The longest-running music series on American TV, Austin City Limits, wrapped up its 36th season Monday night with a performance by Lyle Lovett.
The episode, which won't air until spring 2011, also marked the last taping in the original studio: KLRU's famed Studio 6A.
Fans and musicians alike have enjoyed its intimacy for decades.
"The performer on the stage could practically reach out and touch the people, the fans who are standing on either side," says Executive Producer Terry Lickona, recalling a performance by Elvis Costello. "And as often happens, the artist may step off the stage and go right out into the crowd and continue playing music."
But the show is so popular that it's outgrown the studio, which seats 300, and will be moving to a newly designed space in downtown Austin's Moody Theater. It seats more than 2,500 audience members, but retains the show's intimacy by keeping the stage low and housing seats vertically. In fact, the square footage of the Moody Theater is almost the same as Studio 6A.
Lickona describes Studio 6A as a "black box" that was never intended to house live music.
"But it quickly became apparent with an exploding music scene in Austin in mid-1974 and a studio that was large enough to accommodate a music show with a live audience ... why not do it? Why not try it?"
Willie Nelson performed in the show's pilot episode, recorded on Oct. 17, 1974. At the time, Lickona says, Nelson was on the verge of becoming the king of country music. His notoriety propelled the show to national audiences, in places that might not normally air a solely country or Texas music show.
Lovett says he appreciates how Austin City Limits has kept the focus squarely on the music over the decades.
"That is the key element of Austin City Limits: The production intrudes very little upon the live performance," he says. "So you actually have a chance to play to the audience, the studio audience there, in the way that you naturally would."
The show's long-serving staff is also something unique and commendable, says Lovett, whose performance Monday night marked his 12th appearance on ACL — a number matched only by Nelson.
"It's amazing to see such a consistent group of people on one production for that long, and they just, you know, put their lives into it, really," Lovett says.
The Austin music scene gave the series its start, but Lickona says the show has been able to last so long because of its ability to evolve and grow. He recalls booking Ray Charles for a show that taped in 1979.
"That was a transcendent moment — a turning point in the show's history," Lickona says, "to have someone of Ray Charles' stature who, in effect, validated that we were more than just an Austin-based, Texas music show."
Over the years, Austin City Limits has booked increasingly diverse acts, including its first hip-hop show last year, featuring Mos Def and K'Naan. Lickona says he hopes to have the first electronic act on the show in the near future.
Though Studio 6A is an important part of music history, the show's move into a new venue is something to be celebrated, Lickona says.
"I feel pretty damn good about it, to be honest. I consider myself very lucky to be doing what I've been doing for so long and to be loving it every bit as much as back then."
Austin City Limits is a PBS television series produced by KLRU-TV