Settling in but Never Settling at the Old Settler's Music Fest
Executive Director Jean Spivey looks back at three decades of roots music
Jean Spivey throws a 4x4 utility vehicle into gear and accelerates down the dusty path that'll soon act as a landing strip for thousands of roots music lovers. It's three weeks out from the 32nd running of the Old Settler's Music Festival and all hands are on deck. Volunteer site preppers have journeyed here to Tilmon every weekend this year to fight back the brush, build roads, and exterminate oodles of gophers.
"We're a family," one volunteer tells me. "We come out here and kick ass every weekend."
OSMF executive director for the last dozen years, Spivey veers right to explore one of the camping areas and observes how much better it looks than last spring, when attendees raked out undergrowth to make room for tents. This 145-acre ranch, 30 miles southeast of Austin near Lockhart, is finally ready. This year should've been its debut before a treasonous chain of events – precipitated by internal disagreement over the land's purchase – forced it into operation in 2018.
Navigating woodland trails in search of a peaceful place to talk, my guide arrives at a half-acre pasture dotted with blooming wildflowers.
"Here it is," she smiles. "My meadow."
Spivey wears two metal bracelets on days she needs strength. One reads "Wake up. Kick ass. Repeat." The other says "Keep fucking going."
She received them last year from her best friend Allison O'Brien, who grew up with the OSMF head in Bowie, Md. They attended the University of Maryland together and rendezvous every April at Old Settler's where O'Brien volunteers.
Spivey's career with the event also began as a volunteer. After a long tenure managing and marketing theatre companies throughout the country, she ventured to South by Southwest in 1996 and relocated here the following January. Local public relations veteran Jill McGuckin hired Spivey as her assistant, the duties of which included stuffing envelopes at Old Settler's – then still a one-day bluegrass fest in Round Rock.
"I liked it so much, the next year I volunteered," Spivey recalls. "I sold T-shirts in the merch booth and just fell in love."
In 1999, she convinced then-director Randy Collier to let her handle marketing for OSMF, working promotion through relocations to the Stone Mountain Events Center in Dripping Springs and the Salt Lick Pavilion in Driftwood. In 2006, an exhausted Collier quit.
"At that point, the festival was gonna die," explains Spivey. "I thought I knew what was gonna help it: broadening the lineup within the Americana genre."
That year, she took over as executive director, while Scott Marshall, who'd worked with OSMF since 1994, agreed to lead operations. Over the next two years, Spivey says the pair pulled the festival out of debt and grew it into what we know it as today: a rootsy campout with a laid-back Souther-than-South-Austin vibe.
"And away we went ... until 'the troubles,'" pauses Spivey. "That's what I call it now."
"The troubles" began in summer 2017. First, OSMF got booted from its 16-year home at the Salt Lick property a year before its planned exit. Then Marshall and former OSMF production manager Ryan Brittain began promoting their own Americana gathering, the Driftwood Music Fest – on the same dates and location as OSMF.
"They went after our volunteers and our sponsors," says Spivey of the upstart festival. A judicial injunction eventually prevented DMF from holding their event in March, April, or May for five years. "They used our photos and promoted it as a continuation of Old Settler's. Those festivals were not going to coexist. Looking back, it was an act of revenge.
"Ryan and Scott weren't involved in choosing this land and they didn't want to get a new place ready."
Nevertheless, Spivey "kept fucking going." She testified in court, she hired new operations and production staff, she rallied the volunteers. She barely slept for two months.
She and OSMF triumphed by simply surviving the shake-up, but ticket sales for the Tilmon bow last year proved underwhelming, and by summer organizers were soliciting their community for donations.
Pitching a Bigger Tent
Edwin Cabaniss, owner of multimarket Texas roots music promoters Kessler Presents, saw that distress signal.
"We went from being an admirer to a collaborator," Cabaniss explains. "We've both been independent voices in the same space – roots and Americana – us on the venue side and them on the festival side."
The Dallas-based entrepreneur notes OSMF boasts an "iconic" culture, while his company brings to the nonprofit long relationships with booking agents and artist managers. Together, Spivey and Cabaniss forged a 2019 lineup showcasing new talent like local ATO Records signees Black Pumas, bluegrass staples à la Del McCoury, and wish list "unicorns" including marquee alt.country bard Jason Isbell and recent Grammy magnet Brandi Carlile. OSMF's most expensive lineup drove ticket sales way up.
As Spivey steers the 4x4 back toward the entrance, 100 retired hippies, blue-collar workers, freaks, pickers, and festi-kids have amassed around a three-sided horse shelter – drinking beer, laughing, catching up. The unique cast of characters have arrived for a volunteer meeting.
"You know, it's the people that make Old Settler's different," says Spivey. "They're all here for the right reasons. No one's posing."
Ten Essential OSMF Performances
Mipso Thu. 11, 7:10pm, Campground stage. Appalachian acoustic pop.
John Moreland Fri. 12, 4pm, Original Black's BBQ stage. Heavy-hearted Tulsa song whisperer.
Amanda Shires Fri. 12, 5:20pm, Black's. Lyrically acute, life-affirming guitarist/fiddler with quavering voice.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit Fri. 12, 8:30pm, Black's. Rare acoustic set from roots rock sovereign.
Shinyribs Fri. 12, 10:30pm, Black's; Sun. 14, 4:15pm, Campground. Showstopping swamp funk.
Black Pumas Fri. 12, 10:45pm, Bluebonnet stage. Hard-grooving psychedelic soul.
Los Legends Sat. 13, 1:45pm, Black's. Flaco Jiménez, Ruben Ramos, Rick Trevino, Los Texmaniacs.
Wood & Wire Sat. 13, 6:15pm, Bluebonnet. Grammy-nominated Austin bluegrass.
The Lone Bellow Sat. 13, 7:40pm, Bluebonnet. Acoustic Brooklyn trio with rich harmonies and gut-wrenching songs.
Brandi Carlile Sat. 13, 8:30pm, Black's. New voice of Americana – no "Joke."
Old Settler’s Music Festival runs Thursday through Sunday, April 11-14 in Tilmon, Texas. Tickets, directions, and schedule at www.oldsettlersmusicfest.org.