Hot pickin’ and cool breezes dominated at the Salt Lick Pavilion on Saturday as the 30th Old Settler’s Music Festival hit the home stretch in Driftwood. A Sunday-afternoon finale followed across the road at Camp Ben McCulloch, with Austin favorites Shinyribs bringing the fest to an end after also closing out Saturday’s morning-to-midnight marathon.
MORE PHOTOS: A-List Gallery from Old Settler’s Music Festival
Early arrivals took in the Youth Talent Competition, with short performances by 10 acts ages 18 and under. Crowd favorites included 10-year-old fiddle-mandolin duo Jack & Isabella and a cappella quartet the Belle Tones, both of Austin. But the winner came from afar: Englishwoman Sophie Scott, 18, was in town to visit an uncle who suggested she enter the contest. She received both a short afternoon slot on the Bluebonnet Stage and an invitation to return in 2018 for a full set on the Hill Country Stage.
Those two stages were in different spots this year. The main Hill Country Stage occupied roughly the same footprint as in the past, but the stage itself was oriented up the hill from where it previously stood. The bigger change was the location of the Bluebonnet Stage, which moved to a tucked-away open pasture around the back side of the grounds.
The open grassy field alongside a gentle Onion Creek waterfall on the east edge of the property, formerly used for the Bluebonnet Stage, was cordoned off. “The Salt Lick uses that for weddings and events,” festival director Jean Spivey explained, “and the last two years we had bad rain and we were tearing up the lawn.”
If the new Bluebonnet spot was less picturesque, the crowd flow between the two stages seemed slightly smoother in this year’s setup. The same backstage and crew area adjoined both stages, which Spivey says aided logistical issues and cut down on golf-cart equipment-hauling traffic between stages.
As the afternoon wore on, temperatures rose from the high 50s to around 65 while Old Settler’s favorites the Del McCoury Band, Peter Rowan and Austin’s own Wood & Wire cranked out bluegrass sets for sizable crowds. Newer acts such as North Carolina group the Honeycutters and the eclectic California Honeydrops helped broaden the festival’s offerings.
But the best-kept secret at Old Settler’s — not really a secret at all, as the schedule is published in the program booklet — are the workshop sets on the Discovery Stage in a small hall near the old Bluebonnet Stage area. Highlights there included a sweet set by the Travelin’ McCourys without family patriarch Del (whose soaring voice sadly was limited by a bad cold on this day); a songwriting session with Wimberley-raised Grammy-winner Sarah Jarosz and accompanist Anthony Da Costa, a few hours before they delighted a packed crowd on the Hill Country Stage; and Swedish instrumental trio Vasen, who discussed their unusual nyckelharpa (a fiddle-like instrument that also has a keyboard) and revisited a few tunes they’d played in a brilliant noontime set before many festgoers had arrived.
As darkness fell, things got rockin’. The Bluebonnet Stage burst forth with alt-country sounds, as Nashville upstart Nikki Lane preceded a set by long-running Dallas foursome the Old 97’s. Back on the Hill Country Stage, Jarosz’s well-received spotlight homecoming gave way to East Los Angeles greats Los Lobos, who mixed blues-rock, Latin folk and other influences for the Old Settler’s die-hards who stayed for the long haul.