The sheer number of festivals that take place in the city of Austin, Texas on a regular basis is staggering. Bigger events like Austin City Limits and SXSW tend to garner much of the spotlight, but it should come as no surprise that one of Austin’s best festivals is also one of the longest running. For the better part of three decades the Old Settler’s Music Festival had been going strong and this year is no exception. If there’s one particular thing about Old Settler’s that stands out it is consistency. Every year you know what you’re going to get, and even though the festival has continued to book bigger and bigger acts each year, it has maintained the same laid back vibe without selling out and getting overrun by yuppies, hipsters and bros wearing Native American headdresses. To give you a better idea of why the festival remains one of my personal favorites (not just locally either), I have put together 5 reasons why Old Settler’s is well worth attending:
1. The lineup
Some may think that Old Settler’s is strictly bluegrass, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. This year the lineup boasts on eclectic array of acts ranging from bluegrass to Americana to folk to country and roots music among many others. All of the music is spread out over 4 days, with the Thursday and Sunday shows happening in the intimate cabin-like campground stage and the bigger acts playing the Salt Lick festival grounds on Friday and Saturday. Here are some of the acts I am especially excited about this year:
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It seems like it’s been a little while since we’ve gotten a full-fledged Deer Tick tour, or maybe it’s just been too long since the Rhode Island rockers have played Texas. Their placement on the Old Settler’s lineup may be a bit left field given the band’s rowdy, beer-soaked onstage antics, but from what I hear these boys have mellowed out a bit as of late. John McCauley is also one of the best songwriters around and if there’s one thing the Old Settler’s crowd appreciates it’s a well-written tune. The songs may take precedent over the rock and roll ferociousness for this set as it seems that Deer Tick’s current tour is mostly “Acoustic”. Personally, I would prefer them to electrify the Hill Country, but I also have zero doubt that their set on Friday will be perfect for getting the nighttime party started.
FRIDAY, 5:45PM – 7PM, BLUEBONNET STAGE
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It’s a good time to be a Jayhawks fan these days because the seminal alt-country meets power pop band are about to release Paging Mr. Proust, their first new album since 2011’s Mockingbird Time. Not only that, but the album was produced by Peter Buck of R.E.M. Fans are sure to be treated to a handful of new songs as well as plenty of greatest hits off the band’s landmark earlier albums like Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass.
SATURDAY, 7:45PM – 8:55PM, BLUEBONNET STAGE
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Once upon a time there was a band called The Gourds. For years these Texans nurtured a cult-like following with their unique style of music that melded together Cajun, bluegrass, country, and Southern-fried rock and roll. Then one day The Gourds decided to call it quits, but hope was not lost! Singer Kevin Russell struck out with a new band called Shinyribs that embraces his East Texas roots alongside funky Gulf Coast soul. Russell is a jovial frontman with vocals that command your attention and dance moves to rival Michael Jackson. Between leading conga lines through the audience and covering 90’s slow jam tunes on occasion, there ain’t no party like a Shinyribs party. The Gourds were a Saturday night institution at Old Settler’s for many years, and Shinyribs have seamlessly taken that throne.
SATURDAY, 7:15PM – 8:30PM, HILL COUNTRY STAGE
SUNDAY, 4PM-5PM, CAMPGROUND STAGE
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The organizers of Old Settler’s have always managed to book acts with considerable buzz right before they truly blow up. HONEYHONEY already have a considerable fan base, but the duo of Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe seem to be on the cusp of catching on with the mainstream. With their rich harmonies and soulful Americana, one might be quick to look at them as similar to a duo like the Civil Wars. However, HONEYHONEY have a sound that feels far more authentic and way less cheesy in a way that favors twangy roots music over folkie stuff.
SUNDAY, 12PM – 1PM, CAMPGROUND STAGE
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This local quartet describes their sound as “transcendental Texas folk and stargaze surf-western”, which is pretty dang accurate. For years The Deer’s angel-voiced frontwoman Grace Park has been a main attraction at the late night Camp Good Times stage at Old Settler’s both with her previous band The Blue Hit and sitting in with just about every other musician. Singing by a fire and projecting her voice with zero amplification served Park well and late night revelers who stumbled on her performances often found themselves enraptured with her delicate power. The Deer finds Park’s vocals in a more rock-oriented setting and it works incredibly well. Their Saturday morning set is worth getting to the festivals grounds early for as it will be the perfect way to ease into a beautiful day of music.
SATURDAY, 11AM – 11:45AM, HILL COUNTRY STAGE
Other recommended acts: Dawes, Del McCoury Band, The Wood Brothers, Shinyribs, David Ramirez, Jeff Austin Band, Jay Farrar, The Suffers, The Black Lillies, Band of Heathens
2. Best festival camping ever
After traveling to music festivals of all kinds around the country I can honestly say that there is no better campground then Old Settler’s. If you can get in early enough the much coveted shady spots along Onion Creek are worth seeking out. Similar to the Kerrville Folk Festival but without the feeling of “not being part of the family,” Camp Ben welcomes everyone as long as they keep a positive vibe and smile on their face. The campground is also where the real musical magic happens, with campers jamming with whoever they can wherever they can. Wandering through the campground late at night is like being in a shopping mall filled with jam sessions instead of stores.
3. The scenery
There are plenty of people who seem to enjoy getting herded into Zilker Park only to stand in a crowded sweltering field all day, but Camp Ben McCulloch and the Salt Lick festival grounds have that special power to immerse you in the landscape of the Hill Country. April means that the Hill Country is blooming with vibrant colors, and there is a spellbinding feeling that everything is alive and happy. This feeling seduces both the musicians and the audiences, making for some truly unforgettable performances and moments that could only happen on that land in that speck of time.
4. The folks
Never have I been to a festival with such a well-rounded balance of different people, all of whom are in high spirits. The environment attracts old timers, young hippies, families and people from all walks of life who get along wonderfully despite being total strangers. You find the “sketch” factor of big jam festivals where scene-leaching wooks push through crowds offering shady substances, and that’s a good thing.
Old Settler’s takes place less than 30 minutes outside Austin, making it easy to get to and easy to leave. Once you’re out there it feels light years away from the urban life and you’re free to simply enjoy your surroundings. The volunteers are helpful and friendly, security do their job without being hard-nosed and overbearing, and the buses to and from the campground are reliable and efficient. Did I mention the music is great too? At Old Settler’s you know what you’re in for every year, and that instills a feeling of comfort a laid back vibe that’s not possible at massive festivals.
Old Settler’s Music Festival takes place April 14-17 at the Salt Lick BBQ Pavillion and Camp Ben McCulloch in Driftwood, TX
For the full lineup, schedule, tickets and more visit oldsettlersmusicfest.org
All photos by Arthur VanRooy.