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Authentic Roots

The Old Settler's Music Festival Brings New and Traditional Americana in Harmony
Written by John T. Davis.

Celtic-rock band Gaelic Storm performs on the Hill Country Stage.

Sometimes in music as in fashion and architecture, “timeless” trumps “edgy.” As Central Texas music festivals go, the Old Settler’s Music Festival may lack the cutting-edge trendiness of South By Southwest or the brand-name recognition of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, but it has achieved an enviable under-the-radar reputation as a go-to destination for fans of acoustic, bluegrass, Texas, Americana, and jam-band music.


This year’s Old Settler’s Festival celebrates its 26th season this April 18-21 in Driftwood, west of Austin, and if your idea of “festival” conjures up a beer-soaked Eighties-era Willie Nelson bacchanal in some cotton field, think again. Instead of over-amped crowds waving glow-sticks and cell-phone cameras, think rippling green creek water, music illuminated by the glow of campfires, barbecue, face-painting booths, and a laid-back vibe that encourages the audience to, as Cervantes once said,  “Sing away sorrow, cast away care.”

Old Settler's four stages present a mix of top-tier local, national and international talent.

"It's laid back, it’s Texas-friendly, and it has the kind of vibe that harks back to an earlier time,” says OSMF executive director Jean Spivey. “Sometimes I describe it as the festival for people who don’t like festivals.”

That’s not to say it’s stuffy or stuck in the past. OSMF might even be trending “trendy.” Citing the growing appeal of nouveaux-roots bands like the Avett Brothers, the Decemberists, and Mumford & Sons, Spivey observes, “I think people are craving authenticity, and that’s what these bands and Old Settler’s have in common.”

Held on the edge of the Hill Country just west of Austin, at the Salt Lick Barbecue Pavilion and the adjoining Camp Ben McCulloch campground, the festival revels in the natural surroundings provided by the seasonal wildflowers; the imposing oak, elm, and bald cypress trees; the beckoning waters of Onion Creek; and the bucolic Chautauqua-
style campground.

 As it has in the past, Old Settler’s four stages will present a mix of top-tier Austin talent (the Gourds, Terri Hendrix, Bob Schneider), national acts (Carolina Chocolate Drops, Son Volt, Justin Townes Earle, Michael Franti), and a sprinkling of international performers like England’s soul/blues belter James Hunter.

“We have a super bluegrass lineup this year,” enthuses Spivey, citing bluegrass patriarch Del McCoury, current stars Jerry Douglas and Russell Moore, and up-and-comer Casey Driessen, who mixes fiddle virtuosity with electronic musical samples to yield inventive new sounds. Three generations, three takes on timeless music.

Impromptu jam sessions in the campgrounds might lead to next year's Next Big Hit.

“I’ve always felt like we throw a party,” says Scott Marshall, the president of the nonprofit festival’s board. Marshall has been in place since the early 1980s and heads up logistics. “We love to see other people having a good time. I had one of our vendors tell me a couple of years ago that Old Settler’s had the feeling of 1970s Austin.”

As far as the crowd at OSMF is concerned, tie-dyed shirts and bandanas are alive and well. And they look mighty slick with a brand-new straw or Open Road topper. Dancing, from toe-tapping to spirited shimmying, is always in fashion, too, although a quorum of sed-entary modern-day Old Settlers emphatically prefers to recline on blankets and in lawn chairs.

Despite its current home at a site that dates to 1896, the “Old Settler’s” of the festival’s title harks back to its 1987 founding at Old Settler’s city park in the Austin suburb of Round Rock. After a two-year subsequent tenure in Dripping Springs, the festival relocated to Camp Ben and the adjacent Salt Lick in 2002.

Since its earliest incarnations, the festival has hosted stars and future stars such as Patty Griffin, Bruce Hornsby, Béla Fleck, Doc Watson, Shawn Colvin, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Sam Bush, Rodney Crowell, Richard Thompson, and Marty Stuart. An annual Youth Talent Competition helps nourish future stars.

“You can see the acts up close,” says Spivey. “It’s family-friendly, the music is great, and you’ll have a nice laid-back time.” (The laid-back quotient will be higher in 2013; this year, in cooperation with Driftwood’s Duchman Family Winery, the festival also plans to offer its own private-label wines.)

Even the performers get into the communal, congenial spirit. Mike Morgan, whose band Flounders Without Eyes has played the festival myriad times, recalls the year they and members of the fellow jam band Leftover Salmon dressed up in costumes after their sets and visited the campfire picking parties.

“We were all dressed up as the Pope and the Hamburglar and all these characters, and we grabbed our instruments and went through the entire campsite until almost sunup,” Morgan says.

Singer-songwriter Terri Hendrix, another OSMF mainstay, cherishes the eclectic nature of the performers from “an elderly hardcore bluegrass group” followed by “a punkabilly trio” that turned their amps to eleven. “I looked out at that audience and you would have thought they’d died and gone to heaven,” she says.

A quilt fashioned from 25 years of Old Settler's Festival T-shirts illustrates the festival's colorful history.Sarah Jarosz, a singer-songwriter and instrumentalist, has performed on the Austin City Limits TV show and A Prairie Home Companion and at numerous festivals to growing acclaim. But she made her debut at OSMF in 2002 as the 12-year-old winner of the annual Youth Talent Compeition, performing “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” and “Red Haired Boy.” “Having that close proximity to such an awesome gathering of musicians was very inspiring to me,” said Jarosz before last year’s festival. She has performed at Old Settler’s numerous times, always in the company of her parents, who live in the nearby town of Wimberley. And that is another aspect that endears the festival to her: “It’s such a sort of a hometown thing. It’s sort of like a family reunion.”

One of the primary goals of the festival, says the festival’s former director, Randy Collier, was to raise the bar of acoustic music in the Austin area. “We tried to attract the best musicians in their category, whatever they played, people who are recognized internationally as the best in the world,” he explains. “It couldn’t help but improve the standard of acoustic music in Austin.”

Whatever the future holds, the Old Settler’s Music Festival is determined to remain indelibly, well, Old Settler’s. Last year, Spivey recalls, there was a wedding. Two  longtime fans met at the festival, got engaged, and decided to have their nuptials at the 2012 event. 
“We put them on the Bluebonnet Stage on Saturday afternoon,” says Spivey. “They had 2,060 guests—the 60 they sent invitations to and the 2,000 Old Settler’s fans looking on.”

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