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 in a folding chair while 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." Pampell said not much compares to Old Settler’s in his mind. "I’d say it’s a tough one to beat in the state of Texas… It’s a completely different side of the spectrum."
The now 28-year-old festival features a wide range American roots music, from singer-songwriters to blues to country. Old Settler’s has a more laid-back, 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 the youngest of the young, with plenty of outdoorsmen, barefoot hippies and luxuriantly bearded youths thrown in the mix. Folding chairs were welcomed, there was a petting zoo and other activities for little ones, 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.
By 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 under the shade of gnarly old oaks. Pokey LaFarge was up next next with a playoff blend of shuffling ragtime and swing guitar with plenty of upright bass. (For the four days of Old Settler’s, Driftwood surely must be the upright bass capital of the world.)
As the sun started setting and raincloud returned overhead Jake Shimabukuro, a ukelele virtuoso whose name comes up if you happen to Google "best ukelele player in the world," took to the stage for an eclectic cool down.
A big draw for many is the festival’s Youth Talent Competition, a judged contest whose past winners include a (in 2002) 10-year-old Sarah Jarosz. The competition gives 18-and-under musicians 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." Collins was in for his seventh year at Old Settler’s and said his other standouts included bluegrass mandolinist Sam Bush and Friday night headliners the Mavericks, but he said the music and camaraderie at Camp Ben McCulloch keeps him coming back. "The real pull for me is the music at the campgrounds."
Mid-afternoon world music act Rising Appalachia brought a hypnotizing, danceable mix of Carolinian banjo and Afro-cuban beats and was followed by gospel act the McRary Sisters, daughters of the Fairfield Four’s Rev. Samuel McCrary. The four 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) with their high-energy epic church jams.
"What’s old is new again," a DJ with Sun Radio said welcoming a band to the stage. That’s true of this long-running fest too. What was once probably a pretty common festival atmosphere is now a rare and special thing. It’s a throwback that feels fresh — and a welcome timeout from the overwhelming.