Monday’s announcement that the annual "Austin City Limits" Hall of Fame concert will not happen this year because of the coronavirus pandemic was no surprise. But what about the TV show’s bread and butter — its weekly episodes broadcast on PBS stations nationwide?
So far, the pandemic has not really affected the show’s broadcast schedule, as the first half of 2020 has mainly featured episodes taped in 2019 for the show’s 45th season. Monday’s Hall of Fame announcement concluded by affirming that "the broadcast Season 46 of ’Austin City Limits’ will return this fall."
The questions, then, are: How? And in what form?
One taping for the show’s 46th season got done before the pandemic hit: Grammy-nominated British singer-songwriter Yola, who taped the show on Feb. 4. Executive producer Terry Lickona said Tuesday that Yola will get a full hour episode, as opposed to the half-hour segment that was more likely before the pandemic hit.
Also in the works is "The Very Best of John Prine From Austin City Limits," an hourlong episode featuring highlights from Prine’s eight appearances on the program dating back to 1978. Lickona said that Americana star Jason Isbell will record an introduction for the episode. "ACL" recently re-aired Prine’s final taping, from 2018, after the legendary songwriter died in April at age 73 of complications from the coronavirus.
But that leaves almost an entire season still to be filled. An "Austin City Limits" season typically comprises 13 broadcast episodes with 19 performers; about half of the episodes feature a half-hour each from two different acts.
Lickona confirmed Tuesday that Season 46 is still scheduled to begin airing on Oct. 3. What he doesn’t know yet is how, or when, additional tapings will fill out the schedule.
"We are hoping to be able to resume taping sometime in the fall," he said. "I am in active conversations with people on whether or not the tapings become a reality. When, or under what circumstances, depends on things beyond our control, as far as restrictions on crowds and gatherings and public events and so forth."
Several obstacles may stand in the way of those hopes, not the least of which is getting artists to Austin. "Virtually every national touring act has pushed everything off into 2021," Lickona said. He added that this may create a rare opportunity for more Austin and Texas acts to appear on the show’s 46th season.
"It has made us take a closer look at the abundance of talent we have within reach," he said. "To some degree, it's almost like going full circle back to the early days of ‘ACL,’ when the show was predominantly based on local and regional artists."
Toward that end, one intriguing potential addition is Ray Wylie Hubbard, whose fans have long lobbied for his inclusion. Hubbard was at the forefront of Austin’s outlaw-country uprising in the mid-1970s, alongside the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker, Steven Fromholz, Rusty Wier and B.W. Stevenson. All of them appeared in the show’s 1976 inaugural season, but Hubbard did not.
RELATED: Our 2017 interview with Ray Wylie Hubbard
"Austin City Limits" had, in fact, already confirmed but not announced a spring 2020 taping with Hubbard for Season 46 before the pandemic hit. As such, he seems a likely candidate for whenever tapings resume. Hubbard’s new album, "Co-Starring," with guests including Ringo Starr, Pam Tillis and Peter Rowan, comes out Friday on Nashville major label Big Machine.
Beyond getting artists booked, a greater question might be how the tapings would be done. One possibility is for a bare-bones production crew to tape episodes with no audience. This is what Nashville’s historic "Grand Ole Opry" show has been doing since mid-March, with weekly episodes airing on radio outlets and the Circle TV network.
So far, Lickona seems hesitant to go that route. "That is such an important part of the magic that makes ’Austin City Limits’ what it is — having that live audience and capturing the interaction between the artists onstage and the people in the room." he said. "I really hate to think about taping a show without an audience. But I'll bet if we had to, we could imagine how to do it."
Such decisions ultimately rest with PBS Austin (aka KLRU), the local affiliate that produces "Austin City Limits." When asked what he’d do if the choices were taping performances with no audience or not doing tapings at all, Lickona said that "the decision will not be mine to make. It's for the people at KLRU to decide if they'd want to go ahead and do tapings without an audience, as opposed to just continuing to wait. If we needed to keep pushing it a few more weeks or a couple more months, we could; we have that flexibility. But I know there are certainly people who would do a taping without an audience."
Another possibility is having a significantly smaller crowd. The capacity of ACL Live, the downtown venue where tapings are held, is around 2,500, so it might be possible for a few hundred attendees to be spaced out per social-distancing guidelines. That would require a return to more relaxed regulations than Austin currently is enforcing.
Though Lickona says that "nothing is off the table," he did rule out remote performances from locations other than the ACL Live stage. "One thing for sure is that it’s not going to be a virtual ‘Austin City Limits’ Season 46," he said. "We’re not going to record people from their living rooms or backyard or front porch. … People are getting more creative about it, but in general, I think there's something missing. After a while, you just want to see somebody with a band again, or with an audience. That kind of interaction is what people miss."
For now, the show’s presenters remain in a holding pattern. "This is July," Lickona said. "By September, October or November, the situation could be flexible enough for us to resume taping. Or it could be worse. We just don’t know.
"We can't count on anything. We can be optimistic, and we can be hopeful, and we can keep planning. But the bottom line is, there will be a Season 46."