As Old Settler’s Fest hits 30, younger artists remain key to its future

8:31 a.m. Wednesday, April 19, 2017 Music
American-Statesman Staff
Mandolin Orange, from North Carolina, is making its first visit to Old Settler’s Music Festival. Contributed/D.L. Anderson

As Old Settler’s Music Festival hits the 30-year mark this weekend, it has earned respected-elder status among annual Austin-area fests. But its greatest value still might be the opportunity it offers for young, up-and-coming performers.

This year’s headliners include many artists with long careers, from Latin-fueled roots-rockers Los Lobos to alternative-country pioneers the Old 97’s to Colorado jam-band Leftover Salmon. When it came time to interview a handful of 2017 participants, though, we sought out the festival’s young blood. What follows are four stories of under-30 acts playing at Old Settler’s this year.

The Wimberley-raised Jarosz was just 10 years old when Old Settler’s relocated to Driftwood, just southwest of Austin, for the first year of what’s now been a 16-year run at the Salt Lick Pavilion. The festival also introduced its Youth Talent Competition that year, and Jarosz’s grade-school group, the Spurs of the Moment, won it.

The band “kind of fizzled,” she says, but Jarosz got invited back to play in 2003, part of a tradition in which each year’s youth winner gets to play an early set at the following year’s fest. In the 14 years since, Jarosz has missed Old Settler’s only four times, most of those when she was in college at the New England Conservatory of Music.

As her Old Settler’s tenure grew, her music career bloomed. Renowned acoustic label Sugar Hill issued her debut album in 2009, then three more over the next seven years. The latest, last year’s “Undercurrent,” won two Grammys earlier this year.

Would all of that have happened without the head-start of Old Settler’s? There’s no way of knowing. But looking back now, Jarosz marvels at how those experiences helped to shape her.

“It was really special I think, more so in retrospect than maybe I realized at the time,” she said last week, speaking from New York, where she’s lived since graduating from college in 2013. “I was so young, and playing music publicly was still such a new thing for me. It was really exciting.”

Her first Old Settler’s Fest was actually in Dripping Springs the year before the move to Driftwood. (Several sites have hosted the fest since its 1987 debut in Round Rock at Old Settler’s Park, which gave the event its name.) Though Jarosz didn’t perform in 2001, “I think of that experience as a huge turning point in my life,” she says now.

She’s told the story before about how mandolinist Chris Thile, then with Nickel Creek and now host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” signed her 2001 program with the encouraging words, “Let’s jam sometime.” For Jarosz, “that was enough fuel for me to be like, ‘OK, I want to get good enough to jam with him someday,’ So it’s a special place in my history.”

Last year at Old Settler’s, Jarosz used an intimate workshop gig to preview a few songs from the album that would be her Grammys breakthrough, before it had even been released. This year, she’ll do a workshop again, but she’s most excited about her prime slot on the Hill Country Stage at 8:45 p.m. Saturday. “It’s probably the most headline-ish time I’ve ever had, and that in itself is a dream come true,” she said.

While Jarosz might not play Old Settler’s every year in the future — in 2018, she plans to tour extensively as part of I’m With Her, a trio she’s formed with kindred spirits Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan — she says she’d like to return as often as possible.

“It’s a nice opportunity for me to come home and be surrounded by the original music community that encouraged me so much from such an early age,” she says. “Scheduling is tough as a musician, but it’s something I’d like to make one of my priorities, hopefully long into the future.”

Alejandro Rose-Garcia snuck into his first Old Settler’s Fest in 2007, hiding in the car trunk of a friend who was volunteering as a garbage collector at the festival’s campground. He ended up pulling his own weight by helping with the trash runs, driving around on golf carts from campsite to campsite. “Normally it’s a thankless task, but people love getting their garbage picked up when they’re camping,” he says.

A stranger’s incomprehensible campfire rant about “spooky wagons” led the two friends to come up with fake-blues-legend names for themselves. Rose-Garcia chose “Shakey Graves,” and it stuck when he made the rounds of the late-night campfires with his guitar.

“That was the first time I presented music where I was confident about some songs I had written,” he recalls. “They asked me what my name was and I said Shakey Graves. I was expecting laughter, but they just said, ‘Yeah, OK.’”

American-Statesman Staff
Shakey Graves returns as an Old Settler’s headliner this year, 10 years after his first visit to the fest. Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman

A few years later, Graves started putting out records independently, leading to a deal with prominent Nashville label Dualtone (Lumineers, Shovels & Rope). By 2015, he’d been crowned Emerging Artist of the Year at the Americana Music Awards.

But he’s never played Old Settler’s proper until this year. Though he returned in 2008 as an official member of the campground trash crew, getting booked on the two main stages at the Salt Lick Pavilion grounds was “kind of a two-ships-passing-in-the-night kind of deal,” he explained last week from a recording session at the Belmont Hotel in Dallas.

“I’ve wanted to play the festival since the first time I went,” he says. “But by the time I actually put a show together, I had to go out and work it on the road. But this year is great; it’s my year off to write, and to reconnect with what I’m trying to do.”

He has a great time slot, playing at 10:45 p.m. Friday on the Hill Country Stage. “What I’m looking forward to as far as this show is concerned is trying to explore the narrative of what the last 10 years have been like,” he says. “From 2007 to 2017 is definitely a full cycle. I’ll maybe do some songs I did at the campsite. And this insane backing band from Dallas, the Texas Gentlemen, is going to help me flesh out songs I’ve been ambitious about recording but haven’t gotten off the ground yet.”

Looking back at that first trip to Old Settler’s a decade ago, Graves says he got much more than just a stage name out of the experience. “It made a definite impression,” he says. “It made me feel like I could actually do this. I can point to it and say, that was a turning point.”

Hailing from Chapel Hill, N.C., the acoustic duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz have been one of that musical hotbed’s rising stars in recent years. After a couple of self-released discs, prominent indie label Yep Roc picked them up and has released their last three records, including 2016’s “Blindfaller.”

All the while, they’ve worked hard to build a following in Austin, and it has paid off. Since a 2013 debut at Cactus Cafe, they’ve performed at key venues such as Stubb’s, the Mohawk and the Continental Club, their crowd gradually building each time they came through.

But Mandolin Orange hadn’t played the area’s signature roots festival until now. They played South by Southwest, though, and that’s how they first heard about Old Settler’s.

“It’s only a few weeks later, so we’d always be seeing ads for it when we came down” for SXSW, Frantz said from North Carolina last week. “What really caught my eye was just the lineups. I could tell by who was playing that it was something we wanted to do someday.”

Frantz plays fiddle and Marlin alternates between guitar and the band’s namesake mandolin, but the magical blend of their voices makes the duo something special. On “Blindfaller,” they fleshed out their sound a bit, and the tour that takes them to Old Settler’s is their first with an expanded lineup: guitarist Josh Oliver, upright bassist Clint Mullican and drummer Kyle Keegan.

Mandolin Orange will help kick off this year’s festival on Thursday evening at Camp Ben McCulloch, where a smaller stage is nestled amid the campsites that Shakey Graves once helped to keep tidy. Old Settler’s opens and closes its four-day run on that stage, with a performance by beloved local outfit Shinyribs having become a Sunday tradition in recent years.

The downside to playing the campground stage is that not as many people get to see the bands there. Although festival director Jean Spivey estimates that around 40 to 50 percent of those who attend Old Settler’s will camp at Ben McCulloch, only those with four-day passes can attend the Thursday shows. That limits the number of festgoers who’ll get to hear Mandolin Orange on this visit.

“We’ve had so much interest in them,” says Spivey, who says she now regrets not booking the band for Friday or Saturday on the Hill Country or Bluebonnet stages at the Salt Lick Pavilion grounds. “I’ve had to turn people away.”

Not to worry, though: Frantz, 29, assures that the group will be back in Austin soon, to keep up the bonds they’ve forged with audiences here. “We’ve always thought of ourselves as a very songwriter-oriented group,” she says. “And it seems like Texas music fans also have an appreciation for songwriting that I think maybe makes our music connect with people there.”

A return to play the big stages in Driftwood may be in the cards soon, too, as Mandolin Orange tries to play several festivals every spring and summer. “Old Settler’s and other ones that have been around for a while have a real sense of community about the fans who go every year,” Frantz says. “It’s fun to be able to participate in that community feeling you don’t necessarily get in a club.”

Our preview of younger acts at Old Settler’s comes full-circle with this 17-year-old Austinite, a finalist in the festival’s Youth Talent Competition for the second straight year. Those finalists will play three songs each beginning at 10:30 a.m. Saturday on the Bluebonnet Stage.

Cavazos is thrilled to be back after what she called an “eye-opening” experience at the fest last year. “Just being a finalist was a really big deal because I knew about the people who had won it before,” Cavazos said. “I’m a huge fan of Sarah Jarosz, and knowing I could even be in the same place as her was super cool.”

Cavazos released a five-song debut EP last year and followed that up in February with a seven-track disc titled “Cold” that includes the three original tunes she’ll play in this year’s competition. Her 2016 experience might help her this time around. “I was definitely a newbie” last year, she says. “A lot of the other kids had been there for two or three years before.”

The 2016 winner was San Antonio singer-songwriter Griffin Carter, who’ll play a 45-minute set at 11 a.m. on the Hill Country Stage. If Cavazos wins this year, she’ll get that same slot in 2018.

Regardless, she’ll almost certainly keep coming back. A junior at the Austin School for Performing and Visual Arts, she’d never been to Old Settler’s before last year, but she was quickly hooked on the vibe. “It’s a really comfortable festival; everyone’s really chill,” Cavazos says. “They really celebrate youth and talent.”

Camping was a big part of the experience. “My family got an RV and we spent the entire weekend down there,” she says, fondly recalling sets by personal favorites such as Hayes Carll and the Milk Carton Kids. A priority this year is to make the rounds of the late-night campfires, she adds.

“I remember one night not being able to sleep because there was something going on somewhere,” she recalls. “That’s the best sort of way not to be able to sleep.”

If the young artists represent the future of Old Settler’s, director Spivey notes simply that “the fact we’re still here is special.” Prospects looked shaky after some staff changes a decade ago. But things have stabilized since Spivey, who started working with the fest when it was still in Round Rock in the late 1990s, became the first and only full-time Old Settler’s employee in 2009. New board president Johnny Harvey took over for longtime president Scott Marshall last year.

Going into its fourth decade, will Old Settler’s continue to grow? “We’re kind of in a holding mode, and that’s fine,” Spivey says. “The size of the festival is good. We’re relatively small and intimate.

“ACL Fest is massive and we don’t have that, which is a good thing. I think it’s a selling point of the festival that you can get to the stage and see the bands up close, and see them walking around the grounds. And you can make friends that you see year after year in the campground.”

Driftwood has been the festival’s home base for more than half of its existence now, though Spivey doesn’t rule out a change at some point if more space becomes necessary.

“We love being there,” she says. “The Salt Lick Pavilion is beautiful, and Camp Ben McCulloch is lovely. There’s a lot of upside to being there. And then on the other side, we’re kind of busting at the seams. We need to think about the long-term viability so that we can continue to go on for another 30 years.”

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