Musician Ray Benson reflects on first Austin City Limits performance

Cat Cardenas

Before the famous Austin skyline backdrop framed ACL artists’ performances, Asleep at the Wheel appeared on the first episode of the fledgling show’s inaugural season in 1976. 

With the series’ production just beginning, the band’s frontman Ray Benson said they didn’t think much of getting asked to perform.

“It was their first year, so we just kind of did our own thing,” Benson said. “We had no idea that it would last this long and be as important as it is to so many people.”

Benson and the band have appeared on the show 10 times since their first appearance. The show set out to recreate the atmosphere of local venues and showcase rising trends such as progressive country. 

As the show went on, Benson said he witnessed its focus shift to include acts from all over the world. 

“The whole idea was to showcase Texas and what was happening in the clubs,” Benson said. “It was just a gathering of people excited to hear some music.”

With the focus on the audience, Benson said artists were more comfortable treating the television show like a regular gig. The show’s staff members also placed an emphasis on the artists’ visions for their performances. 

“At ACL, they just say, ‘Go,’” Benson said. “They ask for your approval; they let you mix your songs if you want. They’re very concerned the artist gets to present the show they want.”

Looking back, Benson said the band has changed and grown in the years since the show, but he’s still impressed with where they started.

“To be honest, I was pretty amazed at how good we were at such a young age,” Benson said. “We just wanted to play our music and have the performance focus on that.”