The Poughkeepsie Kid

A night in the life of Austin City Limits ringleader Terry Lickona

Future Islands from the mezzanine, Sept. 24
Future Islands from the mezzanine, Sept. 24 (Photo by John Anderson)

There's no clock above the stage at the Moody Theater, but you know it's 7:50pm when a skinny, casually dressed guy with curly blond hair steps up to the mic and asks everyone to holster their phones and start finding their seats.

This is your 10-minute warning for a taping of Austin City Limits, the landmark PBS show in production since 1974. Its archives boast artists from Roy Orbison to Radiohead – Merle Haggard to Mos Def – lensed with un-intrusive, musician-focused videography. Since 2002, the program's leased its name to Austin's largest outdoor music festival.

When ACL Executive Producer Terry Lickona exits to the side stage, his old friends are there: director Gary Menotti, floor manager Ray Lucero, producer Jeff Peterson. The four specialists, who've all worked on ACL since the Seventies, crack jokes and scan the crowd looking for friends without a hint of stress or pre-show jitters.

"We've been doing this job for a long while," smiles Lucero. "And we're all still here. One big family."

Lickona pushes past double doors and strolls through the surprisingly calm backstage to the dressing room of tonight's featured act, Future Islands, an emotionally potent synth-rock quartet from Baltimore that broke through earlier this year with a viral Letterman performance and a coming out at South by Southwest.

"Hey guys, five minutes."

"Thanks, Terry," says the group's frontman Samuel T. Herring.

The singer will break a mighty sweat tonight. Lickona won't. The executive producer's duties are essential, from booking talent to sculpting the show's identity, but tapings for him are generally hands-off – except for introducing the band.

Back in the big room, the seats are full from floor to balcony and the venue's comes alive with expectant energy. Lickona remains cool, checking the clock on his phone. Time.

He preps the crowd, thanking underwriters, acknowledging sponsors, and begrudgingly introducing himself by name – a new practice necessitated by the popularity of live streaming to an online audience beyond Austin's actual city limits. As Lickona intros, Herring waits in the wings, pounding his chest, lunging in place, and lip-buzzing a vocal warm-up. He grabs my shoulder.

"Make sure you write something nice about us!"

"I'm not writing about you," I reply, pointing to the stage. "I'm writing about Terry."

Highwaymen: (l-r) Lickona, Johnny Cash, and ACL director Gary Menotti, 1987
Highwaymen: (l-r) Lickona, Johnny Cash, and ACL director Gary Menotti, 1987 (Photo by Scott Newton/Courtesy of KLRU-TV)

"Much deserved," he chuckles as Lickona signals showtime with three magic words.

"Are you ready?"

Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues

Public speaking to an audience of 2,000 hardly raises the blood pressure of the 66-year-old head honcho to America's longest-running music show, but as a youngster in Poughkeepsie, New York, Terry Lickona grew up the silent type.

"I was a complete introvert – a nerd," he admits. "I went through the classic Catholic school education, which I hated, but I did it to keep my parents happy, and through four years of high school I never once spoke in class."

While other kids had posters of sports heroes on their bedroom walls, Lickona had pictures of New York AM frequency jocks like Cousin Brucie and Dan Ingram. Those voices provided a Top 40 education, but Lickona acknowledges not getting into hip music until his freshman year at the University at Albany, when he saw his first concert.

"It was Janis Joplin at an armory in Albany. That was also the first time I got high. I smoked pot with my sister," he pauses. "How cool is that?"

Witnessing Joplin, whose musical career was embryonic in Austin, may have foreshadowed the East Coaster's eventual Texan citizenship.

"Then I got completely into it," he continues. "Within months I went to a festival on Randall's Island and saw Jethro Tull, Humble Pie, and Jimi Hendrix. They were so far behind schedule Jimi didn't hit the stage until morning. That was the first time I did acid, so I got to see Jimi Hendrix playing in front of the sun rising while I was tripping my balls off.

"Hey, I had a lot of ground to make up for after Catholic high school and I was in a hurry to do it."

Now a willing participant in the counterculture, both musical and political, Lickona burned his draft card and marched in protest of the Vietnam War. When his student deferment expired at age 21, the Army drafted him, but he refused to take the oath of induction – a decision that could've landed him in jail had Uncle Sam had any real interest in the scrawny kid, who was ultimately rejected on physical grounds.

"I think they took one look at me and decided, 'Okay we could ship him off to Vietnam, but he'll be dead in six months because this kid is not Army material,'" laughs Lickona.

He scored his first post-collegiate job as a deejay at WEOK-AM/WPDH-FM in Poughkeepsie, where he very briefly used the pseudonym Curly Collins and played records of his choosing from 6pm until 2am nightly throughout the early Seventies. In summer 1974, a listener who caught a Willie Nelson spin called in and hipped him to Austin's music scene. Lickona and his best friend – notorious Austin scene staple-to-be Dan Del Santo – road-tripped to Texas for Willie's Fourth of July Picnic, held that year in College Station.

"It had one of those classic lineups, with Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, and Townes Van Zandt, and I remember it was so hot and we were so messed up. The only shade we could find was a chain-link fence. After that, we spent three days in Austin hanging out and made a pact to move here."

<i>ACL</i>'s legendary Tom Waits taping, December 1978
ACL's legendary Tom Waits taping, December 1978 (Photo by Scott Newton/Courtesy of KLRU-TV)

Back in Poughkeepsie, they said he was crazy, giving up a cushy radio job for an uncertain future in Texas. Four months later, he drove his 1974 Datsun across the country and never looked back.

In Control

ACL's control room, one stairway up from the stage, serves as the production's cerebrum, from which all the floors equipment gets directed. Twelve staffers and interns sit in rows looking at a multitude of screens displaying 21 views of Future Islands' performance.

"Ready four, take four! Loosen on three, take three! Hold two, take two!" Menotti calls though a headset to the camera operators. At the monitor, Herring kneels with water dripping from his face.

"He's crying! Move in camera one!"

"He's not crying," Lickona rolls his eyes. "He's sweating."

Herring lets out a gravely, guttural growl that reminds Lickona of one of his first ACL bookings in 1978.

"Tom Waits basically slept on the couch in the hallway the entire day and then woke up just in time to do the show," he remembers of that December evening in the University of Texas' Studio 6A, which housed the program until 2010. "It's one of the top five shows people ask about. Every year we renew the rights and air it around Christmas."

Waits' season-four performance came at a turning point for ACL. Lickona had just taken the reigns as producer and expanded the show both stylistically and regionally.

"By the fourth season, the progressive country Armadillo spark had begun to fade along with the view of Austin as the anti-Nashville, and the show had already begun to recycle the acts," he explains. "It seemed like time to start shaking things up and take it in a different direction. I wasn't so hung up on it being a pure showcase for Texas music. I didn't think there were any limitations."

Lickona had been in Austin four years. He'd struck out trying to get a jock job on country signal KOKE-FM, burned though his life savings ($400), and got by donating blood and eating every meal at Luby's before landing at KUT reporting public affairs and hosting bluegrass and jazz shows. After work, he'd venture down the hall to catch ACL tapings by Flaco Jiménez, the Texas Playboys, and Guy Clark.

In 1977, he began volunteering with the show and when producer Charles Vaughan moved on the next year, Lickona worked up the chutzpah to walk into the KLRN station manager's office and pitch himself for producer.

"I convinced them it would be cheaper to hire me than hire someone from L.A. or New York," he reflects. "That was the selling point, and they went for it."

Despite being young and knowing little about TV production, Lickona was given creative carte blanche. Thinking outside of the city limits, he filled season four with stylistically diverse artists like Waits, the Neville Brothers, Lightnin' Hopkins, Esteban Jordan, Elizabeth Cotten.

Joe Ely (l) and Lickona present Lloyd Maines with an <i>Austin City Limits</i> Hall of Fame Award earlier this year
Joe Ely (l) and Lickona present Lloyd Maines with an Austin City Limits Hall of Fame Award earlier this year (Photo by Scott Newton/Courtesy of KLRU-TV)

"Terry had a sixth sense of what would work," acknowledges David Hough, ACL's audio engineer since season one. "He broadened the horizons of the music and he pushed the envelope early by getting artists from outside of Texas, while always making sure to represent dominant females and minorities. That's how he was able to feed it and grow it."

Seasons Change

Forty-five minutes into Future Islands' set, Lickona steps onto the mezzanine to watch the band. They launch into their biggest hit, "Seasons (Waiting on You)," Herring throwing heart-on-sleeve haymakers into the air and connecting with passion.

"While making the show is very satisfying, it's even better seeing the pleasure it brings to people," the executive producer says, soaking in the vibe.

Lickona and Peterson scouted Future Islands firsthand at the Mohawk in April.

"I booked them on the spot," says the former. "I didn't see any reason to wait."

"He's got an uncanny knack of going to a club and watching a band early in their career and making a good decision of whether they're a priority for a show," Peterson says. "Sometimes I'll be on the fence, he'll be sure, and then the band comes in and kills it. He knows what will work for television and who will balance out the season."

ACL's booking is Lickona's domain, and he reserves veto power, but the selection of acts remains a weekly discussion that includes Peterson, associate producers Leslie Nichols and Emily Joyce, and general manager Tom Gimbel.

"There are the numerous other voices as well," adds Lickona. "Ranging from my plumber to the guy at the restaurant, pitching ideas for an act. People ask what the criteria is and really it comes down to originality in how they present their music, whether it's singing, the songs they write, if they have a particular virtuosity on an instrument, or all of the above."

The executive producer's vision continues to act as ACL's north star and he's the reason it's stayed a platform for both rootsy local treasures like Dale Watson and modern pop hitmakers like Emeli Sandé, and why an episode starring crush bait Ed Sheeran can be followed by goth antagonists Nine Inch Nails. The industry clout he's earned as a Grammys producer no doubt assists in ACL landing marquee talent.

Though ACL's missions are constant – present high-quality concert footage without commercials, balance legacy artists and emerging talent, and represent Austin favorites – Lickona admits to once losing touch.

"There was some confusion of identity in the Eighties when we lost our way and booked too many Nashville-type country acts. The second time Ray Charles played, I matched him with Lee Greenwood. I look at that now and say, 'What was I thinking? Ray Charles and Lee Greenwood? One has instant credibility and the other – ugh!'"

There are still two precious spots to fill for the show's 40th season, and Lickona confirms there's "a number of irons in the fire." It's unlikely one of those will be Prince, but the Purple One has made his interest known.

"Prince's agent called over a year ago and let us know that his client is a big fan of the show and watches it back home in Minnesota. He got a wild hair to do ACL and we said we'd love to have him, but, guess what? He still hasn't come," sighs Lickona. "I think we'll hear about it when he's ready – probably the day before he wants to tape."

With Ed Sheeran, June 2014
With Ed Sheeran, June 2014

For now, Prince resides on Lickona's list of "ones who got away," which includes Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, James Taylor, and Bruce Springsteen.

"Sometimes those legacy artists are the toughest to nail down because their management think they're above doing stuff like this," Lickona laments.

Most of the artists get it. When Pearl Jam played the show, Eddie Vedder noted that Austin City Limits had built a monument to music and it's a privilege for artists to add another brick to it.

"That's the most eloquent way of explaining what we do," says Lickona.

Closing Time

Twenty minutes after Future Islands completes its 80-minute set with a heated three-song encore, they're ushered into a small backstage room for the customary post-show interview. Lickona questions the band on their origins, influences, and whether the highly histrionic Herring has acting training. He doesn't.

With two-dozen photos of fellow ACL performers on the wall behind him, the singer takes a moment to reflect on what the program has meant to him.

"PBS was really important because I didn't have cable, MTV, or VH1. Austin City Limits was really cool for a kid whose exposure to music was just my parents' records or whatever scary music my older brother had," lauds Herring. "To have an outlet where I could discover artists ranging from Tom Waits to Ghostland Observatory was really incredible."

Soon the band, managers, and camera operators clear out, and Lickona hangs back, sitting on the couch. Most of his co-workers have already left and, as usual, he'll be the last to leave the building.

"There's no better feeling, at the end of the day, than knowing you got another episode in the can," he says.

That's a feeling Lickona missed on Sept. 2. Recovering from hernia surgery, he sat out J. Roddy Walston & the Business' taping.

"I watched the live stream on my computer at home thinking, 'This sucks. I can't watch the show like this!'"

Austin City Limits' two-hour 40th anniversary concert airs in prime time on Friday, featuring Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Gary Clark Jr., Robert Earl Keen, and various ACL all-stars. On Saturday, the new season kicks off with Beck. Days later, Lickona celebrates a birthday.

"I'm almost 67 years old," he reminds himself. "It's something I'm coming to terms with."

Terry Lickona's now spent more than half his life guiding Austin City Limits, and today, with a continually broadened aesthetic and a meaty season roster, the institution's cultural importance stands firm. That's something worth treasuring.

"I can't imagine a day when I'm not producing this show," he says. "I want to do it forever."

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