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Despite growth, Old Settler's music festival retains its intimacy

In its 25th year, the three-day roots music gathering continues to draw big headliners; this year it's Iron and Wine

Peter Mongillo

Old Settler's Music Festival 2010: Rain dumps on Central Texas, leaving the Salt Lick Pavilion soggy but navigable because festival organizers, knowing what was coming, blanket the area with mulch to absorb the water. Unfortunately, a good deal of the rain pools behind the Bluebonnet Stage, cutting the power and delaying the music during a set from Austin roots rockers Band of Heathens. The band, not wanting to disappoint, climbs to the front of their stage to finish the set acoustically for the fairly large group of rain-poncho-wearing fans.

It was a great "show must go on" move on the part of the band, somehow making what was already an intimate set even more so, and it felt like something that could only happen at Old Settler's Music Festival, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this weekend.

Part of that is because of Jean Spivey, who, along with Scott Marshall, has been at the helm of the popular Driftwood music festival since 2006, when they took over for Randy Collier, who had run the event since 1994. Spivey and Marshall have managed a difficult feat — growing the already-popular roots music festival without losing its character.

Spivey was no stranger to Old Settler's, having worked as a publicist for the event since the late 1990s, experience that has helped her evolve the festival from its bluegrass roots into something that appeals to an even wider audience. Bluegrass still thrives there, but it does so alongside singer-songwriters, country and good ol' rock 'n' roll, with acts including Seven Walkers, Papa Mali and Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzman's hybrid of New Orleans funk rock and Dead-flavored psych.

The lineup is also growing. Each year it's filled with bigger and more popular acts. Last year North Carolina roots duo the Avett Brothers, a band with a Grateful Dead-like fan base, had to cancel because of the arrival of a baby Avett, but it was probably one of Spivey's biggest bookings. She topped that this year with Iron and Wine, Austin resident Sam Beam's jam rock outfit, which played to a crowd of tens of thousands at last year's Austin City Limits Music Festival.

It's a fitting way to mark the 25th festival, given Beam's evolution from a solo folk artist to a pop behemoth, which with a touring entourage of nearly 20 people, is also the festival's biggest band in terms of actual size. It also raises the question of whether Old Settler's is capable of growing much bigger. "I worry about that, because I think there's a year when it going to be the same, that the programming doesn't keep improving every year," Spivey says.

On one level, though, the names of the people on stage are a secondary concern. Similar to ACL Fest, Old Settler's has a crowd that appreciates what it offers and is going to return regardless of the lineup. That is not to say that music isn't at the center of the gathering, but rather a majority of the people that go aren't going to skip a year because they don't like that Iron and Wine is the headliner.

It's easy to see why. Start with the location: Tucked among the trees on Onion Creek at the Salt Lick Pavilion, it's one of the more attractive — maybe the most attractive — places to see live music in the area.

Then there is the level of comfort. You're more likely to find a cold Real Ale than a 24-ounce can of Tecate. Lines for anything are few and far between; children play with hula hoops, get their faces painted, take pony rides. Performers offer workshops on their craft.

"We think it's special to give your audience a more special experience," Spivey says. "I guess that's always been important, to give people a good selection of things to eat and drink, and we like it."

It hasn't always been this way. The festival got its start in 1988 at Old Settler's park in Round Rock when the city contributed some tourism dollars to help put on an event that focused on bluegrass. It continued to grow, moving to Stone Mountain in Dripping Springs for two years (2000-2001) before finding a home at the Salt Lick Pavilion.

Part of the appeal of Old Settler's also is the camping offered across the street from the main festival grounds at Camp Ben McCulloch, which was created by local Confederate veterans and named for a popular general and Texas Ranger. The campsite hosts music on its own stage during the first and final days of the festival, but campers offer their own performances throughout the weekend. "It's such a scene," Spivey says. "There are all these jams and stuff going on in different camps, it's a whole community where people come back year after year. It's almost like show number two."

Another homegrown element that adds to the fest's reputation is Old Settler's efforts as a music incubator, through both the workshops and the youth talent competition, which offers as its prize a spot on the lineup the following year. 2002's winner was Spurs of the Moment, which featured a 10-year-old musician named Sarah Jarosz.

Jarosz returned to perform several times at the festival over the years. In 2007, then festival organizer Randy Collier spoke of Jarosz' rising talent: "She's just amazing. She's going to be Gillian Welch-famous."

Now 20, Jarosz has two well-received albums and a Grammy nomination under her belt. She returns to play this year from the New England Conservatory of Music.

"It's kind of my hometown festival," Jarosz said. "That's where I first met a lot of my heroes, like Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek). After a mandolin workshop when it was still at Stone Mountain in Dripping Springs, I had just gotten my mandolin a few months before, and he kneeled down and wrote on my program ‘let's jam sometime,' and I knew at that moment that I wanted to get good enough for that to happen, and since then it has."

Contact Peter Mongillo at 445-3696