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Old Settler’s Fest brings legends and rising stars together

Peter Blackstock
pblackstock@statesman.com

Editor’s note: This article was originally published April 14, 2014

Sitting 10 feet from bluegrass living legend Del McCoury just past dusk on Friday, listening to him pick and sing and tell stories with his sons Ronnie and Rob on the tiny Discovery Stage, everything was right with the world at the Old Settler’s Music Festival.

Indeed, most everything was right this weekend at the 28th annual gathering of roots-music fans, from the comfortable weather to the manageable crowds to, most of all, a keenly selected and well-balanced lineup of music. The festival’s success largely depends on supplementing a reverence for traditional mainstays with an openness to revitalizing newcomers – the Old Settlers and the New Movers, perhaps? This year’s crop blended them consummately.

The hardiest festivalgoers camped out as well, taking in Thursday night and Sunday afternoon sets on the Camp Ben McCulloch stage up the road from the main festival site in Driftwood just west of the Salt Lick restaurant. But those who attended only Friday and Saturday had plenty at hand, from old-time to neo-soul to jamgrass to Celtic folk to several shades of singer-songwriters.

Early in Friday’s lineup was 87-year-old Ralph Stanley, whose set included old-time staples such as “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “O Death” (both revived a decade ago by the hit film “O Brother, Where Art Thou”). Though Stanley turned over quite a few lead vocals to his sharp Clinch Mountain Boys band, his voice remains remarkably full of character when he takes the spotlight.

Later, at the McCourys’ Discovery Stage workshop set, 75-year-old patriarch Del remarked of Stanley, “He’s doing great for his age, don’t you think?” He paused, then quickly added, “Of course, he’d probably say the same thing about me!”

A sprightly 71, Peter Rowan also brought magic to the grounds Saturday on multiple occasions, first with his Twang An’ Groove ensemble on the main Hill Country Stage (highlighted by the Rowan/Bill Monroe co-write “The Walls of Time” with McCoury Band fiddler Jason Carter sitting in) and then pared down a few hours later on the Discovery Stage with a lovely acoustic rendition of the Rolling Stones classic “Wild Horses.”

Such old-school greats are essential to the festival’s disposition, but sparks flew when a handful of soul-inspired younger acts delivered blazing sets on the Bluebonnet Stage – the best spot on the grounds thanks to abundant shade and the natural framing of a gentle hillside and serene Onion Creek.

Friday night, it was Alabama’s fiery St. Paul & the Broken Bones who cranked up the electricity. Lead singer Paul Janeway’s passionate vocals and stutter-step shuffles meshed with his band’s solid groove and blasting horns to ensure the crowd wouldn’t fade as the final sets approached (Bob Schneider on the Hill Country Stage and North Mississippi Allstars on the Bluebonnet).

Saturday afternoon, Oklahoma’s 25-year-old rising star John Fullbright underscored the soulful inclinations of the next generation in a set that found him primarily behind the piano, playing songs from his Grammy-nominated debut as well as a few from the follow-up due next month.

And Saturday night, the Bluebonnet caught fire again with indie/soul/jazz outfit Lake Street Dive, a lucky snag for Old Settler’s this year. They were booked in 2013 but had to back out at the last minute because of illness; the re-book proved more valuable, as the band’s career has taken off in the interim.

What stood out in their set was singer Rachael Price’s ability to convey emotion without overdoing it, a common affliction of young neo-soul acts. Lake Street Dive’s songs showed a healthy dynamic range and a musical sophistication that sounds easy and natural but likely has taken years to refine.

If those sets were the standouts, the true measure of success at Old Settler’s was that there were zero duds. Robert Randolph’s steel-driven jams and Gaelic Storm’s bagpipes-and-fiddle blasts may have been lower on my radar, but both acts were clearly great at what they did and drew enthusiastic response from their devotees. Young piano-and-guitar duo Lily & Madeleine (with cello support) provided a stark change of pace on the Bluebonnet Stage Saturday afternoon; the lilting beauty of their songs lingered for a good while after.

While the fest is best served by out-of-town draws, hometown participation is a key element as well, as the reception to Saturday acts Sarah Jarosz and Shinyribs attested. First-rate bluegrassers the Gibson Brothers smartly referenced their environs with a cover of Austin songwriter Bruce Robison’s “Red Letter Day for the Blues.” And though Jeff Bridges will always be a better actor than he is a musician, the locals rightly loved his inclusion of several songs by the late Stephen Bruton in his Friday night set.

Among the numbers Jarosz played was “Squirrel Hunters,” a fiddle tune by the late John Hartford, who had been saluted earlier in the afternoon when Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott did a beautiful rendition of his “Gentle on My Mind” at the Bluebonnet Stage. It was a touching tribute, given that Hartford’s last public gig ever was at the 2001 Old Settler’s, a year before the fest moved to its current Driftwood location.

After their set, O’Brien recalled sitting in with Hartford on that fateful afternoon, when the great folk musician, stricken with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, confided that he’d lost all function in his left hand. Other musicians rallied and helped Hartford through his set, creating a memory that still burned deep in O’Brien’s mind all these years later.

The spirit of greats such as Hartford stays alive through such human moments – or at times, in moments of humor. At the McCourys’ terrific Discovery Stage set, someone asked Del who was the better mandolinist: Del’s son Ronnie, who stood to his right, or Del’s former boss Bill Monroe, the late bluegrass pioneer. “Bill will tell you, Ronnie’s the best,” Del assured. “If you don’t believe me, go ask him right now!”