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Terry Lickona Takes ACL Beyond the Austin City Limit

By Zach Patton

As the producer for Austin City Limits, there are a multitude of perks- a spacious, cushy office is not one of them. Lucky for Terry Lickona-the producer of the show since 1978-he doesn't need much of an office to operate. In his box of an office amidst the stacks of CDs, old Billboard magazines, and the loose-leaf binders for his work on the Grammy Awards, Lickona sits at his desk, scouring the globe for fresh talent and confirming taping dates for ACL's 33rd season.

Terry Lickona onstage at ACL
Terry Lickona presents Dierks Bentley on the ACL stage April 25, 2007.

How did he get here? Lickona would be the first to admit that the last thing he expected to be was the producer of what is arguably the most successful music program on television today. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, Lickona got a bachelor's and a master's degree in political science from State University of New York at Albany before deciding on a whim to move to Austin in 1974. After working a few odd jobs around Austin, he found work as an unpaid assistant to then-ACL producer Charles Vaughan in 1978. However, after Lickona's first year with the show, Vaughan decided not to return for the 4th season. Lickona immediately sprang into action.

"I somehow managed to convince the General Manager of KLRN-TV at the time to give me the job, despite the fact that I had no experience in television and only one year's experience as an unpaid assistant," Lickona said. "I was either lucky or a good bullshitter, or they were desperate."

The move quickly paid dividends. Most known for featuring progressive country acts like Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker, the show was beginning to exhaust the well of talent that Austin had to offer. As the new producer, Lickona sought to broaden the musical scope of the show and feature new acts that reached a wider audience.

While this new approach ruffled a few feathers amongst the ACL loyalists, most viewers welcomed the more diverse mix of music. But the changes did not stop there: Lickona again shifted the focus of the show to feature more mainstream and indie rock acts in the mid-90s-another natural evolution he deemed vital for the success and longevity of the show itself.

"The reason the show is still around-the reason it's been so successful-is that it has evolved musically," he said. "I think we do a better job of reflecting different types of popular music today than we did back in the beginning."

Lickona said the ACL audience itself is partly responsible for the change in the show's direction.

"The people who watch the show, a lot of them tune in because they want to discover somebody new and different they can't see on TV or anywhere else," he said. "One of the cool things about Austin City Limits has always been that the audience is...  is more sophisticated and has more eclectic music taste. There aren't that many people who like to listen to everything from country to hip-hop to rock to old blues and so forth. People have just come to expect Austin City Limits to be more eclectic."

And for the most part, the show has exceeded those expectations, though there are still some genres—such as hip-hop, R&B, Latin, and other international music—that the show has not yet fully explored. However, the show is clearly moving in direction of pure eclecticism, as this season—Lickona's 30th as the show's producer—is set to feature everything from indie rock and mainstream pop to country crooners and international stars.

For Lickona, the satisfaction of booking such an incredible mix of musical genres can only be eclipsed by hearing about how much the show's fans—particularly those who have stayed with the show from the beginning and watched along as it evolved—enjoy his work. And that feeling is what the show is all about. Now in his 30th year as the producer, the show has transcended mere television programming to become Lickona's life's work.

"I'm surprised—I shouldn't be—I'm pleased that so many of our, you know, the traditional Austin City Limits fans still dig the new stuff. And I'll get emails from people or run into people on the street—people who are in their 40s or 50s or older who will say 'I love the old stuff…but I like seeing newer acts' because they appreciate good music," he said. "The bottom line is always if it's good music—I don't care what genre it is or whether it's a 19 year old kid or a 72 year old guy like Willie Nelson. If they still have something original to express in their music—through their writing, their singing, their performing—that's the basic criteria for being on our show."

Terry Lickona on producing ACL

Terry Lickona on producing ACL from Texas Journalism on Vimeo.