A New Favorite at Old Settler’s: Sierra Ferrell

Rising roots singer impresses at the Central Texas folk campout

Sierra Farrell at Old Settler's Music Fest (Photo by Brooks Burris)

My time at Old Settler’s Music Festival wasn’t long, a single Saturday — not even counting the nighttime – and yet I got everything I knew I wanted out of the experience… and some more things I’d forgotten that I needed.

Out there in Tilmon, TX, I’d hoped to see some of those familiar Old Settler’s characters who I’m used to running into annually, yet haven’t seen in two and a half years because of multiple pandemic postponements. There they were: the fellow in the kingly crown who reigns over the grub line in VIP and the older gentlemen in the sparkly shawl who grooves mightily in the crowd during performances.

I wasn’t the only one who spotted the latter, “Sparkle Joe,” right away. Saturday’s opening band, old-timey ruckus revelers Hog Slop String Band, singled him out in the audience. Specifically, the group’s extremely hype upright bassist – Pickle – jokingly accused the white haired OSMF fixture of being his long lost father who he hasn’t seen in 35 years, then asked him to come onstage, to which he obliged. They led the crowd in a “Sparkle Joe” chant then solicited him to stand on the front of the platform and show off his wiggly dance moves.

He did… to tremendous, exuberant, loving applause.

I also wanted to see the festival’s resident bubble wizard. This being in tie-dye overalls facilitates extraordinary floating spheres with soapy water – including a trick using a net-like device that sends a tremendous cavalcade of bubbles floating across the festival grounds. Well, I really wanted my son to see him: Quinny’s one year old and fuckin’ loves bubbles. My little one was in heaven all day dipping a big, circular wand into the vats of viscous blue fluid, waving it into the wind, and laughing at the levitating orbs.

Otherworldly bubbles at Old Settler's Music Festival. (Photo by Brooks Burris)

I came into Saturday hungry for musical comfort food, which, for me, is folk and bluegrass and rootsy songwriters. I knew I’d be satiated, but wasn’t expecting to have my taste buds awoken by something entirely new to me. Sierra Ferrell, though, did just that.

I’d heard her music and liked it a lot, but when the West Virginia-raised songwriter stepped onstage, I immediately got a sense of her rugged charismatic essence. She blew a mosquito off her bicep in between the quavering lines of country-folk original “Bells of Every Chapel,” then lamented the emptiness of her stage beer.

“Dang, it I drank too fast,” she said of her purple IPA can. “This was full when I got onstage.”

When someone from the crowd produced a beer of the same brand and walked it up to her, she shouted “Twinsies!” and gave it a nice long chug. With her cheek tattoo and funny nature, she reminded some of the people I like most in life: vagabond musician friends.

Ferrell, who lives in Nashville, had played in Austin on Wednesday at the Paramount with Bella White and had been spotted at local honky tonk the White Horse on Friday.

“This one’s for you” Ferrell told the crowd of roughly 150 before leading her quartet through the Jimmie Rodgers’ “T is for Texas.” Her blue yodeling on the standard drew big cheers and brought wide eyes and a big grin to the face Texas musician Robert Ellis, who was watching from side stage in view of the crowd.

Ferrell’s voice – high, heartfelt, just a little broken, and prone to pronouncing the letter “s” like “sh” – pulled me in, as did the original material from her August debut Rounder Records Long Time Coming. On “Made Like That,” a tale of rambling, she got me with the line “I just wasn’t made for these times,” sounding equally timeless and vital. Meanwhile, “The Sea,” representing the eerie, Voodoo-kissed, minor swing sound that permeates her record, transfixed the audience under a cloud spotted big Texas sky.

Mandolinist Josh Rilko and fiddler Josie Toney both tore off terrifically expressive solos on“Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” a bluegrass standard that landed at home to the Old Settler’s crowd. Less of the audience seemed to recognize an uptempo take on Charley Pride’s “Snakes Crawl at Night.”

After the bright folk twang of Ferrell’s “Jeremiah,” she and Toney joked feigned being too lazy to walk off stage and come back for the encore so they just stayed on for a fantastic, pronoun-flipped version of Roger Miller’s “A Man Like Me.”

After the hourlong set, we all wanted more and the festival’s emcee assured everyone: “She’ll be back.” I predict she will and it will be later in the night, under brighter lights.

Mandolinist Josh Rilko, Sierra Ferrell, and fiddler Josie Toney onstage at Old Settler's Music Fest. (Photo by Brooks Burris)

I guess that was the thing I’d forgot I needed from Old Setter’s in 2021: not just musical discovery, but seeing a new-to-you artist that feels truly special. The long-running roots festival delivered.

The last thing one my checklist was to chop it up with some of OSMF’s volunteers. The events undergone significant change in venue and leadership in the last five years, but the astonishingly dedicated core of volunteers, who show up weeks – or months – early to site prep and then work the festival are a rare and wonderful breed. Walking out of the grounds and down the dirt path with my girlfriend and toddler that evening, a golf cart pulled up.

“Want a lift? I try to give a ride to anyone who has a munchkin.”

Appreciative, we jumped in and he gifted us a homemade button comprised of a beer cap and a safety pin with a smiley face sticker on it – a take-home token of a damn good day.

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Old Settler's Music Fest, Sierra Ferrell, Josh Rilko, Josie Toney, Hog Slop String Band

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