In terms of sheer attendance numbers, the Cherokee Creek Music Festival — held near the small town of Llano northwest of Austin, on a private ranch just outside the even smaller town of Cherokee — is no match for the likes of spring Austin events such as Levitation Fest and Lone Star Jam. And as a relatively new event (it began in 2011), it can’t boast the four-decade Hill Country history of Kerrville Folk Festival. But for quality Americana music presented in a pleasant setting, Cherokee Creek is hard to beat.
It comes at a price: Tickets were $200 for a full day of music on Saturday, following shorter evening-only bills on Thursday and Friday. But the proceeds benefit several children’s charities across the state, and the price includes all meals and non-alcoholic beverages. Combine that with a nice drive of about two hours from Austin among the wildflowers and rural vistas, and it’s a pretty pleasant place to spend a mid-May weekend.
The gameplan is pretty simple at Cherokee Creek. Around a dozen acts across three days perform on a single stage built beneath a spacious open-air pavilion. A few hundred folding chairs are set up in the pavilion, which was built along a spring-fed country stream. Adjacent picnic tables within easy earshot of the music accommodate folks grabbing a bite to eat at one of several counters serving up fajitas, barbecue, catfish, hamburgers and the like.
Musically, the menu doesn’t stray from an acoustic roots base, though there’s plenty of room for variety under that canopy. Saturday afternoon, we caught sets by Austin singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave (whose Music Road Records partner, Kelcy Warren, hosts the festival on his own land), sweet-voiced pop performer Brett Dennen, tasteful bluesman Eric Bibb and soulful New Orleans ensemble the Subdudes.
Those who arrived earlier Saturday also heard Oklahoma upstart Parker Millsap and second-generation country-folk-rock artist Amy Helm (daughter of The Band drummer Levon). After the Subdudes, Saturday’s headliner was the Eagles’ Don Henley, playing a solo gig before the Eagles launch their latest tour on Tuesday at Austin’s Erwin Center. Three-day festgoers, many of whom set up camp at an RV site in the grassy parking lot, also caught sets by Ryan Bingham, Bob Schneider, Paul Thorn, Jonah Smith, Hal Ketchum and Griffin House.
Cherokee Creek’s draw is as much the overall experience as it is the music, which in the past has featured artists such as Jackson Browne, Shawn Colvin, Dwight Yoakam, Jason Isbell and Joan Osborne. Dozens of children cavort on a playground while a few adults fish from the banks up and down the creek. There’s plenty of room to wander the grounds and dangle your feet from a stone footbridge over a small waterfall, or to sit in adirondack chairs under the shade of trees. Some guests bring in coolers of their own beer and wine; plenty of water, tea, lemonade and sodas are provided for the rest.
The highlight for us on Saturday was a rich set of folk-blues from Bibb, a New Yorker who now lives in Scandinavia but reaches deep into the South for much of his material. Tunes such as “Troubadour,” written with Austin’s Ruthie Foster, and a tribute to the late B.B. King called “Tell Riley” struck a chord with the crowd via simple two-guitar arrangements between Bibb and supporting musician Michael Jerome Browne, who also played a song from his own “Sliding Delta” CD. They earned an encore and chose wisely, singing Texas songwriter Guy Clark’s inspirational number “The Cape.”
Bibb also visited the songbook of Woody Guthrie, as did LaFave in his earlier set when he pulled out the classic “Oklahoma Hills.” LaFave is well-known for his masterful work as an interpreter — his version of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” also stood out — but he had new original material to showcase as well, with a new album called “The Night Tribe” having been released earlier in the week on the Music Road label.