McConaughey, who last month won his first Academy Award for best actor in "Dallas Buyers Club," inducted his friend and fellow Texan with simplicity.
"There would be no Austin City Limits without Willie Nelson," McConaughey said.
Keeping the show rolling later, McConaughey slipped in his signature "All right, all right, all right" - a segue that felt at home in this city that was the backdrop to the 1993 film "Dazed and Confused" and began the actor's rise to stardom.
Nelson, who will celebrate his 81st birthday next week by receiving his fifth-degree black belt in martial arts, was the first Austin City Limits performer in 1974 on what is now the longest-running television music program in the U.S.
Fellow country icons Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett joined the "Red Headed Stranger" on stage for a string of hits including "On the Road Again" and "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die."
"It means a lot. It's Austin City Limits and Austin - the music capital of the world," Nelson said on his bus before the show.
Also inducted were Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, longtime show producer Bill Arhos and former University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal, whose "pickin' parties" with guitar songwriters at his Austin home after games helped inspire the show.
Arhos recalled a friend's comment after one of the times when Nelson, who is famously open about his marijuana use, was busted for weed possession.
"He said, `That's like Wimpy getting busted for eating hamburgers,'" Arhos said.
Blues rockers Buddy Guy and Kenny Wayne Shepherd ended the night by joining Nelson on stage for a blistering rendition of "Texas Flood." The ceremony was held in the show's original intimate soundstage on the University of Texas at Austin campus, instead of a new 2,000-seat downtown venue where tapings moved several years ago.
Austin City Limits will air its 40th season starting in the fall.