Country Music's Launching Pad

YODELING, fiddles, Stetsons - it's "Austin City Limits," back with a new season of country music and more.

Now in its 18th year, the PBS television program has shown a knack for spotting nascent stars like Garth Brooks and Vince Gill before they blaze their way into the celebrity firmament. This year's lineup boasts the same potential (see schedule below). "Austin City Limits" airs on 300 PBS affiliates, usually on Saturday night (check local listings.)

Not to be missed is Mary-Chapin Carpenter. Spunky and vulnerable, she rocks the rafters at one moment and then tiptoes around emotional shards the next.

ACL showcases Carpenter's enchantment in a solo broadcast rather than the usual double billing.

"When I saw her perform some months ago at the Texas Union Ballroom, I was just really blown away by her band," says Terry Lickona, producer of the last 15 seasons of "Austin City Limits." "I started thinking, she could carry a whole hour with this band and with the variety of songs that she's written."

His decision was clinched by the Grammy winner's knockout taping session at KLRU, the PBS affiliate in Austin that hosts the show.

And Lake Woebegone's favorite son, Garrison Keillor, appears with the Hopeful Gospel Quartet and guests Chet Atkins and Johnny Gimble. Mr. Lickona calls Mr. Keillor the catch of the season, someone the producer has wanted to book for years.

Rarely do artists' schedules allow them to tape a show when they're already in town, so most make a special trip to Austin. "It's always like putting the pieces of a puzzle together every year. I think we came up with the usual good mix," Lickona says.

Country music fans will cheer performances by Asleep at the Wheel, Riders in the Sky, Pam Tillis, Lee Roy Parnell, Tracy Lawrence, Suzy Bogguss, and Kathy Mattea. Lickona considers Mr. Lawrence to be this season's up-and-comer, potentially another Vince Gill or Travis Tritt.

Tillis, Bogguss, and Mattea have the talent, Lickona adds, but are handicapped by being female. "Country music has always been slanted more toward male artists," who command 85 percent of record and concert ticket sales in that category. "It's even worse now than it was five years ago," he says.

Any program on the air for 18 seasons has to evolve just to keep up with the music scene, Lickona says. And PBS has signaled that it wants more diversity of American music in the show - not that it has ever been lacking. ACL has featured blues acts, bluegrass, Hispanic conjunto music, and Cajun zydeco sounds in previous seasons.

Nonetheless, "the focus [of the show] is less on mainstream country music with each passing year," Lickona says. "Not to say that we're phasing it out by any means, because country music is still an important part of what we do, and even more of an important part of the American musical scene these days."

Broadening this season are pop eclectic Lyle Lovett, New Orleans funk artist Dr. John, and Yankee rocker Steve Forbert. Folk singer John Gorka shares his New Jersey attitude, and Austin resident Tish Hinojosa her San Antonio roots.

On the other hand, Lickona has no plans to offend PBS's mainly older audiences by featuring the Seattle-style grunge-rock acts.

Although cable television has spawned numerous alternative-music programs since ACL began, "the overlap or competition doesn't really bother me," Lickona says. "It's a compliment that shows like `MTV Unplugged' or `American Music Shop,' just to name two examples, certainly do have a lot in common with `Austin City Limits.' "

But ACL has one advantage that Lickona says cannot be stressed enough: no commercial interruptions. "It takes so much away from enjoying, say, a one-hour performance of Lyle Lovett ... when every five minutes or so you've got to cut away to commercials. That's what sets `Austin City Limits' apart. It protects the integrity and the energy of the live performance."

Lickona is pleased to have captured for posterity ACL shows with Roger Miller, Roy Orbison, and Stevie Ray Vaughn while they were alive. No master tape is ever erased, he says.

New artists tend to focus on how an appearance on television's premier music program could boost their careers.

Musicians prefer ACL's purity of presentation, Lickona says. The straightforward camera work truly captures their performance and the live audience reaction. The artists get to watch the playback and help select the material to be used in the broadcast.

They also appreciate ACL production values. Recorded in 24 tracks, their show can be remixed to perfection, just the way making a record in a studio is. "That means a lot to an artist. They don't care about the money. They care about how it presents their music," Lickona says.

Sure, there are some major names whose "L.A.-oriented" managements won't let them do the show because of the union-scale $400 paycheck, Lickona says.

Then there are pros like Pam Tillis, who flew back to Austin at her own expense to oversee the remix.

And superstars Garth Brooks and Clint Black have shown interest in scheduling appearances during next year's season. They want to tape "songwriter" sessions, in which they would present some of the musicians who have penned hits for them.

But before that can happen, KLRU must recruit a corporate sponsor to pick up 20 percent of the show's $700,000 budget. That's the amount PBS intends to cut back from ACL funding, as it is doing with other programming.

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