Umbrellas for rain became sun shields as ominous storm clouds mellowed to cotton white wisps for a surprisingly pleasant (and mostly rain-free) day in Driftwood as Saturday’s festivities at the Old Settler’s Music Festival began.
The shift to blue skies didn’t come soon enough to keep parking in a field near the Salt Lick Pavilion, the site of the festival, from becoming a bit of a mud-slinging mess. Passenger vans, pickups and Prius-es alike spun tires in the muck after a brief morning shower. But things brightened up as the crowds came out in full force, either driving in or from across the road at Camp Ben McCulloch, where many fans camp out for intimate sets from fest headliners and all-night, anyone’s-welcome jam sessions around campfires.
Jason Pampell of Montgomery, Texas, sat by the creek Saturday afternoon sipping a craft beer while bluegrass banjo licks from Hot Rize carried over from the nearby SouthStar Stage. “Everyone who’s here is here for the same reason: to kick back and enjoy some great music,” he said. “It’s a completely different side of the spectrum… It’s tough to beat as far as festivals go in the state of Texas.”
The now 28-year-old festival features a wide range of American roots music, from folk to blues to gospel. The laid-back Old Settler’s has a less corporate, more family-friendly feel than many of the other music events that dominate the Austin-area calendar. Attendees ranged from gray hairs to toddlers crawling in the grass, with plenty of outdoorsmen, barefoot hippies and luxuriantly bearded youths thrown in the mix. Chairs were welcomed, there was a petting zoo and other activities for younger festival-goers, and even at its most crowded there was plenty of room by the live flower-adorned stages for fans to get up close and dance.
At noon Dripping Springs-based guitar man Israel Nash and his band were jamming out on long takes of their Neil Young psych-meets-country tunes as folding chairs congregated in neat, organic rows in front of the stage and under the shade of gnarly old oaks along the perimeter. Pokey LaFarge was up next next with a playful blend of ragtime shuffle and swing guitar with a heavy dose of upright bass. (For the four days of Old Settler’s, Driftwood surely must be the upright bass capital of the world.)
Mid-afternoon world music act Rising Appalachia brought a hypnotic danceable mix of Carolinian banjo and Afro-cuban beats. They were followed by gospel quartet the McCrary Sisters, the daughters of the Fairfield Four’s Rev. Samuel McCrary. The soulful siblings had the chair-free folks’ feet moving in the straw and hands clapping in the air along with their harmonies (and a fierce tambourine solo) during their high-energy epic church jams. As the sun started setting and rainclouds returned overhead Jake Shimabukuro, a ukelele virtuoso whose name comes up if you Google “best ukelele player,” took to the stage for an eclectic cool down.
While there were plenty of Americana music all-stars to catch, a big draw for many is the festival’s Youth Talent Competition, a judged contest whose past winners include Sarah Jarosz, who won in 2002 at the age of 10. The competition gives 18-and-under artists a 15-minute slot to showcase their skills with an acoustic performance. The winner is invited back to perform the next year.
Sisters Sarah and Bekah Guess of Denton coordinate the competition and are past contestants themselves. “You get to see the up-and-comers,” Bekah said. “It’s so raw; they’re not faking it. They’re the types of performers you’ll see playing years down the road.”
Justin Collins of Dallas agreed. “I was absolutely floored by how good the youth competition was. I watched a young guy who played Stevie Ray Vaughan better than I ever could.” Collins was in for his seventh Old Settler’s. He said other personal standouts included bluegrass mandolinist Sam Bush and Friday night headliners the Mavericks, but the music and camaraderie at Camp Ben McCulloch keeps him coming back year after year. “The real pull for me is the music at the campgrounds.”
“What’s old is new again,” a DJ with Sun Radio said welcoming a band to the stage early in the day. That’s true of this long-running fest too. What was once a pretty common festival atmosphere is now a rare thing. It’s a throwback that feels fresh — and a welcome timeout from the overwhelming.