Written by Jane Ponte
This year’s Old Settler’s Music Festival, In Timon, TX, could have easily been dubbed “the friendliest music festival that never was.” Fortunately for music lovers across Texas, the country, and even the world, this did not turn out to be the case. Last week, from April 11th through April14th, music lovers from all over gathered together at the festival’s new location, a beautiful 145-acre ranch, 30 miles southeast of Austin near Lockhart, and basked in the familiar and welcoming hippie vibe that the Old Settler’s family has been cultivating and sharing for 32 years now.
In the past, this family-friendly celebration of music, camping and nature took place at the Salt Lick Pavilion in Driftwood, TX, where it remained a yearly event for many years, after relocating from Round Rock and morphing from a one-day bluegrass festival to a 3-day rootsy, camping experience with a mellow, Americana-based feel. But controversy, debt, and differences of opinion plagued the festival and threatened to shut it down completely. Fortunately, through hard work, fierce determination, a shared love of music and a deep sense of community, OSMF just celebrated its 2nd year in its new location and its 32nd year as a thriving and deeply-loved festival that brings families, music lovers, and musicians together for 4 beautiful days of music, camping, and nature.
Upon arriving at the new location for the festival last Thursday, we were welcomed by a vast array of friendly folks of all ages and backgrounds. Helpful, smiling people were everywhere; their warmth and positive energy was palpable as they guided us through the process of finding parking and obtaining our wristbands and other credentials. We later found out that the vast majority of the Old Settler’s family—a 501 ( c ) (3) non-profit—consisted almost entirely of volunteers, and has from the festival’s inception. Their friendly nature and dedication to maintaining a clean, safe, inclusive festival experience for everyone was evident from the weekend’s start. Shortly after having selected a spot near the Campground stage and settling into our camp chairs, one of the volunteers stepped onto the stage to introduce the first band of the afternoon, Feeding Leroy. This volunteer also reminded everyone to please be respectful of others and the pristine surroundings of the ranch by picking up after themselves and disposing of their trash and recyclables when necessary. Throughout the 4-day event we noticed both volunteers and attendees taking advantage of the ample trash receptacles and recycling bins that dotted the shady groves and wildflower-filled meadows of the ranch, along with the sprawling fields where the main stages were showcased. The reminder to be respectful and to pick up after oneself was reiterated throughout the weekend and most attendees honored this request, thus adding to the underlying sense of community and respect for the environment that permeated the entire festival and the ranch as a whole.
Thursday evening’s musical lineup was a quirky mix of Americana, Folk, and Bluegrass all delivered from the Campground stage as festival-goers showed up and settled in for the weekend. Feeding Leroy, The South Austin Jug Band, Mipso, Jaimee Harris, and Paul Thorn all delivered noteworthy performances and set the tone for an incredible weekend of music and merriment. One attendee was apparently very excited about all the festivities and showed her enthusiasm by hopping on stage during Paul Thorn’s lively set. As she attempted to show off her unique dance moves while gyrating between Thorn and Bill Hinds, Thorn’s lead guitarist, an Old Settler volunteer cheerfully escorted her off the stage and back into the crowd, while the audience cheered and continued to groove to the music. Thorn and his band never missed a beat throughout, and the party continued.
While this moment certainly captured the spirit of the crowd, the performances of both The South Austin Jug Band and Jaimee Harris were also highlights of Thursday evening’s entertainment. Harris, who is originally from Waco and now resides in Austin, captivated the crowd with her beautiful vocal stylings and edgy, emotional lyrics that illustrated the emotional depth and scope of this talented young woman who is clearly a force to be reckoned with. After performing several songs from her stunning debut album, “Red Rescue,” Harris topped off her already perfect set by inviting the celebrated, Grammy-nominated folk singer Mary Gauthier, and good friend and Austin musician Graham Weber (Western Youth) on stage to share in the vocal duties during the last song of her set. It was a balmy 75 degrees, yet this performance gave me goosebumps. All in all, Thursday’s performers set the tone for a beautiful weekend of music that was sure to follow, and did.
Friday’s official start to the fest took place inside the gated festival grounds and began with a stellar acoustic performance by critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter John Moreland. Accompanied by fellow Okie John Calvin Abney, the two talented pickers captivated the crowd as Moreland poured his heart and soul out, singing several of his most beloved songs, including “Cherokee” and “No Glory in Regret.” Moreland’s soulful, deeply personal set was a great kickoff to a superb afternoon of music on both the smaller Bluebonnet stage and the Original Black’s BBQ stage, which also hosted bluegrass legend and OSMF regular Del McCoury, Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, and Austin’s own, Shinyribs.
Shires, originally from Lubbock, TX, showcased a side of herself that proved once again why she is one of the coolest women in the Americana genre as she effortlessly glided from a down-home, more traditional style of fiddling to a rollicking, rock-infused style that captivated her crowd and left them cheering for more. She repeatedly proved that she is a performer of the highest caliber as she traded solos with lead guitarist Zach Setchfield and belted out both tender ballads and rocking tunes from her newer and older albums. And much to her crowd’s delight, she introduced her husband, Jason Isbell, whom she affectionately referred to as “Mr. Shires” to join her and her talented band on stage for a few of the last songs of the set. This move was exactly what the crowd needed to gear up for the stellar Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit set that was soon to follow.
Because it is impossible to be at two places at the same time, and because the music of the Original Black’s BBQ stage held me spellbound for most of the afternoon and evening, I relied on the competent opinions of other festival attendees to enlighten me as to the happenings on the Bluebonnet stage, which drew a mighty and appreciative crowd of its own. Robert Ellis, the original Texas Piano Man, pounded out some of his best-know songs to a receptive crowd, and North Carolina’s Mandolin Orange laid down one of the most talked-about sets of the entire weekend, drawing from both older material and newer tunes of their most recent album, “Tides of a Teardrop.” Particularly noteworthy was their performance of “Golden Embers,” a delicate and deeply personal song about the death of front man Andrew Marlin’s mother when he was just 18. The song left the captivated crowd a bit misty on that otherwise sunny and breezy Friday afternoon.
The crowning jewel for Friday was, undoubtedly, the perfectly executed acoustic performance by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. The 90-minute set by the Alabama Singer-songwriter and his impeccable band, which also includes wife Amanda Shires on fiddle and vocals, was a casual and friendly performance that featured nearly all of Isbell’s best-loved songs and plenty of jokes and stories to accompany them. The band offered exceptional versions of fan favorites such as “24 Frames,” “Tupelo,” “White Man’s World,” and the incredibly poignant “Elephant,” “Cover Me Up,” and “If We Were Vampires.” It was both an honor and a privilege to witness this personal and flawless performance by Isbell and company, and it left his crowd on their feet and cheering for more.
Rounding out the evening was a rollicking performance by Shinyribs, the country-soul, swamp-funk band from Austin TX. Front man Kevin Russell and his cast of characters charmed the crowd for the remainder of the evening, offering up heaping helpings of good clean fun, sing-alongs, and dancing until the evening’s end. It was a fantastic way to top off a perfect day of music and camaraderie in the Hill Country.
Saturday’s performances got off to a late start due to some volatile weather which fortunately left the area around noon and gifted the festival grounds with sunny skies and a bit of a breeze in its place. After the Youth Talent Competition, which featured performances from the 10 finalists selected earlier in the year from over 500 entries, last year’s winner and NBC’s The Voice finalist Sarah Grace took the stage to encourage this year’s contestants and congratulate 1st-place winner, Elijah Delgado, from Austin. Sarah Grace and The Soul then performed a memorable 45-minute set on the Original Black’s BBQ stage after a noteworthy performance from Seattle-based duo, Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons, and the day was off to a rollicking start.
Up next was Los Legends, Featuring Houston-born Rick Trevino on rhythm guitar, 7-time Grammy-winner Flaco Jimenez on accordion, and Tejano music legend Ruben Ramos on percussion and vocals. The legends thrilled the crowd for a solid 60 minutes, and set the tone for a toe-tapping, spirited afternoon. Nashville bluegrass quintet The Steeldrivers followed Los Legends, and served up a tasty mix of new material and traditional bluegrass favorites, much to the crowd’s approval.
The audience seemed ready to switch gears and responded appreciatively when Samantha Fish hit the stage next. Fish, a native of Kansas City, MO, is a blues artist on the rise who will undoubtedly one day be a household name. Her set featured her remarkable vocal prowess and her ability to command the stage and rock as hard as any of her predecessors. Surrounded by her talented and spot-on bandmembers, Fish rocked the crowd with her eclectic mix of blues, R & B, and soul music and delighted her fans with her blistering guitar solos and her playful nature, served up with a splash of humor and some tasty runs on her electric guitar made from a cigar box.
The crowd was donning sweatshirts and jackets as the sun began to set, the wind whipped up, and Hayes Carll took the stage for fairly mellow, somewhat subdued set next. The Houston native charmed his adoring fans with his plainspoken lyrics, sarcastic humor, and roots-oriented songs for a good hour. He shared some humorous anecdotes and had the crowd laughing when he commented that Ray Wylie Hubbard once said he “found me in a box beside the river,” before breaking into one of his more recognizable tunes, “A Drunken Poet’s Dream,” which he co-wrote with Hubbard. It was a memorable set from one of Texas’ favorite sons, and left the crowd feeling a little warmer as the afternoon sun disappeared behind the trees.
While I was busy soaking up the sun and the magical vibe over at the Original Black’s BBQ stage, several notable performances were taking place on the Bluebonnet stage as well. Penny & Sparrow, The Lone Bellow, and Wood & Wire each worked their musical magic with impressive sets and set the tone for Brandi Carlile, the evening’s headliner. Carlile, a native of Washington state, was the most nominated woman at this year’s Grammy Awards (she took home 3) and the crowd was eagerly anticipating her performance. She did not disappoint. She and her musical brothers, twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth, took the stage and, as the wind nearly whipped them off it, threw down a performance that was remarkable yet humble, and somewhat understated. She played a few of her best-known hits, such as “The Eye” and “The Joke,” the song that garnered her 2 of the 3 Grammys she recently received. She shared stories and jokes with her crowd, took a break from her acoustic guitar to switch to the piano, did her best to keep her chilled fingers warm and nimble, and encored with her band accompanying her on a stellar, magical, one-of-a-kind cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California.” All in all it was a perfect ending to an epic day of music and good vibes.
Throughout the weekend, several late-night jams also took place, including campfire shows and fun performances by The Black Pumas, Galactic, and Paul Cauthen. I did not attend any of these performances, simply because the events of the day always left me fabulously full and ready for bed by 11 p.m. or thereabouts. Suffice it to say that every camper I spoke with gave these performances rave reviews, and I have no reason to doubt that their reports are accurate. On the final morning of the festival, while I was back over at the Campground stage watching Jeff Plankenhorn tear it up on his slide guitar, I heard several people talking about the late-night jams and how those of us who had gone to bed early had really missed out. Perhaps next year things will be different, and I will attend one of those late-night shows. Until then, I have plenty of musical memories to tide me over until next year’s edition of Old Settler’s, when I’ll be ready to once again bask in the music, the vibe, and the decades of good karma that the folks who make Old Settler’s Music Festival so special have so lovingly created. Old Settler’s has weathered the storm and earned their spot in the festival landscape. I think it’s safe to say that they’ll be around for a good, long time.