What’s new at the Old Settler’s Music Festival this year? Well, everything.
After celebrating its 30th year in 2017 at the Driftwood site just southwest of Austin that had been the festival’s home since 2002, the area’s premier roots-music event endured enormous changes during the offseason. The end result: Old Settler’s 2018 commences this weekend at a new location, on land the festival purchased in rural Caldwell County southeast of Lockhart.
Before last year’s fest, director Jean Spivey had hinted at the possibility of changes on the horizon, noting that Old Settler’s was “kind of busting at the seams” on the Salt Lick Pavilion and Camp Ben McCulloch grounds they’d rented for 16 years. “We need to think about the long-term viability,”she said, “so that we can continue to go on for another 30 years.”
The transition didn’t happen without dissension and controversy. Two former Old Settler’s principals sought to start a competing festival at the Driftwood site, eventually leading to an injunction and a lawsuit that was settled out of court.
In the meantime, Old Settler’s forged ahead with developing its new site, which at 145 acres has more than twice the space the fest occupied in Driftwood. At an open house two months ago, hundreds of OSMF die-hards turned out despite stormy weather for a chance to check out the new spot, which was still largely in raw form but showed promise.
Near the turn-in off of FM 3158, a handful of artists performed in an open-air bandstand near a ranch house that provides the fest with valuable on-site storage. Adventurous attendees walked a quarter-mile or so down a hardpack-caliche road leading to wide-open fields where signs indicated the locations of stages, campgrounds, vendor areas and such.
The Original Black’s BBQ, one of Lockhart’s storied barbecue joints, is the new sponsor of the festival’s main stage. A slightly smaller Bluebonnet Stage, retaining the name long used at the Driftwood site, is adjacent. Four campgrounds stretch from the front of the property to the back, including a middle site that will include a smaller Campground Stage for Thursday and Sunday performances.
There’s also a “Camp Shhhtimes” stage among the trees in the rear campground, with past-midnight performances from a mix of official fest acts and local additions. Also new this year is a Wednesday evening open-mic session for early campers.
For all the changes, though, some fundamental elements remain pretty much the same. Musically, Old Settler’s will be a lot like it has been in the past. This year’s lineup mixes artists young and old, long established and newly rising, nationally known and homegrown. Renowned for presenting quality performances, the festival remains on solid ground with its 2018 roster.
The centerpiece is I’m With Her, a new supergroup of sorts that stars one of the fest’s biggest success stories. Wimberley-raised Sarah Jarosz was the 2002 Youth Talent Competition winner at Old Settler’s and has returned almost every year since. This time she’s bringing two high-profile friends: Sara Watkins, famous for her role in the groundbreaking string band Nickel Creek, and Aoife O’Donovan, a spectacular singer who’s stepped out as a solo artist since leaving the Northeast band Crooked Still.
Other top touring acts on the bill include indie desert-rockers Calexico, bluegrass legend Del McCoury’s offspring the Travelin’ McCourys, eclectic soulful outfit the California Honeydrops and Oklahoma retro-rockabilly/R&B firebrand J.D. McPherson.
The roots-music spread of OSMF has always leaned toward a big-umbrella philosophy, and that continues in 2018. Fans of jam-band grooves and bluegrass pickers might be especially drawn to this lineup, thanks to acts such as Donna the Buffalo, Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, Front Country Balsam Range and Billy Strings.
The lineup also includes some significant up-and-comers. Boston band Darlingside recently released “Extralife,” the latest in a series of records sporting a wondrous indie-folk-pop sound that’s heavy on vocal harmonies. The War and Treaty, a husband-wife duo from Michigan, combines gospel, soul, R&B and more with fire-and-brimstone live performances that often leave audiences in awe. Colter Wall, a 22-year-old Canadian, is one of the hottest new country troubadours to appear on the Americana scene in years.
Locals get plenty of prime spots at Old Settler’s as well. Area acts in the mix this year include major-label roots-pop duo Jamestown Revival, indie-folk mainstays the Deer, R&B/soul dynamos Tomar & the FCs, blues-rock siblings the Peterson Brothers, longtime Austin showman Bob Schneider and legendary outlaw pioneer Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Organizers said last month that they are expecting a total attendance of around 14,000, with a rough average of about 5,000 a day. “We will be ready for it,” said Spivey. “We had about 1,000 come out and brave the rain to check out our open house, and I think that was a pretty good test run.”
A heads-up for longtime festgoers who’d made the roughly half-hour drive to Driftwood: The new site is a good bit farther out. Situated about 20 minutes southeast of Lockhart at 1616 FM 3158 near the rural communities of Dale and Tilmon, it’s nearly an hour from downtown Austin.
Those driving should prepare for possible traffic jams on the way in, as the roads leading to the fest are small and there’s only one entrance to the grounds. An alternative: Old Settler’s has partnered with FestDrive to provide limited shuttle service. In Austin, they’ll depart from the downtown Whole Foods at 2:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, noon Saturday and 8:30 a.m. Sunday (returning 30 minutes after the final act each day). Round-trip shuttle tickets are $40 each day (or $20 one-way).
Old Settler’s Music Festival
When: April 19-22.
Where: 1616 FM 3158, Dale (rural Caldwell County, southeast of Lockhart).
Performers: I’m With Her, Calexico, Travelin’ McCourys, Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, Jamestown Revival, JD McPherson, Bob Schneider, Ray Wylie Hubbard and more.
Tickets: $37-$550, from single-day admission to weekend platinum passes with camping.