For a music festival, maintaining longevity takes much more than beer sponsors, name artists or even deep pockets. It takes organizers that are willing to spill a little blood and sweat, and even tears as Jean Spivey demonstrated while talking about Old Settler’s Music Festival which celebrated its 25th anniversary this past weekend. Spivey, the festival’s president, remembers one year when Slaid Cleaves’ bass player had put Spivey’s four-year-old daughter in the crook of his upright bass where she stood as he played. “I thought,” remembers Spivey as tears begin to roll down her cheeks, “this is my reward for doing this festival.” To remind her, she keeps a framed photo of the event in her office.
Even though Old Settler’s Music Festival is situated just outside of the festival-laden city of Austin (SXSW and ACL Fest to mention a couple), the event continues to grow. Last year’s fest had the largest turnout in its history, despite a last minute cancellation from headliner The Avett Brothers. And this year’s numbers, Spivey says, are in the same vicinity. The festival had begun as a bluegrass event but as Americana became a more defined genre, the festival began including artists like Iron and Wine. Now, the festival describes itself as bringing “the best in roots and Americana music.” The description is apt. With the stages set up right alongside a flowing creek, and everything from arts and crafts to roasted ears of corn being peddled, there’s a sense that one has travelled back to a simpler era. There are playgrounds for the kids, and it’s a short walk next door to the world famous Salt Lick Barbecue. Folks bring along the lawn chairs and claim their small patch of land where they can sit, visit and listen to a variety of bands from morning until night and, for some, back to the morning again.
The four-day festival includes and encourages camping with many impromptu ‘jams’ lasting well into the wee hours. Also, several artists give more than one official performance. In addition to her Saturday night mainstage performance, Sarah Jarosz performed at a well-attended mandolin workshop with acclaimed mandolinist Joe Walsh—where all ages could be found in search of perfecting their technique. Jarosz still remembers her first appearance at Old Settler’s 10 years ago, when she was 10 years old.
“I was in the Youth Talent Competition,” recalls Jarosz. “I think I probably sang ‘Shenandoah’ or ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky.’ I was nervous and excited, and hoping to play on the big stage someday but never believing it would be so soon. And now to play on the main stage with a ton of people listening and singing along? It’s just a dream come true. It makes me realize just how important this festival has been for me.”
Her trio of a band—with fiddlist Nat Smith cellist Alex Hargreaves—has reached the point where their sound is solid but inventive, especially evident on Jarosz’s “Here Nor There.” She still delivers one of the best versions ever of Tom Waits’ “Come On Up to the House.” Although much of the world has now discovered her, Old Settler’s can call her theirs, and the crowd showed the love.
After hearing The Bottle Rockets at a house concert earlier in the week, I needed to see the plugged-in version. But first, to make things even more interesting, I got to see them in a backup role as they supported Marshall Crenshaw. It’s a collaboration that has worked well. “We did close to twenty shows together last year,” says Crenshaw. “It just feels real at this point, and I really think they’re great.”
Crenshaw’s greatest-hits era (“Someday, Someway,” “Whenever You’re On My Mind”) took place in the early 1980s, although some of his songwriting unions have spawned records for others (like the Gin Blossoms’ “Till I Here It from You”, one of the best-crafted pop songs of the 1990s). With The Bottle Rockets’ backing harmonies and additional guitars, Crenshaw gives an energizing show. It may not quite fit under the Americana banner, but Buddy Holly’s rock ‘n’ roll roots were definitely showing as he played his older hits and mixed it up with some impressive newer tunes. Crenshaw has recently started to work on a series of EPs that will be released over two years via downloads and on vinyl. “Making an album right now doesn’t move me much,” he says. “But I think this series will be really exciting. It’s inspiring for me.”
The Bottle Rockets alone, however, would never be mistaken for a pop band. These were the guys, along with folks like Uncle Tupelo and The Old 97s, who clarified the alt-country sound that has gone on to influence bands like Drive-By Truckers. Frontman Brian Henneman still has a signature voice while guitar riffs punctuate the band’s always-clever lyrics on tunes like “Radar Gun” and “Kerosene.” Henneman joked that they were creating a Bruce Springsteen to Bottle Rockets Conversion Chart, with “Welfare Music” being their “Thunder Road” as he kept the crowd laughing at the stories he told between songs. These guys are more than Americana—their sound is pure American.
Former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell, along with his group the 400 Unit, showed up to perform his own particular working-class sound, playing my personal favorite “Try,” complete with his extremely tasty guitar work. JJ Grey & Mofro gave a soulful testimonial-styled show Saturday night that pushed and pulled the audience with their huge sound, along with Grey’s powerful tales of family and the south.
If Sam Baker is not currently one of our greatest songwriting treasures then I don’t know who would replace him. Playing a Sunday show with a small band, Baker earned a standing ovation in the campground’s indoor/outdoor pavilion when he closed with “Cotton”—the title song from his last album. Baker’s plain-spoken, beautiful narrative paints a world of small hometowns and broken dreams. Yet, you listen with a smile on your face.
A couple other favorites at OSMF: The Wheeler Brothers who, if you can believe it, actually bring a bit of the enthusiasm and flavor of The Arcade Fire into their Texas-tinged Americana. And Gaelic Storm—I loved their soaring Celtic rock, especially while eating Texas barbecue alongside the stage.
Jean Spivey likes to compare the Old Settler’s Music Festival to what people remembered as “old Austin” back when the music scene first burst forth and reached iconic status. “We’re iconic Austin,” she says of the festival. It’s hard to disagree.
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Iron & Wine
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Old Settler's Crowd
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Sarah Jarosz and Joe Walsh
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JJ Grey & Mofro