part of the show's mix, and there is an emphasis on emerging artists in addition to big names. Most tickets to the TV tapings are given away in a lottery.

The TV show went through a country music phase and a roots music phase before arriving at where it is today: "Basically, anything goes," Lickona said, "if it's good and original music."

(Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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