The Old Settler’s Music Festival Gets It Right

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The Old Settler’s Music Festival could create a serious problem.  Anyone who has been fleeced at one of the overcrowded, overpriced, college puke fests that have dominated the festival scene for the last twenty years should definitely go. Their faith in musical humanity will be restored.  But if everyone who falls into that category were to show up next year at Old Settler’s it would look like Woodstock.   Then again, that might not be such a bad thing.  A good show of public support for something, anything, that represents a rejection of a “profit first” mentality is fine with me.  Anyway, the citizens of the small town of Driftwood, home of the Salt Lick Pavilion and Camp Ben McCulloch, where the festival has been held since 2006, survived an equally formidable force of nature when The Butthole Surfers moved there in the late ’80s.  They would survive.

As unlikely a place as Driftwood is to be the one-time home of the B.H. Surfers, it is the perfect setting for both the kind of music Old Settler’s showcases and the kind of festival it intends to be.  It is a small community with deep roots in American rural traditions that have found new currency in a society that each year, it seems, is turning more and more to the less industrialized past for direction and inspiration. Set on the limestone cliff-lined banks of Onion Creek amid massive live oak and native pecan trees, the Salt Lick Pavilion overlooks the shaded lawn of the Bluebonnet Stage, the smaller of the two venues.  The main venue, the Hill Country Stage is a few hundred yards away – close, but far enough away and positioned such that the sound doesn’t bleed over. Including the campsite venue over at Ben McCulloch where the first performances were held on Thursday, there are four distinct sites where the action goes down, with a total attendance somewhere around ten thousand, concurrently.

I arrived for my first day at the festival on Friday the 11th, the day that most agreed ended up being the most impressive.  The first act I caught was the Italian bluegrass band, Red Wine, who did a fine job playing bluegrass and country standards to the large crowd gathered in the shade. They could have been confused for natives.  Next, I fulfilled a long outstanding wish to see Ralph Stanley, who, at 87, still has those beautiful high lonesome breaks that are distinctly his.  “Man Of Constant Sorrow” and “Little Maggie” were magic, but the crowd favorite was, of course, the haunting traditional standard, delivered a cappella, “O Death.”

I was glad to see Shovels and Rope, but having caught them before I stepped over to the Bluebonnet stage to see The Deadly Gentlemen upon the recommendation of my knowledgeable friend Curtis, a picker and upright player from San Marcos whose musical opinion I trust implicitly.  With a sound that I can only describe as one that seems to have heard everything yet remains committed to its own path, they did not disappoint.  As they wrapped up, it was back to the Hill Country Stage to see what in God’s name Jeff Bridges is doing fronting a band.  He wasn’t bad – a sound that owes a great deal to Tom Petty never could be.  But along with quite a few others, I made my exit to make sure I did not miss one second of one of the hottest new acts to come out of the South in a very, very long time – St. Paul and the Broken Bones.  Sweet Jesus, Mother Mary and all the saints in heaven can they bring it.  His voice was a little battered – see a performance and you will understand why – but no matter, St. Paul front man Paul Janeway killed it.  He is a soul screamer’s screamer with the charisma of a Pentecostal Apostle and the Broken Bones know how to lay it down.  The opening number, “Half The City,” set off an energy that didn’t reach its’ crescendo until a blistering cover of “Hey Jude” brought the crowd to the point of conversion during the encore.

After they finished, I remember thinking, “where can it go from here?”  I found out soon enough when The North Mississippi All Stars took the stage, warmed the crowd with a rolling, building, come gather ‘round and listen up drum cadence and bass groove that soon exploded when Luther Dickinson fired up his custom Gibson namesake guitar, the ES-335.  At one point, the axe man, who finger picks like Mark Knopfler, laid down a Chuck Berry two string lead while his brother Cody pounded out a Jerry Allison (of The Crickets) rhythm that was the most perfect fusion of old rock and roll and modern virtuosity I have ever seen.  I sat there wondering what the hell would have happened at the Arthur Murray Dance Party in 1957 had it been the three All Stars rather than Buddy Holly and The Crickets when rock and roll was introduced to the Upper West Side set.  The tux and gown crowd might still have stood there in perfect frozen etiquette, but their heads would have exploded.  Confetti and all.  It is sad that I had to miss Bob Schneider who was having his way with the audience over at the Hill Country Stage, but he is a longtime local, and I have seen him.  By the end of the All Stars’ set, there was nothing left to do but walk away shaking my head at the perfection of one of the most finely orchestrated and best thought out days of music imaginable.  The community of dedicated volunteers who support the festival and the organizers who have refused to cave to the more profitable temptation of overselling have created what is undeniably one of the finest festivals of roots and American music anywhere in the country.

I could go on to tell you all about day two of my little adventure out to Driftwood, but what would be the point?  Go to the Old Settler’s website, check out the lineup for yourself, and with little imagination you can get the drift.  There you will find among others Della Mae, John Fullbright, Peter Rowan, The Del McCoury Band, Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, Sarah Jarosz, Lake Street Dive, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, and Big Head Todd and the Monsters.  See what I mean?  How they pack all this into a festival while still retaining the intimacy of a small show is beyond me, but they do it.

Next year, I will join in the camping and will make the midnight march back over to Camp Ben McCulloch with the dedicated crowd instead of driving back up north to suburbia.  I hope that I will find The Bottom Dollar String Band back at camp, as I am told they were this year, tearing it up under the Texas stars. I saw them at a jam a year ago when they first got together. Still fresh faced kids, they could bring it. A year later, I am told by Georgia Parker, a local girl with a million dollar voice that they are ones to watch.  See you next year in Driftwood.  Come early and stay late.  It will be worth it.

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