A Texas Flair

Fiddling while the old settler's Music festival burns

Vassar Clements; Del McCoury Band; Peter Rowan (r) with Yonder Mountain String Band; Caroline Herring; Ruthie Foster
Vassar Clements; Del McCoury Band; Peter Rowan (r) with Yonder Mountain String Band; Caroline Herring; Ruthie Foster (Photo By John Carrico)

"He was very ill that night," remembers Old Settler's President Randy Collier of one of the festival's most notable headliners. "He sat in a chair surrounded by a bunch of great musicians, and they put on a very moving show. Then he went back to Nashville, they put him in a hospital, and six weeks later he died. So, we had the honor of being the place where John Hartford played last."

That the fiddle legend ended his idiosyncratic career at one of the fastest-growing events of its type in 2001 is just another feather in the cap of the Old Settler's Music Festival. And let's not forget the magical twilight set several years earlier by The Band's Rick Danko, who also died not long after his local appearance. This year, veteran OSMF headliners Del McCoury, Vassar Clements, and Peter Rowan throw down alongside the Yonder Mountain String Band, Mary Gauthier, South Austin Jug Band, Ruthie Foster, and a host of other national and local talent.

Collier is particularly proud of having had the OSMF, now in its 16th year, introduce Central Texas to performers like Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss, and Yonder Mountain -- acts that played at Old Settler's before they achieved a certain amount of fame. "I think we've built something really special," attests Collier. "It's like the festival in Telluride, but instead of a Colorado flair, we give it a Texas flair."

The 16th annual Old Settler's Music Festival begins tonight, Thursday, with its prefestival "settle-in" and campground jamming, and continues through Easter Sunday with kiddie fare and more music. Like last year's event, it returns to the Salt Lick Pavillion and Fort Ben McCulloch in Driftwood, where it's found a home after bouncing around from Round Rock to Dripping Springs over the past few years. The Chronicle spoke to some of this year's returning performers to catch a glimpse of what makes the OSMF so special.

Yonder Mountain String Band

"It's a great looking bluegrass festival," enthuses the band's bass player, Ben Kaufman. "They have a real interest in acoustic music, and in that sense, it shares some similarities with the great bluegrass festivals. It also seems they're broadening the audience and getting a mix of young kids and more traditional-minded folks in order to put together a complete package. We're going to have a big pickin' party like we do at our regular shows."

Del McCoury

"You know, it's one of the first outdoor gigs of the spring," points out one of the premier bluegrass musicians in the world. "It's a different feel when you get outside. We've been playing gigs inside all winter, and it's nice to get outdoors. I remember that it was in Round Rock the first time I played. But I missed a year after that and came back the next year, and everyone said that I did the right thing because the year I missed was the flood. So I remember that, because I wasn't there. I have to say it's real pretty country where they have it now."

Fred Eaglesmith

"The one show that we did, our bus was really broken," says the Canadian singer-songwriter, who draws comparisons to many of the finest Texas troubadours. "I mentioned it onstage when I was doing my record spiel, about how the bus was down, and we just outsold everybody at the merchandise table that year (laughs). But the bus was really broken. I had an airbag that had popped, and I had spent almost the whole day trying to plug it."

Caroline Herring

"Three years ago, I remember Randy Collier was so nice to let me on the bill," says Herring, one of those artists that many Central Texans discovered first at OSMF. "I think I was the last artist to get in my promo material, because I had never had a press photo, and I had to get one made just for Old Settler's.

"My favorite times have been the Sunday morning gospel sets, and this is the first year that I won't be part of that. The first year, I did the gospel set when really nobody was there, and then last year, there was this huge crowd for the whole morning. So it was exciting to see the Sunday morning crowd. Nothing else was going on, and Ruthie Foster was playing. That's a nice combination."

Ruthie Foster

Ruthie Foster modestly remembers last year's Sunday gospel show a little differently than Caroline Herring: "It was great. There was a lot more people hanging out than I thought would be there at that hour. I think it had a lot to do with the location, though. There was a lot of shade, and that was definitely in order for that weekend. Plus it was a really good way for people to wind down after the main festival."

Billy & Bryn Bright

Local mandolinist Billy Bright shares the stage with his wife Bryn in a number of different settings, including their own Two High String Band, and alongside Caroline Herring, Peter Rowan, and as part of his Texas Trio. "This will be our fifth year at the festival," says Billy. "The new space is very comfortable, but I thought that Round Rock was awesome. The one thing that was special about playing up there was that we first got to pick with Peter backstage at Old Settler's in 1997. It's always been a cool festival, but it seemed like last year they just hit everything right. I'm sure this year will be just as good if not better."

Vassar Clements

Vassar Clements is one of the most distinctive, inventive, and popular fiddlers in bluegrass music and around the world. He came to prominence as a member of Bill Monroe's band in the early Fifties and has since played with everybody from Hank Williams and the Monkees to Michelle Shocked. "I really like playing in Texas. The people at Old Settler's are some of the kindest and friendliest folks I've ever met. I've been there a lot. They really know how to put on a festival. It's really special, and that's the reason I keep coming back." end story

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