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Bill Arhos, 'Austin City Limits' Founder, Dies At 80


Back in 1974, an up-and-coming musician stepped onto the stage of a brand-new show on PBS called "Austin City Limits."


WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) Whiskey River, take my mind, don't let her memory torture me.

CORNISH: That's Willie Nelson. The pilot episode was the beginning of what is the longest-running live music show on TV. It was started by a producer at the PBS station in Austin, Bill Arhos. He died this week. He was 80. His efforts brought progressive country and rock to much of America, and the show's lasted more than 40 years and helped turned Austin into one of the hottest places in the world for live music. Here to talk more about his musical legacy is the current executive producer of "Austin City Limits," Terry Lickona. He joins us from Austin.

Welcome to the program.

TERRY LICKONA: Thank you Audie, good to be here.

CORNISH: First, I want to offer condolences to you and the whole "Austin City Limits" family. I know you've been with the program for many decades.

LICKONA: Well, thank you. It is a sad time for us right now. It's certainly the end of an era. A long run, though. Bill Arhos started the show back in 1974 and helped build a legacy that has lasted decades.

CORNISH: Now, I understand he actually played guitar. Is he somebody who wished that he could've been on that stage?

LICKONA: You know, I sometimes think that he lived his fantasies of being a guitar player vicariously through "Austin City Limits," but he was - you know, he was a classic Texas character. He was a snuff-dipping, tobacco-chewing, cigar-chomping, hunting, fishing, guitar-playing kind of Texan. And the guitar just kind of went along with everything else.

CORNISH: So, talk about his original vision for the show. How did he go about getting it started?

LICKONA: Well, you know, when you think back about the history behind "Austin City Limits," 1974 was really just a few years after President Johnson had signed the Public Broadcasting Act. And public television, in most people's minds back then, was still an educational medium. It hadn't really grown much behind beyond classroom-type training. And so, when Bill came along with this idea for a Texas version of a country music show, it didn't automatically go over well with the people at PBS in Washington or the other station programmers around the country. But Bill was a bulldog about it. He arm-twisted and cajoled people at other stations around the country who had never heard of Willie Nelson into carrying the show. And within a year, Bill had found funding for the program, and the rest is history because we're still here 41 years later.

CORNISH: The show really broadened out into rock and blues acts, and I want to play a clip from a 1979 appearance on the show by Ray Charles.


RAY CHARLES: (Singing) Georgia. Oh, Georgia. The whole day through this old, sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind.

CORNISH: Terry Lickona, when you hear a performance like this, what does it remind you about what this program did for, I guess, stretching the boundaries of this music?

LICKONA: Well, when Ray Charles did the show that was our fifth season. And to me, that really validated the fact that "Austin City Limits" had become more than just a regional Texas country music show. And we realized at the time that we had to grow beyond our roots in order to survive and to grow. So having people like Ray Charles, Tom Waits, B.B. King, Neil Young and so many more, I think did carry us forward into a new era. And you know, amazingly over the years, our musical boundaries, "Limits" have just continued to grow and expand in so many different directions, whether it's jazz or rock or pop or even Latin music. It all has a home on "Austin City Limits" today.

CORNISH: We'd like to end on one of his favorites. Can you recommend a performance that Bill Arhos loved?

LICKONA: Well, he loved Willie Nelson for sure, and the song "Funny How Time Slips Away" was one of his favorites and certainly is poignant, given what's happened this week.


NELSON: (Singing) Well, hello there. My, it's been a long, long time.

LICKONA: He just loved Texas singers, songwriters and Texas music. It was in his blood.


NELSON: (Singing) Ain't it funny how time slips away?

CORNISH: That's "Austin City Limits" executive producer Terry Lickona. He was a longtime colleague of the late Bill Arhos.

Thank you so much for speaking with us and sharing stories about him.

LICKONA: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.