Heavy With Tradition, Old Settler's Music Festival Springs Eternal
We talk to Sierra Hull and spotlight favorites for next week's campout
By Kevin Curtin, Doug Freeman, and Rachel Rascoe, Fri., April 15, 2022
People throw around the word "tradition."
It's understandable. In its loosest sense, tradition can simply mean a pattern of behavior. You go get McDonald's breakfast after getting released from jail, every time – "It's tradition." You and your friend have gotten your photo taken in front of the giant picture frame at ACL Fest for three years in a row – "It's tradition." True traditions, though, involve understandings and customs passed down generationally or recurring practices so established that they shape your identity.
I've been thinking about how Old Settler's Music Festival is heavy with tradition.
The resident artist at next week's Tilmon, Texas, gathering, 83-year-old singer and guitarist Del McCoury, has been in bluegrass since 1963, when he joined the band of genre godfather Bill Monroe – that's tradition. In addition to playing twice (Friday, 7:15pm, and Saturday, 8:20pm), McCoury, whose sons, Ronnie and Rob, anchor his band, will host a workshop about playing music with family – that's tradition.
In 25 years of OSMF history (festival posters from the first decade are scarce), McCoury has performed 10 times. Including next Sunday's closing ceremonies, Kevin Russell has done a dozen Old Sett's between Shinyribs and the Gourds. Peter Rowan has enchanted at 15 – that's tradition. Volunteers with a quarter century of service – that's tradition. Babies running around at the campgrounds whose parents were once kids doing the same – that's tradition.
Even for young settlers pickin' on the three stages, now staggered so there are no overlapping sets, many are playing music rooted in deep musical traditions, even if those traditions evolve stylistically – evolution, of course, is what makes tradition distinct from "history." For music fans continuing traditions or starting new ones, here're some projected highlights for Old Settler's 2022. – Kevin Curtin
Sierra HullSaturday 23, Bluebonnet Stage, 6:20pm
Sierra Hull has been driving hard across the bluegrass scene since she made her Grand Ole Opry debut at age 10 and signed with Rounder Records at 13. In many ways, though, the mandolinist's fifth album, 2020's 25 Trips, represented a capstone to that early part of her career. The album expands the songwriter's sonic palette, but also takes stock of the rapid passing of time during her fast-rising trajectory that's led to six International Bluegrass Music Awards and a Grammy nomination.
"It's really funny how much the themes on that record couldn't have been written after [the pandemic], so it's a completely new perspective to actually get to go out and do these songs live for people now," she laughs from the back of a tour bus where she's on the road with Béla Fleck. "My record had literally come out two weeks before everything shut down. It was my first album in five years, and I had been working away on it, and that was really where all my energy was headed toward going out and supporting that.
"Just to be home for once was really wild, and I know it was a hard time for so many, but I really appreciated getting that experience," she acknowledges. "It sort of taught me the beauty of being able to be still for a minute, and the importance of that. I still want to have some of that in my life. It also makes me know that in the future, I can take time off and step away from all the traveling, and there's a lot of beauty in that, in getting to be home and reset and reprogram a little bit. I think that perspective is something I'm really grateful to have."
Now finally able to tour the album, the 30-year-old finds a new energy in the songs, as well as her many recent collaborations. In addition to being a part of Fleck's My Bluegrass Heart tour, she toured this year with funk bassist Cory Wong and has been exploring new territory for herself as well.
"I want to continue doing more collaborations and finding ways to work with other people, I feel I learn a lot from that," she says. "For me as an artist it feels like an opportunity to exercise these different parts of my musical brain.
"I think we kind of live in a time right now where genre feels a little less like a box that we have to be in," she continues. "It's exciting in a sense because it means we have the opportunity to try different things and not necessarily have to be bound. That doesn't mean we can't still love and enjoy our roots and still pull from that. I grew up a bluegrass girl and anytime I can go back and dig into that in a meaningful way, it just feels like home. It's such a huge part of who I am and always will be. But I also love getting to dive into some new territory, too, and that's what keeps me inspired and keeps things fresh and keeps me wanting to keep doing it." – Doug Freeman
Brennen LeighSaturday 23, Bluebonnet Stage, 2:20pm
Sunday 24, Campground Stage, 3:30pm with Women of Western Swing
After heading to Nashville following longtime status as a local roots fixture, the versatile Brennen Leigh found herself drawn back to an early infatuation: Western swing. Her elegant love note, Obsessed With the West, emerges May 6 under the Forties-era tutelage of Texas songwriting icon Cindy Walker – who Leigh previously tributed in an event with Austin's self-explanatory supergroup Women of Western Swing. Alongside her own festival spot, the country talent joins WOWS for a last-day special set. Hear Leigh's comforting tone and crisp stories align with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, heroes-turned-peers since her capital move as a 19-year-old, on latest single "In Texas With a Band." She sings, "Austin's just like Hollywood with a few more country songs/ Where else can you hear steel guitar played with accordion?" – Rachel Rascoe
The SuffersSaturday 23, Main Stage, 5:20pm
Just try staying plopped down in your camping chair while the Suffers are onstage. When Houston's Gulf Coast soul septet lights into freshly released single "Don't Bother Me" – with its prominent Miami percussion; agile, staccato horns; and empowering message – we're gonna get up and jump. The surefire entertainers are set to drop LP No. 3, It Starts With Love, in June, and OSMF represents their first tour date on the cycle, so expect fresh legs, exuberance, and an exulting sing-along when they hit their 2018 classic's pinnacle refrain "Do whatever/ Feels right, all night, alright alright." – Kevin Curtin
Los TexmaniacsSaturday 23, Main Stage, 3:20pm with Flaco Jiménez
Saturday 23, Main Stage, 7:20pm with Peter Rowan's Free Mexican Airforce
The Grammy-winning conjunto unit, led by uncle Max Baca (vocals, bajo sexto) and nephew Josh Baca (accordion), continue to prove they're among Central Texas' most potent collaborators as they contribute their lock-tight Tejano sound to multiple musical heroes on Saturday. They'll lay the foundation for master acordeonista Flaco Jiménez's joyful hit parade including "(Hey Baby) Que Paso" and "Streets of Bakersfield." Hours later, they'll fold into the mystical essence of Buddhist bluegrasser Peter Rowan. – Kevin Curtin
Galactic with Anjelika "Jelly" JosephSaturday 23, Bluebonnet Stage, 10:20pm
The most brilliant asset of jazzy, beat-oriented jammers Galactic – aside from Mensa-level drum maestro Stanton Moore – is a healthy rotation of guest vocalists. This time around, it's Anjelika "Jelly" Joseph, a fellow NOLA artist who caught eyes on American Idol and then went on to sing with Tank & the Bangas. She could steal the show. – Kevin Curtin