BY FRED ZIPP | December 27, 2014 | People
The skyline has changed, but Terry Lickona is still guiding Austin City Limits with the same passion for music that brought him to Austin 40 years ago.
Boardwalk Empire: Terry Lickona surveys the real Austin skyline from the Lady Bird Lake hike-and-bike trail.
Terry Lickona peers out a window two floors above the grand staircase leading to Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater. “I have the best room on this floor,” Lickona says. “I think seniority means something, so they gave me a room with a view.” That’s about as close as Lickona comes to gloating. He enjoys contrasts, and they abound in his life and tenure at Austin City Limits, for which he’s the longtime executive producer. This year marks Lickona’s 40th year in Austin, as well as the 40th season of the show.
Lickona steers the longest-running music program in television history—winner of a National Medal of Arts in 2003 and a Peabody Award for excellence in 2012—from a modest office. After scrambling through its first couple of decades, Austin City Limits has become a juggernaut with its namesake venue and music festival. In a business where flameouts can be spectacular, he’s 67, healthy, and looking forward to his next trip off the grid.
In February, Lickona will coproduce the Grammy Awards for the fourth time. “I have tried to bring a little bit of the same sensibility that I apply to Austin City Limits into the thinking that goes into the Grammys,” he says, though he concedes it is on a much different scale. The Grammy Awards’ $9 million budget would cover ACL’s production costs for several years, and there are hundreds of people involved. Still, the Grammy Awards have the same guiding ethos as Austin City Limits: “It’s a show about the music,” he says.
Lickona and his team have nurtured a formula: intimate glimpses of no-frills, authentic performances. Or, as Asleep at the Wheel frontman and longtime friend Ray Benson puts it, “Get onstage, play, and we’ll capture it. We’re not going to trick this up.” Adds Bill Stotesbury, general manager at KLRU-TV: “The brand is stronger than ever.” ACL-related activities generated about a quarter of the station’s $12.7 million revenue in 2012 and 2013, he says.
In the early ’70s, Lickona was a disc jockey at WEOK-FM in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he grew up in what he describes as a nonmusical family. He juggled genres and got a musical education. While hosting a late-night show, he started hearing from a regular listener, a University of Texas grad who seduced him with stories of Austin, Willie Nelson, and Asleep at the Wheel. Lickona and his buddy, musician Dan Del Santo, decided to check it out in 1974 and ended up at Nelson’s Fourth of July picnic outside College Station. Then they drove on to Austin.
“On the spot, we made a pact that we were going to move here,” Lickona says, and so he did, in November 1974, just a month after Nelson taped the pilot episode of Austin City Limits. He got a job at KUT, the public radio station. From there, he talked his way into an unpaid job as assistant producer at Austin City Limits. Next, “the weirdest thing happened,” Lickona says; he became a producer in season four.
He left production details “to the people who know what they’re doing” and concentrated on booking. Among his favorites from that first season: accordion whiz Esteban Jordan, bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins, The Neville Brothers, and his pal from Poughkeepsie, Del Santo. That first year had its trying moments. Lickona booked Levon Helm and the RCO All-Stars for the premier performance; Helm refused to leave his hotel room to do the taping. Before a Hopkins show, the guitarist demanded a bottle of whiskey and cash payment up front, so Lickona took up a collection from the crew. In those days, a performance paid $300; today it’s $600.
Through the ’80s and ’90s, finding money to produce the show made for yearly drama. Benson, who served on the KLRU board of directors, recalls the strain. “Terry really held it together, both by his dedication and the fact that they worked for nothing. Their salaries were ridiculously low,” Benson says.
In season 26, ACL creator Bill Arhos retired, and Lickona’s role expanded. Meanwhile, the financial stress began to ease as KLRU arranged to license the show’s name to the Austin City Limits Music Festival, which just finished its 13th year. It struck another licensing deal with Stratus Properties that resulted in ACL Live at The Moody Theater, moving the show’s taping from the iconic studio on campus to the new, more accessible state-of-the-art facility in downtown Austin.
The festival “breathed new life into the show’s reputation and the perception people had of it,” Lickona says. “It’s made the ACL brand that much more recognizable. And now with the new venue, it’s yet another level of recognition.” Lickona and his crew continue to delight in scoring booking triumphs, finding new acts, and piecing together a season of the eclectic programming that has come to define the show. “The bottom line ultimately is the originality of the artist,” Lickona says. “It’s got to be somebody who has a unique way of expressing their music, their art.”
Inevitably, milestones (such as the 40th season of the show) lead to taking stock. What about retirement? “Well, people have just started asking me that, which can be a source of some annoyance,” he says. “As long as I’m in good health and I love what I do, why not keep doing it?’
photography by randal ford; Scott NewtoN courteSy of klru-tv