Historic Austin City Limits piano brought back to life

Logan Dubel, Senior Life&Arts Reporter

When Austin City Limits taped its first show inside UT’s Studio 6A in 1974, a grand house piano sat firmly on the stage under the spell of musician Bobbie Nelson, while her famed brother Willie’s voice wailed. As the show grew and different artists including Ray Charles, Lyle Lovett and Fats Domino graced the show’s airwaves, one instrument — the 1911 Steinway and Sons piano — never moved. 

However, when ACL relocated production to The Moody Theater after 36 seasons in 2011, producers left the hefty ivories behind, fearing the piano would not survive the ride downtown. It remained in storage for 12 years, until longtime executive producer Terry Lickona said he had a vision — taking care of the piano himself. 

“I didn’t expect them to give it to me, as I couldn’t afford to buy it because frankly, it’s priceless,” said Lickona, a 45-year ACL veteran. “When Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters saw it, he said it should be in the Smithsonian, but I have this thing about putting instruments under glass cases. It’s great to look at, but it’s sad — it’s not still alive.”  

Now, thanks to Lickona, the century-old piano, with some scratches but endless character, fills his high-ceilinged, music memorabilia-filled home with a perfectly-tuned ring, proving the instrument remains full of life. 

Making good on a promise, Lickona hosted the ACL team last week to showcase the resonant 88 keys and invite others to play. Well-respected Austin musician Henri Herbert delivered a poignant set, and said placing his hands on these keys in particular culminated his dream. 

“Many years ago, I was living in an English seaside town and I watched DVDs of ACL. … That was part of what led me to come to Austin,” Herbert said. “It feels magical, kind of mystical and spiritual. I’m not religious myself, but I imagine that it feels like something otherworldly.” 

The piano’s history could be as majestic as its sound, but much remains unknown, besides that UT gave it to ACL at the show’s inception. Station archivist Liz Antaramian discovered many of the stars who played the instrument, but said she continues searching for clues about its pre-ACL story. 

“I’m hoping that from 1911 to 1974, maybe a student who wasn’t sure about whether music was for them played it, or it was used for theater or choir where it brought joy,” Antaramian said. “I’m hoping people reach out when they read this article, and maybe say, ‘I was a student at UT in 1965, and I got to play on the piano during my lunch break.’” 

Butler School of Music professor John Mills said he remembers the piano well. The acclaimed jazz musician made appearances on ACL, even alongside Willie Nelson, and said the piano’s second chance serves as a testament to UT, the music franchise’s birthplace. 

“The student population had a lot to do with the character of the music scene … at a time when Austin on any given night did not have a couple hundred venues,” Mills said. “The energy on campus, and certainly ACL, was a very special thing.” 

Honoring ACL’s special legacy, Lickona announced a $25,000 donation to the station at the reception. He said the piano’s rediscovery marks only the beginning of a memorable 50th anniversary season, as history’s longest-running music series charts its future.

“I don’t want to get too carried away, but it’s like being born again. We’re not only giving people a chance to rediscover the piano, but discover more about the show’s history,” Lickona said. “Fifty is a big milestone, and it’s a bridge to the future.”