Thirty years ago, in a park in a suburb north of Austin, a group of music lovers who gathered to play fiddle every Sunday, put on a small bluegrass festival. It was named after the park and sponsored by the town. Attendance that first year was about 600 people. Now, 30 years later, it’s held in a campground and adjacent event center near Driftwood, TX, and attracts about 16,000 people. In that intervening time, it has become, in my opinion, one of the premier music festivals in the country, if not the world. Why is it different from the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of other music festivals? Three things, really.
First, you can’t beat the location. Camp Ben McCulloch is a wonderful, shady park on the banks of Onion Creek. While it can get warm in Austin in late April, it’s never the scorcher that can haunt the big summer festivals. It can be chilly at night, but for anyone from out of town it’s definitely short of cold.
Second is the selection of performers. While it started out as a bluegrass festival, now it encompasses everything in the roots and Americana genres. I’ve seen the Hillbenders do the full-on bluegrass treatment of The Who’s Tommy, Ruthie Foster and JJ Grey deliver blistering blues sets, indie faves Dawes and Milk Carton Kids, and some of the titans of bluegrass, including Del McCoury, Ralph Stanley, and Vassar Clements.
Finally, it’s a crucible of music creation. Grammy-winner Sarah Jarosz, one of this years headliners, won the first youth talent competition at Old Settler’s about 12 years ago. Shakey Graves got his nickname sitting around the campfire playing music at Old Settler’s. Wood & Wire first jammed together on the stage at Camp Goodtimes, essentially the after-hours club of Old Settler’s.
Although SXSW and ACL are the attention-grabbers on the Austin music scene, you can ditch the crowds, hear the same quality of music, and just generally have room to chill at Old Settler’s Music Festival.
About the author: Support new music. Listen to a band or singer you've never heard of this week. I've been doing that for over 30 years.