Accepting her entry into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, Rosanne Cash marveled about how she never would have believed, at age 25, that she could be included in the kind of ceremony that would also induct the likes of Roy Orbison and the Neville Brothers, the other honorees Wednesday during the TV show’s annual gala at ACL Live.
Back then, “most people were just looking through me to try to see my dad,” she said, alluding to her late father, Johnny Cash. Longing for a community of like-minded souls who cared deeply about music and accepted her on her own terms, Cash said that when she first appeared on the program in 1983 at age 28, she realized “Austin City Limits was that community. But they taught me how to make myself a member.”
Similarly grateful comments came from the Orbison and Neville families, who gathered in Austin for this fourth induction ceremony. Not a physical place but simply an honorary designation, ACL’s Hall of Fame first honored Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan in 2014. Every year since, they’ve added a few more musicians who played a significant role in helping the 43-year-old show become the longest-running music television program ever.
Orbison was honored first, with his sons Wesley, Alex and Roy Jr. — holding young Roy Orbison III in his arms — accepting on behalf of their father, just 52 when he died of a heart attack in 1988. The five-song musical salute that followed included top-notch vocalists Raul Malo and Brandi Carlile fronting an ace local house band led by Lloyd Maines.
But it was emcee Chris Isaak who proved the finest Orbison interpreter in his turns on “Only the Lonely” and (with Carlile) “Dream Baby.” Those were the most auspicious moments of a great night for Isaak, who easily outshone previous Hall of Fame show emcees Matthew McConaughey, Dwight Yoakam and last year’s trainwreck team of Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman. Isaak downplayed his own role in the proceedings with self-deprecating jokes, but he struck a perfect balance between grace and humor throughout the three-hour show.
Cash’s segment followed Orbison’s, with Elvis Costello (a late add to the bill) and Neko Case performing a couple of her songs before Cash herself came out with guitar great Ry Cooder for two more tunes. Her husband, John Leventhal, joined the house band of local aces that included bandleader Lloyd Maines, guitarist David Grissom, keyboardist Chris Gage and the Robert Earl Keen Band rhythm section of bassist Bill Whitbeck and drummer Tom Van Schaik. Case and Costello returned for the obvious first-half finale of “Seven Year Ache,” Cash’s first chart-topping single and still her best-known song.
After a half-hour intermission, the show took a somewhat unusual turn by honoring the first non-person in the Hall of Fame’s history — the 50-year anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act, which was signed into law on Nov. 7, 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Paving the way for the PBS network and thereby Austin station KLRU and “Austin City Limits,” the legislation was a landmark. Johnson’s granddaughter Catherine Robb and the LBJ Foundation’s Amy Barbee spoke eloquently about the act’s impact on American life and culture for the past half-century.
ACL executive producer Terry Lickona also introduced a short but sweet tribute to the late Fats Domino, who died Wednesday at age 89. Domino appeared on “Austin City Limits” in 1987, and his performance of “Blueberry Hill” from that episode struck the right chord, moving many in the crowd to sing along.
It also provided a natural bridge to the evening’s final honoree, the Neville Brothers — who, like Domino, have long represented the finest music New Orleans has to offer. The Nevilles themselves continued the tribute to Domino by opening their extended set with Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” bringing back Costello and welcoming New Orleans piano legend Dr. John onstage to trade off lead vocals on the tune.
Doing the honors for the Nevilles’ induction was Trombone Shorty, who’s known the family all his life and told a touching story about going on the road with them when he was 12 or 13 years old. He performed with them for most of the set as well, his joyous trombone blasts fitting like a glove into the Neville’s funky, soulful grooves.
None of the four original Neville Brothers were present. But keyboardist Ivan Neville, singer Aaron’s son, led the extended band of special guests and Neville offspring, along with core sidemen Brian Stoltz on guitar, Tony Hall on bass and Willie Green on drums, through nine songs that got ACL Live rockin’ after the show’s more singer-songwriter-oriented first half.
Costello, Malo, Carlile and Isaak all joined in on the uplifting finale “Down By the Riverside” and its pointed “ain’t gonna study war no more” chant, with streamers and confetti blasting into the crowd at the end to play up the faux-“New Year’s Eve” celebration. Lickona explained earlier that because highlights from the show will air as a one-hour PBS special on Dec. 31, they’d be playing up the year-end theme at times throughout the night.
Isaak, of course, didn’t miss a beat. As the confetti settled and the Nevilles and friends took a bow at the show’s end, he called out, “Happy New Year! And Happy Easter!”
Note: This review was updated to correct the identity of a Neville Brothers band member.