Honored as a "historic rock and roll landmark" by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Austin City Limits is the longest-running popular music series in American television history. ACL began in 1974 by featuring original Texas music that ran the gamut from western swing and Texas blues to Tejano, progressive country, and rock and roll. By the time the show celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary in 2009, its coverage encompassed unique regional, national, and even international performers in an eclectic, ever-expanding range of genres. ACL has also broadened its live audience beyond its iconic studio on the University of Texas campus with the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival, a three-day extravaganza that spotlights some 150 bands and attracts more than 200,000 fans.
Austin City Limits captures the excitement and energy of the show in photographs by ACL's longtime still photographer, Scott Newton. The images span ACL's first thirty-five years, with special emphasis on legendary artists such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Leonard Cohen, and Willie Nelson, and the most compelling contemporary performers and bands from the past ten to fifteen years, including Coldplay, John Mayer, Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam, David Byrne, The Flaming Lips, Wilco, Lucinda Williams, and Norah Jones. Proving that he has few peers among photographers of live music, Newton's images deliver amazing glimpses into the intimate, revealing, and powerful moments in each artist's performance. They also depict the direct and potent connection between performer and audience that has always been a hallmark of Austin City Limits.
One lucky day, many years ago, a professor in Ancient Greek lectured my class about musicians and other performing artists during the days of yore. He made the point that our culture's way of looking at musicians and performers is very different from the way it used to be. It was once understood that inspiration and creativity were provided by an outside spirit, or daimon, that flowed through the musician from a more ethereal place—separate from, but related to, the musician or actor or artist. In other words, it wasn't exactly the human being who was singing for us; instead it was, to a large extent, a spirit that was singing through the medium of the existing person—modified by that person, to be sure, but motivated by a purer, deeper being.
It has become my personal opinion that the ancient Greeks were on to something. Our cult of personality misses the point. It's the somehow separate, creative spirits expressing themselves through these performers that provide the deepest insights; the actual corporeal humans themselves are, to some degree, channels. That's not to denigrate the performers themselves; there's nothing wrong with becoming the channel that the most expressive spirits speak through. After all, it's quite an honor for the muses to love someone so much that they sing through him.
Often the people themselves—the performers, musicians, artists of all stripes—are truly lovely humans; just as often, they're not. It's only in our fairly modern age that we have given all the credit to the human, ignoring what's really going on.
My mission—what keeps me photographing performing musicians—is the quixotic quest of trying to make the invisible visible. You can't see the spirit that's actually motivating the inner music the musician plays, but you can hear it and you can certainly see the way the musician moves as he makes the music. Don't get me wrong; it's not an either/or, human/daimon caricature. Rather, it's like a fader with which there are degrees of possession. Some performers are aware of being in the grip of something bigger, and some are blissfully unaware of it. And after all, most performers are more inspired on some days than on others.
There are times when we're watching a performer and we can see her fully in the thrall of her motivating spirit. And when we hear and see her in this state, and we like it, we can join in. We're moved by the same spirit! We've all been in a room where everyone is pulsing to the same beat, the same music, lending our bodies and beings to the stoking of the mutual larger spirit that we partake in—feeling that spirit running through us all . . .
And that's why we love music so much. It's the sound the muses make. It helps break down the smaller, separated and isolated things—ourselves—and hooks us up with the much larger thing. And it's an increasingly larger thing—if you expand enough, eventually you get to the divine, or to whatever you see as The Biggest Possible Thing.
All of that to say this: It has been my life's work, over the last thirty-one years at ACL, to photograph the musicians who have appeared on our stage, and to attempt to capture a sense of the invisible muses who move them. See if you can tell the difference, as you look at the photos, between when I'm shooting musicians and when I'm shooting muses. Sometimes it's both, but sometimes it's really one or the other.
And sometimes it's an ego-oriented self-conscious person photographing these things, and sometimes it's his daimon, working through him.