Old Settler’s Music Festival Marks 30 Years with Homecoming Sets by Sarah Jarosz, Shakey Graves

Shakey Graves performing at the Old Settlers Festival. Photo by Lynne Margolis

In its three decades of existence, the Old Settler’s Music Festival has fostered romances and even a wedding, not to mention several careers, and this year, it celebrated its 30th anniversary by featuring two rising stars who jumpstarted theirs at the central Texas festival.

Austin native Alejandro Rose-Garcia, who became Shakey Graves at Old Settler’s, made his official festival debut as the Friday-night headliner, while Sarah Jarosz, raised in nearby Wimberley, performed Saturday night just before headliners Los Lobos. Both artists recounted how they wound up on the Hill Country Stage, the larger of two intimate mainstages at the festival, which takes place a half-hour outside of Austin at the Salt Lick Pavilion and Camp Ben McCulloch on the banks of gently flowing Onion Creek.

Jarosz, who was 10 when she won the festival’s first Youth Talent Competition in 2002, has performed several times since at the late-April festival. But this year, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter returned as a double Grammy winner; in February she earned Best Folk Album for Undercurrent and Best American Roots Performance for the song “House of Mercy.” That same month, she also earned the inaugural Folk Alliance International Album of the Year award.

Rose-Garcia, 29, hilariously recounted the now well-honed story of how he snuck into the festival campgrounds 10 years ago in the trunk of a friend’s Nissan Maxima and remained in that area, ticketless, for the duration. (The four-day festival has only campground-stage performances on Thursday and Sunday.) 

“I wandered the campsites at night and played my music for the first time,” Rose-Garcia said, later noting he also learned to tune his guitar at Old Settler’s, and served in subsequent years as a trash-crew volunteer. “A man came over to our campsite. I’m pretty sure he was on LSD, and he had a great conversation with us, or at us … When he walked away, he said, ‘Oh, something to beware of, stay away from the spooky wagons.’ And we were like, ‘What the fuck does that mean?’ But we decided that Spooky Wagons would be a great guitar-picker name of some sort, so we all gave each other stupid guitar-picker names.

“That night, I went and played music at the campsites, as is tradition — God bless everybody out there playing music — and when people asked me what my name was, I said ‘Shakey Graves?’ And they said, ‘Cool. It’s nice to meet you.’”

After playing “Bully’s Lament” and “Roll the Bones” solo, accompanying his expressive voice and guitar picking with loops and his suitcase-thumping percussion rig, Rose-Garcia brought out drummer/percussionist Chris Boosahda and hot Dallas-based crew the Texas Gentlemen for an energetic set. Dressed in suit and tie, the puckish, animated and affable former actor played “Unlucky Skin,” then scanned the audience and said, “I’m just taking it all in.”

Then he joked, “If you guys need any trash taken out, you know I’m your man.”

Rose-Garcia, who has been recording new material with Boosahda in Dallas’ Belmont Hotel (temporary home of another renowned Alejandro — last name Escovedo), also performed “Unknown Legend,” the Neil Young song he recorded with Shovels & Rope, and, as a sing-along, his most well-known tune: “Dearly Departed.”

His performance capped a day and night that also featured Leftover Salmon, Anders Osborne, Gregory Alan Isakov, Sam Bush, Reckless Kelly, Gaelic Storm, the California Honeydrops, Lil’ Smokies and Session Americana.

Multi-instrumentalist Bush, officially declared by his home state of Kentucky as the father of newgrass, ripped through a terrific set that included “Circles Around Me” and some notable covers. From the World War I-era folk song “Old Joe Clark,” he and his band went into an extended circa-1970 jam that suggested the Grateful Dead, then stepped into the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider,” Grand Funk Railroad’s “I’m Your Captain” and Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate.” 

Meanwhile, over on the Bluebonnet Stage, Anders Osborne delivered Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Earlier on that same stage, Austin band Reckless Kelly noted the one-year anniversary of Prince’s death by performing “Purple Rain” with guest guitarist Rich Brotherton.

On Saturday, Jarosz and Shinyribs both performed “When Doves Cry.”

Their versions couldn’t have been more opposite; Jarosz, who pronounced Prince “one of the greatest all-time artists ever,” gave a blues-tinted, beautifully thoughtful rendition performed on mandolin, with the appropriately named Jeff Picker adding a jazz break on his double bass.

Shinyribs, the performing moniker used by Kevin Russell and his band, encored with the song, pulling out the stops with the full r&b band: horns, backing vocalists, keyboards, bass and guitar. But Shinyribs had worked Prince into his repertoire even before the brilliant rocker’s death, just as he’d done with David Bowie.

The edition of “Golden Years” he and the band performed Saturday was so deconstructed, it took a minute to recognize — which is, in a way, as it should be with covers.

They were just two of many high points in a raucous, over-the-top set that also included a couple of flygirl dancers — not to mention Shinyribs’ own kinetic movement; at one point, the singer and multi-instrumentalist even crawled on his hands and knees through the flowerbeds dressing the stage lip. This was after he suggested, “Somebody grab David Hidalgo off the other stage and bring him over” (which might have made Los Lobos a tad upset but would have been amazing to see), but before he sang “Donut Taco Palace,” an ode to his favorite Austin taqueria, followed by a declaration of love to “my favorite root vegetable.” “Sweet Potato,” his so-called “yam jam,” was full of puns, schmaltz and very Prince-like, rock-solid rhythms.

Shinyribs likes to call his Louisiana and Beaumont, Texas-rooted sound “tub gut stomp and red-eyed soul” (also the title of a song on his new album, I Got Your Medicine). It’s as fitting a description as any for music that’s all about a funky good time — so good, the former Gourds member has turned leading a conga line to the campgrounds into a new festival tradition. He also closed the festival Sunday.

But before he played on Saturday, a slew of noteworthy roots artists had filled the unseasonably cold air, among them Peter Rowan with Wood & Wire, another band that formed at Old Settler’s; Elephant Revival; the Del McCoury Band; the Honeycutters; the Travelin’ McCourys; Nikki Lane; and Old 97’s.

Rhett Miller of Old 97s and Nikki Lane. Photo by Lynne Margolis

Lane alternated tracks from her new album, Highway Queen, and 2014’s Dan Auerbach-produced All or Nothin’, mixing twangy country with rock influences goosed by her lead guitarist boyfriend, Jonathan Tyler, who sang Auerbach’s part of the “Love’s on Fire” duet. They also harmonized nicely on Tyler’s Van Zandt-nodding “To Love is to Fly.” Lane’s set slightly overlapped Jarosz’s, providing the kind of contrast that always makes the Old Settler’s lineup so intriguing. With about 16,000 attending per day, it’s a manageable crowd, too. Despite a tighter configuration and smaller stages this year, the ambiance was still friendly and laid back — even when Dallas-raised rockers Old 97’s stormed the Bluebonnet stage after Lane, revving up the energy level with a style that truly connects the dots between what was once called insurgent country and is now considered Americana.

Paying homage to their influences (“Mama Tried”) while taking no prisoners, they strutted and twanged their way through a set filled with gotta-love-‘em tunes like “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On,” “Stoned” and from their new Graveyard Whistling album, “Good with God.” Lane joined them on that one, covering Brandi Carlile’s part as she did when the band performed it on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”

That’s another thing about Old Settler’s. The relaxed mingling extends to the artists as well; for many, festivals offer rare chances to hang out together. Sometimes, collaborations occur. Alter-egos like Shakey Graves’ are created, and young Sarah Jaroszs are inspired to keep developing. It’s a bit like a family watching the kids grow up and do well. When they come home and show their progress, those who witnessed their evolution can’t help but feel proud. And even those who didn’t can feel the love — and appreciate the talent.

There sure was enough of it to go around.