television: Staying Rooted 

For 26 years "Austin City Limits" has celebrated American music.

That may explain why "Austin City Limits" has held sway on TV hereabouts for so long. Musically, what pleases Austin seems to play well here, too.

"Austin City Limits" has legs: It's been on the air since 1976. More sophisticated than a barn dance but not so tightly packaged as to rein in pure enthusiasm, "ACL" has made a success of allowing both emerging and established musicians to pick, sing, wail and grin their own way. That's why you'll see a widely known and deeply seminal Western-swing band such as Bob Wills' Original Texas Playboys or an Appalachian country-to-the-bone group such as the Carter Family with June and Johnny Cash on the same stage, albeit not at the same time, as the Hopeful Gospel Choir and Ray Charles. But what seems to be eclecticism isn't that at all. "ACL" is acutely in touch with the roots of American music — American music in all its flavors, from country to soul, from rhythm and blues to hard rock.

Given its longevity, I decided to check out "ACL" again a few weeks ago. It had been some time since I'd watched, but the show, I found, hasn't lost its way. The same Austin skyline is the backdrop for the program (they added that in 1982), and the "ACL" stage is still a comfortable place for veterans and newcomers to show what they can do. This week's program, a repeat from last year, showcases the inimitable Dolly Parton in a 35-minute acoustic set, followed by "new-grass" newcomers Nickel Creek. Parton's Smoky Mountain roots show in the kind of songs you can imagine singing with neighbors and family on the front porch while the lightning bugs blink for mates at twilight. Later, Chris Thile, the handsome young mandolin player in Nickel Creek, handles his instrument as though it were a rock star's guitar, as the three-piece acoustic group offers up an amazing pastiche of hot licks, soaring vocals and haunting harmonies.

Later this month, "ACL" demonstrates its versatility with an hour built around the rhythm machine behind the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, Double Trouble. Joining the band are blues greats Jimmie Vaughan, Charlie Sexton and Doyle Bramhall II, along with Susan Tedeschi, who cooks on "Let the Good Times Roll," and young Jonny Lang, who knocks out a nearly four-minute burst of raw blues that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

"Austin City Limits" has been around for more than a quarter century because it does what it promises. It keeps authentic American music in touch with its roots. Whether you're a Virginian or a Texan — or any other kind of American — that's worth applauding. S"Austin City Limits" airs Saturdays at 7 p.m., on WCVW-Channel 57, and on Mondays at 11 p.m. on WCVE-Channel 23.


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