‘Austin City Limits’ welcomes new inductees in Hall of Fame ceremony

As a young songwriter just getting started in Nashville in the early 1990s, Gillian Welch remembers well the long shadow cast by Townes Van Zandt.

“I know that I wrote ‘Barroom Girls’ to impress him,” Welch says of a tune that ended up on her 1996 debut album, “Revival.” When she and longtime partner David Rawlings played some of their first Nashville shows at a bar called Douglas Corner, Welch explains, the legendary Texas songwriter frequently was in attendance. His presence was both intimidating and inspiring.

“I was writing my first batch of songs ever,” she recalls, “and for the people who were around that really mattered to me, I would say to myself, ‘I want to write a song that Townes is going to dig.’ And that was ‘Barroom Girls,’ just like ‘Orphan Girl’ was, ‘I want to write a song that Ralph Stanley would dig.’

“That’s how that first record was written, which I think is really natural. I thought, ‘Well, hell, if Townes is going to be at my next show, I want to have a song that he will think is cool.’ ”

It’s appropriate, then, that Welch will give the induction speech for Van Zandt on Thursday at the second annual “Austin City Limits” Hall of Fame ceremony at ACL Live. Welch and Rawlings also will perform, joining host Dwight Yoakam and an all-star cast including Lyle Lovett, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, Jason Isbell, Laura Marling, Los Texmaniacs and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo. They’ll perform songs honoring this year’s class of inductees: Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Loretta Lynn, Flaco Jimenez and Asleep at the Wheel.

Also being inducted this year is the show’s original crew, at an invitation-only event on Wednesday. Thursday’s public concert is a benefit for local PBS member station KLRU, which produces “Austin City Limits.”

For now, the Hall of Fame is simply a roster of members and not a destination fans can visit. “The long-term goal is to have a physical space,” ACL executive producer Terry Lickona says, “but we’re in the very early planning stages.”

Lickona admits that he was “a little skeptical” when the idea for a hall of fame was floated in discussions about how to mark the show’s 40th anniversary last year. “It seemed that everybody had a hall of fame,” he said. “But the idea behind it was to honor those who made ‘Austin City Limits’ a success in the early years, and onward.

“And when we announced it, I was astonished at the response from the media and the public. It got more attention than anything we had ever done before. So I guess my instincts might have been wrong. I’m thrilled that we’re doing it now, even though it’s only our second year.”

The event moves downtown after last year’s inaugural celebration at the program’s original Studio 6A home on the University of Texas campus. That ceremony honored Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, along with show creator Bill Arhos and University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal, an integral early supporter.

Added to the 2014 class two months later, during the taping of a 40th-anniversary TV special at ACL Live, was pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Maines. He’ll be part of Thursday’s show as music director of a top-notch Austin-based house band featuring guitarist David Grissom, bassist Glenn Fukunaga, keyboardist Riley Osbourn and drummer David Sanger.

The house band will back guest performers Lyle Lovett and Patty Loveless, while several of the other artists will perform solo acoustic. In addition to the musical tributes, the evening will feature short video presentations for each of the inductees, with biographical information and footage from their “Austin City Limits” performances.

Lickona says he got a surprise when the staff looked at clips from Jimenez’s taping of the show in its first season. In shots of the crowd, “guess who’s sitting in the front row: me. I was two years shy of becoming producer of the show,” Lickona says, remembering that he’d attended the taping with local musician and DJ Dan Del Santo.

For now, the ACL Hall of Fame is focusing on acts, such as Jimenez, who played “ACL” in its early years. “The criteria comes down to the impact that performances had in the origins and evolution of ‘Austin City Limits,’ ” Lickona says. He acknowledged that there’s also “an interest in achieving a balance in genres, gender, etcetera, but there is no other specific criteria beyond that.”

The selection process is entirely internal, consisting of group discussions among “people directly associated with ‘Austin City Limits’ and others from KLRU,” Lickona said. This year’s five inductees were chosen from a list of 30 to 40 names, he added, and there were some close calls.

Bluesmen Lightnin’ Hopkins and Gatemouth Brown, both of whom taped the show in the 1970s, were considered, as was Jimmy Buffett, who did his first taping in the second season. And while Tom Waits appeared on the show only once, in 1979, that episode’s impact was strong enough to warrant considering him, Lickona says.

It also seems clear that Lovett, who sang with Willie Nelson at last year’s induction ceremony and will honor Guy Clark this year, is on the shortlist for the near future, given that he’s made more than a dozen “ACL” appearances. “He’s destined for his own day in the Hall of Fame,” Lickona agrees. “But it would’ve been wrong not to invite him to be a part of this year’s show, given his history with Guy Clark and his love of Townes’ music.”

That love for the songs of Van Zandt is a common thread running through much of the cast for Thursday’s show. One of Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson’s finest recordings is a version of “If I Needed You” that appeared on a 2001 Townes tribute album. Lovett included four Van Zandt songs on “Step Inside This House,” his 1998 tribute to Texas songwriters. Townes’ son, J.T. Van Zandt, has an almost supernatural connection to his father’s material; he’ll perform on Thursday, and he was responsible for recommending both Laura Marling and Gillian Welch to Lickona for the induction.

For her part, Welch, who did several tours with Van Zandt in the mid-1990s, says she’s regularly performed “somewhere between half a dozen and 10 of his songs. I feel fairly certain that it’d be a toss-up between Townes and Dylan for whose songs I’ve sung the most live.”

She has vivid memories of a tribute night at the Bottom Line in New York in the late ’90s, not long after Townes’ death, where she sang “Buckskin Stallion Blues” with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and met J.T. Van Zandt. “I remember it was a somber mood and everyone was down — but it was also funny,” she says, a reminder that Townes was well-known for his sense of humor as well as his sad songs.

“It was a good group of folks. People who love Townes — that’s a good group, when you get all those people in a room.”

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