Alejandro Escovedo, Lucinda Williams, Wilco joining 'Austin City Limits' Hall of Fame
Born in San Antonio before moving to California with his family as a young child, Alejandro Escovedo retained fond memories of his native state. So when “Austin City Limits” arrived on PBS stations nationwide in the mid-1970s, the program served as a warm reminder of a special place.
“It’s always been a big part of my musical journey,” Escovedo said last week from his home in Driftwood, just outside of Austin. “When we moved from Texas to Orange County, things were very different there. As I got older, we were always very proud of anything related to Texas. When that show came on, it was a really big part of that.”
Escovedo moved to San Francisco in his 20s and started a punk band called the Nuns, but what was happening in Austin at the same time fascinated him — and “Austin City Limits” was a window into that world. “I got to see people like Townes Van Zandt and Asleep at the Wheel, and that whole vibe that was happening in the '70s in Austin,” he said.
Soon he’d left the Nuns and teamed up with brothers Chip and Tony Kinman in Rank and File, a band that blended punk with left-field country music. “I think (‘Austin City Limits’) had a large part of what we ended up doing with Rank and File, actually,” he said.
So it was a special moment for Escovedo when Rank and File taped an “Austin City Limits” episode in the early 1980s. The band had relocated to Austin, where Escovedo eventually moved on to the rock band True Believers before launching a solo career in the 1990s.
On his own, Escovedo played “Austin City Limits” four more times — enough to put him on the short list for induction into the "Austin City Limits" Hall of Fame. That will happen on Thursday at ACL Live in a ceremony that will also induct former Austinite Lucinda Williams and renowned indie/alt-country outfit Wilco. All three acts will perform, along with special guests.
Created in 2014, the Hall of Fame — basically an honorary title, as there’s no room or building dedicated to its members — welcomes a handful of new inductees each year. It started with Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan in 2014; most recently, the 2019 ceremony inducted Lyle Lovett, Shawn Colvin and Buddy Guy. (The pandemic precluded last year’s event.)
Williams first appeared on the show in 1990, shortly after her self-titled 1988 album put her on the map as one of Americana music’s finest songwriters. She returned to tape episodes that aired in 1999, supporting her Grammy-winning album “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” and 2007, in conjunction with her album “West.”
She also was part of a memorable 1992 episode as a guest of Rosanne Cash, along with Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn. Cash will be a guest performer honoring Williams at Thursday’s ceremony, along with 21st-century Nashville roots-music torchbearers Margo Price and Jason Isbell, who will give the induction speech for Williams.
Cash is doing double duty Thursday, as she’ll induct Wilco. Guest performers for the Wilco portion of the show are Austin lo-fi great Bill Callahan, Santa Fe-via-Lubbock songwriter/sculptor Terry Allen, and Michelle Zauner of acclaimed indie band Japanese Breakfast.
Wilco has appeared on "Austin City Limits" twice, in 2000 and 2004. Leader Jeff Tweedy also did an hourlong episode in 2014 that encompassed material from an album he made with son Spencer Tweedy, plus solo-acoustic versions of old favorites stretching back to his early-1990s tenure in pioneering alt-country band Uncle Tupelo.
As major players in the development of Americana music across the past three decades, this year’s inductees have crossed paths many times. I was with Escovedo in February 1993 when we stopped by an Uncle Tupelo soundcheck in Salt Lake City and happened to hear them playing a Rank and File song. And Escovedo said he vividly remembers being in the audience for the early-1990s Rosanne Cash taping that included Williams and her then-guitarist Gurf Morlix.
He also recalled one prominent detail that stood out from Rank and File’s early-1980s taping. “I think it was one of the first times they allowed everyone to just dance at the front of the stage,” he says. Back then, “usually everyone (in the audience) was just sitting, no matter who it was. But for that show, they let everybody get up and dance.”
It wasn’t the only time the program took a chance with an Escovedo taping. His hourlong 2002 episode featured guests including jazz great Pete Escovedo (Alejandro’s older brother) plus Texas Latin artists Ruben Ramos and Rosie Flores performing “By the Hand of the Father,” a musical-theater piece Alejandro created with the help of a Los Angeles drama company.
“It was the first time they had done a production like that,” he said. “And it was a bilingual program, which was awesome.”
Escovedo had hoped to bring his brother Pete out for the induction ceremony, but at 86, he isn't able to travel easily. Still, the family will be represented: Pete Escovedo’s daughter is famed percussionist Sheila E., and she will be among the guest performers during her uncle's set.
Also on board are recent Austin transplant John Doe of the legendary Los Angeles punk band X, which used to play shows with Escovedo’s band the Nuns 40-odd years ago, and Alex Ruiz of local Latin-rock band Del Castillo. Ruiz sang Escovedo’s songs on 2020 album “La Cruzada,” an all-Spanish reworking of Escovedo’s 2018 immigrant-themed record “The Crossing.”
Doing the induction honors for Escovedo will be guitarist Lenny Kaye. Escovedo first saw Kaye perform with the Patti Smith Group in the mid-1970s in Los Angeles and San Francisco. They struck up a conversation at the San Francisco show, and Escovedo remembers that Kaye “was very encouraging about starting a band.” The two bonded across the decades, often hanging out together in Kaye’s home turf of New York City, where they had a lot of common friends.
Escovedo’s performance on Thursday will be his first since February 2020. In addition to the special guests, he’ll be backed by musical director Lloyd Maines and a house band including guitarist David Grissom. Escovedo, who moved to Dallas a few years ago but recently returned to the Austin area, has stayed off the road during the pandemic. He couldn’t have imagined a better venue for his return than ACL Live, where he played annual January concerts for several years in the mid-2010s.
That it’s for the “Austin City Limits” Hall of Fame show is the icing on the cake. The program "has been a huge part of my life,” he says. “Each time I’ve been on the show, everyone has been super cool. I’m always treated with a great amount of respect. They’re part of the larger Austin musical family that I’ve grown to love.”