Watching the "Austin City Limits" special episode "50 Years of Asleep at the Wheel: A Retrospective," which premiered Saturday evening on PBS, was a bit like watching the history of the long-running music television show itself.
These two local icons grew up together. Asleep at the Wheel started just a few years before the program, and after Willie Nelson’s pilot episode got "Austin City Limits" green-lighted for its first season in 1976, it was Ray Benson and his western swing band that kicked things off.
Several songs from that first appearance got worked into the mix for "50 Years," which included highlights from each of the five decades Asleep at the Wheel has appeared on "ACL." Both the band and the show have changed a lot over time, yet each remains dedicated to its prime directive. For "Austin City Limits," that’s quality presentation of live music performances. For Asleep at the Wheel, it’s recapturing the spirit of classic western swing and extending its legacy.
Though "50 Years" began with a song from that historic 1976 debut, the hourlong run-time didn’t stick to a strictly chronological format. This made the contrasts stand out starkly. An early shift from 1978 to 1996 showed how the band had swelled in size, with 15 players onstage for "Get Your Kicks on Route 66" on the latter selection.
Especially effective in this regard was the presentation of several songs in a medley format near the end of the show. "Miles and Miles of Texas" was edited seamlessly to bridge renditions from 1996 and 2002 before jumping back to 1981 for a memorable moment when Benson got the whole crowd to sing out the last chorus.
Similar treatment was used on "Choo Choo Boogie," which tied together clips of the song from 1978, 1988 and 1996 in a manner that documented the evolution of the Wheel across its first three decades. A finale of the Bob Wills classic "Take Me Back to Tulsa" was perhaps a little over the top, pulling versions from five different performances and including guests spots by both the Avett Brothers and Vince Gill on two separate 2015 tapings (the latter from the band’s induction into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame).
Full-song special-guest moments felt more natural. Alumni of the Texas Playboys underscored the band’s historical connections to western swing on "Roly Poly" from 1993 and "Milk Cow Blues" from 2015. Another 2015 performance featured Lyle Lovett dueting with Benson on "Blues for Dixie." Best of all were two tracks from 2009 featuring Willie Nelson, most notably a version of Townes Van Zandt’s classic "Pancho & Lefty" that also included Nelson’s harmonica sidekick Mickey Raphael.
A brief mid-show interview excerpt included "Austin City Limits" executive producer Terry Lickona acknowledging that the Wheel’s performance to kick off the 1976 season was "what got the ball rolling, from that point on." It also helped bring the Wheel attention well beyond Texas, Benson noted. "This was our introduction to the world," he said. "The history that has been preserved by all of these shows is immeasurable."
That history includes changes in the show’s soundstage over the years. In 1976, "there wasn’t the famous skyline (backdrop) yet, and there were rows of people seated behind the stage," Benson noted in a brief intro to the episode. Later, a background of woodbeams was used, before the skyline finally emerged in the 1980s. Clips from a 1988 appearance included a rare sight for that era: Tables and chairs were cleared off the floor to allow room for couples to dance. (This foreshadowed the standing-room floor configuration in the show’s later years at its original Studio 6A venue and at its current home of ACL Live.)
RELATED: Interview with ’50 Years’ filmmakers Sam and Aaron Seifert, sons of Wheel leader Ray Benson
As the retrospective jumped from decade to decade, it was especially interesting to watch the changes in Benson himself. Compared to later episodes, he seemed a little tentative in the 1976 debut. By 1978, he appeared more confident and at ease as a bandleader. His hair and beard also had grown a bit, a trend that mostly continued into the 1980s and especially the ’90s, before a 2002 taping documented a brief period where his beard was almost nonexistent. His red mane gradually turns mostly gray in clips from the last two decades.
Benson is the sole constant from Asleep at the Wheel’s half-century run, but in the show’s intro, he gave deserved props to "the ever-changing cast of characters that make up Asleep at the Wheel." As a 1980 rendition of the country dancehall standard "Cotton Eyed Joe" accompanied the closing credits, a list of more than 50 Wheel alumni scrolled past.
Clips from early episodes brought back fond memories of singer Chris O’Connell, who got a vocal spotlight on "Nothing Takes the Place of You" from 1976. Later, the band’s present-day rising-star, fiddler Katie Shore, stepped out for a lead vocal on "I Can’t Give You Anthing But Love" from 2015. Mid-period selections featured steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar and lively blues singer Johnny Nicholas, who played together for years at the Saxon Pub in their post-Wheel days. And the 2015 passages that included pianist Emily Gimble offered a generational connection to clips of her grandfather Johnny Gimble joining the band in 1996.
Tight edits make the hour pass quickly, so much so that it seemed the retrospective could have warranted a 90-minute run-time. Perhaps a sequel or an extended cut will follow someday. Meanwhile, "50 Years of Asleep at the Wheel" will air three more times this week on Austin PBS: 11 p.m. Wednesday, 11:30 p.m. Friday and 3 a.m. Saturday. It’s also available for streaming thru Nov. 29 via the PBS website.
"Austin City Limits" marches on during the pandemic with two no-audience tapings this month for its 46th season. Both will be livestreamed on the ACL-TV YouTube Channel. Sunday at 7 p.m., Austin’s Ruthie Foster makes her second appearance on the show. And at 8 p.m. on Nov. 10 (moved from an initial Nov. 5 date), Nashville duo the War and Treaty will make its "ACL" debut.