On This Day: ‘Austin City Limits’ Premieres Featuring Willie Nelson in 1975

by Emily Morgan

Today, forty-six years ago, Austin City Limits premiered its debut episode on PBS, featuring Willie Nelson. 

On Jan. 2, 1975, the show aired as part of a PBS pledge drive, and featured Nelson as their first guest of the series. 

However, the original episode taped on Oct. 13, 1974, included an appearance by BW Stevenson. After producers found the footage unusable, Nelson became the first guest on the now-iconic show. During the taping, Nelson performed “Good Hearted Woman,” “Whiskey River,” “Okie From Muskogee,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and, “Bloody Mary Morning.”

After a highly successful episode, ACL invited Nelson back in 1976. On Oct. 4, 1976, Nelson and his family band performed his 1975 album, Red Headed Stranger.

This episode aired as the first episode of ACL’s second season in 1977. 

Willie Nelson Returns To ACL Stage Decades Later

Following Nelson’s debut performance, Austin City Limits quickly turned into a regular series. Even though the show’s original goal was to highlight Texas-based musicians, including Texas swing and Tejano music, it later became known as a place for talent of all genres to perform.

Since then, The Foo Fighters, Alabama Shakes, Björk, Bruce Hornsby, Suzanne Vega, and Nine Inch Nails are among the many artists who have taken the ACL stage.

In 2014, for the 40th anniversary, Austin City Limits aired a special that featured guests such as Jeff Bridges, Sheryl Crow, and Matthew McConaughey. In addition, Nelson returned to the ACL stage alongside Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, and Kris Kristofferson during the two-hour show.

“This is a huge milestone for us,” ACL executive producer Terry Lickona said at the time. “This show captures the essence of what Austin City Limits is all about. We set the bar high for this celebration, and we exceeded it! The lineup of talent speaks volumes about the respect that artists have for ACL.”

That year, Austin City Limits also launched the ACL Hall of Fame. The inductees included Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Double Trouble, Loretta Lynn, Guy Clark, and Townes Van Zandt. In 2019, Robert Earl Keen hosted the ceremony for the induction of Shawn Colvin, Lyle Lovett, and Buddy Guy.