There are two things that are especially difficult for any festival to accomplish. The first is to stay afloat for many years and the second is to hold on to the core values that make the festival so special throughout those years. Old Settler’s Music Festival has managed accomplish both of those things. Whereas many festivals bite the dust after a handful of years or sacrifice their souls for corporate takeovers, this little fest deep in the heart of Texas has stayed true to its roots for just about three decades. This past weekend Old Settler’s celebrated its 29th year with the same consistently impressive lineup of bluegrass and roots music matched with the consistent parade of friendly folks that it always has.
On Friday the festival grounds felt positively radiant between the gorgeous weather and the lush greenery that is the Texas Hill Country in the spring. Deer Tick’s acoustic set under the sprawling trees at the Bluebonnet Stage only made the mood more pleasant as the band put a quieter spin on songs like “Houston, TX”, “Christ Jesus”, and “Art Isn’t Real (City of Sin)”, even inviting friend and Texas native Robert Ellis to join them onstage. As the sun started to set Rodney Crowell charmed with a set of light-hearted Americana and honky tonk tunes. Later on Hayes Carll took the stage backed only by a drummer a pedal steal player and channeled the spirit of Townes Van Zandt as he treated an enraptured audience to favorites like “Drunken Poet’s Dream” alongside songs off his new album Lovers And Leavers. Even with a stripped down band, this troubadour kept the crowd in the palm of his hand to the point that you could almost hear a pin drop between songs.
Back at the Bluebonnet Stage the real party got going with Houston band The Suffers, who injected the festival with a healthy dose of funky R&B. Singer Kam Frankin owned the stage with songs like “Giver”, which featured a smooth and sexy jazz jam, and a chilled out version of the disco classic “All Night Long” that gave way to a frenetic Femi Kuti-esque afro-beat groove. The Friday night close-out was split between a set of mellow, catchy folk-rock from Dawes and Jeff Austin, who flipped traditional bluegrass on its ass with a set of exploratory, progressive sounds that had his audience dancing along with delight.
Saturday found the weather turning gloomy as the threat of rain and turbulent storms lingered and scared off some but not all. Luckily, those storms didn’t lead to much more than rain and the show went on. “The world needs a Flatt & Scruggs coat of paint”, said dobro master Jerry Douglass as he introduced his current project The Earls of Leicester. That is exactly what this group of talented pickers brought to the stage, as the Earls strive to remind the world of the legacy left behind by bluegrass godfathers Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Their set was jubilant and light-hearted, featuring a slew of classic bluegrass numbers and making for a perfect compliment to a laid back afternoon.
For much of Saturday evening the Bluebonnet Stage played host to the core bulk of Americana and alt-country acts on the festival bill. Local favorite David Ramirez sang out his tales of a life soaked in booze and cocaine in a style that was equal parts Jason Isbell and Ryan Adams. Jay Farrar brought his celebration of the 20th anniversary of his band Son Volt’s landmark debut album Trace by playing the album in its entirety backed only by a guitarist and steel player. The songs on that album, as well as Farrar’s voice, sounded remarkably intact and just as poignant as they did 20 years before. Normally a stoic presence, Farrar appeared to be enjoying himself as he continued to run through songs spanning Son Volt’s whole catalogue before closing on a high with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Everybody Must Get Stoned”.
It would have been difficult to top Farrar’s incredible set, but The Jayhawks swooped in with an equally heady dose of alt-country nostalgia. Their placement on the schedule was fitting since both them and Farrar are often considered seminal purveyors of the modern alt-country movement. Playing with guitarist Chet Lyster for the first time, The Jayhawks braved the rain as they ran through a set consisting of songs off their upcoming album Paging Mr. Proust, which fit in nicely alongside longtime staples like “Waiting For The Sun”, “Tampa To Tulsa”, “I’d Run Away” and “Blue”. Their set was easily one of the best of the weekend as it struck the perfect balance of timelessness, nostalgia, and the freshness of their new, power pop-oriented tunes, all of which had the damp crowd singing along.
Even as the rain soaked the festival grounds and caused things to run behind schedule, the mood throughout Saturday was cheerful and good-natured. When the festival let out for the night, the happy campers made their way back to the campground where they partook in group jam sessions and story swapping around fires until the wee hours of the morning. Just as it always has been at Old Settler’s, for that one weekend in April in a little crevice of the Texas Hill Country, all was well in the world.
All photos by Arthur VanRooy.