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Published: 2003/04/26
by Chris Gardner

Old Settler’s Music Festival, The Salt Lick, Austin, TX- 4/17-20

It was the best bad weather any of us could have hoped for. The sun rarely
poked its head out

from behind the clouds to check out the happenings, and the misty drizzle
was inescapable on

Saturday, but the weather was never foul enough to distract the thousands
from the beautiful

music dotting the many stages at the 16th Annual Old Settler's Music
Festival. This marked the

festival's second year at The Salt Lick, a barbeque joint south of Austin
renowned for it's

all-you-can-eat goodness. The festival grounds run along Onion Creek, and
the campgrounds

stretch from the road to the river on the opposite side of the highway.

For the first time in years, the fest spanned four days. We darted up
Thursday, pitched the

tents on the stream-side river rocks, and raced over to the Campground Stage
for the music and

the free libations from the lovable folks at Real Ale. We caught the waning
strains of local

boys the Onion Creek
Crawdaddies and joined

in for the boisterous applause. The Crawdaddies' infectious energy grabbed
dozens of new fans

this weekend as they bounced from campfire to campfire at night and led the
Midnight March from

the site to the campground Friday after Yonder's set. Cooper's Uncle, more local boys,
followed, running through

standards like "Little Maggie" and "Sittin' On Top of the World" before
inviting mandolinist

Billy Bright of the Two High String
Band up for the first

of his umpteen appearances. Bright was nearly as pervasive as the clouds
this weekend.

The Waybacks headlined this rowdy
first night of shows, and

no one seemed prepared for them. Literally dozens of bands blend bluegrass
with rock, jazz,

funk, and _________ these days. We've seen them rise and fall: Blueground
Undergrass, Smokin'

Grass, and the like. None of them can touch the Waybacks. As a staunch
opponent of the "drums

in a bluegrass band" idea, I was immediately opposed to these Californians
on both philosophical

and geographical grounds. It didn't last. Few can rival guitarist James
Nash, who conducted a

fabulous solo workshop the following morning that consisted of 642,000
different variations on

"Blackberry Blossom". At a festival of this kind, there are hordes of
technically flawless

guitarists both on and off the stages, enough to drive home the point that
technical proficiency

just doesn't cut it. Nash, who also holds his own on the mandolin, dusted
them. The nuances of

his playing as he steps on, lags behind, or presses the tempo are subtly
powerful, opening

entirely new avenues of exploration for himself and the other soloists.
Things only improved

when Billy Bright and his bass slapping wife Bryn joined the band for "Cluck
Old Hen". The

Brights, who have spent the last few years backing Peter Rowan, more than
held their own. They

bridged into "Shady Grove" before bringing it back to "Hen" after the bass
solo. It set a

collaborative precedent for the weekend, and the wildly exhuberant (thanks
in part to Real Ale

crew) crowd erupted at its close. We still weren't ready for the encore. I
can't offer an

entirely accurate account. The dancing seemed to have adverse effects on my
penmanship. Here

are just some of the places the encore traveled after beginning around Hank
Williams' "Move It On

Over": "Crossroads", "007 Theme", excerpts from "Peter and the Wolf",
"Purple Haze" overlaid with

lyrics from "Green Acres", "Dixie", and "Shady Grove" pasted with the lyrics
to Merle Haggard's

"Rainbow Stew". It was a dazzling high water mark that was equalled but
never surpassed during

the three days that followed.

Friday was full of gems. After Nash's aforementioned guitar workshop, the
Waybacks took the big

stage, the "Hill Country Stage", for am impressive though far more subdued
set. Caroline Herring, who needs to
move back to Austin

sooner rather than later, offered a preview of her pending release
Wellspring from the

Bluebonnet Stage before falling into material from last year's exceptional
Twilight.

Herring, who was backed by the Brights and Rich Brotherton, has the kind of
voice that happens no

more than a few times in a generation. It is a voice that hearkens back
years, to a time when

country music meant something, when those words conjured slow drawn fiddles
rather than steel

guitars. Her originals feel ages old, breathing the same Southern air that
filled Hank

Williams, Sr and Flannery O'Conner. It is a voice that was born to sing
"Wayfaring Stranger"

(which she did) and "Angel Band" (which she should have).

Jerry Douglas, the other Jerry, the man the dobro was invented for, had it
all backwards. He

started his blustery set alone on stage, which immediately proved to
everyone within earshot that

the man was enough all by himself, but then he went and waved the band he
had just rendered

completely unnecessary onto the stage anyway. You can fight for hours about
the world's best

living guitarist (it's Tony Rice) or the best saxophonist ever (please, it's
Coltrane, sit down),

but you can't even offer a reasonable counter to Jerry Douglas as the
world's finest dobro

player. Numbers two through five global rankings will all tell you the same
thing, "There's

Jerry, and then there's us mortals." He seemed to prove it with each song.
The band, consisting

of Jerry, a fiddler with a Rancid-style spiked mohawk (seriously? yeah,
seriously), a guitarist,

a bassist, and a drummer never dabbled in vocals, to their credit. How many
bands ruin a

perfectly good thing by singing? Start your list with The Slip and stop at #31. The band ran

through a number of cuts from Jerry's newest, Lookout For Hope and a
few from the Strength

In Numbers days. Douglas, a remarkably funny man, gave us the history of
each tune, from the

Maurice Sendak inspired "Wild Rumpus" to the Fred Flintstone meets Charlie
Parker meets Bill

Monroe "Cave Bop" to the family tunes, "Senia's Lament" and "Grant's
Corner", before closing it

all down with Bill Frissell's "Lookout For Hope" (originally recorded with
Chris Thile and

redhead named Trey). What can you really say when you see the best in the
world do what they do

best? Drop me a line if you
figure it out.

Tony Furtado turned the Bluebonnet
Stage into The Place

Where Hippies Wiggle (shades of the Wild Rumpus?) during his set, proving in
back to back songs

why he is a man to be reckoned with. He knocked us out with the banjo
first, flying through

"Waiting For Guitteau" at ludicrous speed before swapping the five-string
for the acoustic slide

guitar on "False Hearted Lover". He battled James Nash for the "I'm So Good
on Two Different

Instruments That It's Really Not Fair to the Rest of You Chumps" Trophy. I
left when they were

both standing after 11 rounds.

Austin's Patti Griffin, who makes
an absolute killing

on royalties from Dixie Chick records, battled the wind wile playing the
bulk of her nearly

flawless 1,000 Kisses record and generally sent the adoring Austin
crowd into tizzies of

tickled delight. Alison
Brown proved

that, despite prevailing logic, an MBA doesn't preclude you from being a
ridiculous banjo player.

Her jazzy quartet found her running through the theme from the Spiderman
television show and a

Celtic/Irish medley of original and traditional material opposite a piano.

Yonder Mountain String Band left
a number of folks

from the diverse crowd wondering why they were headlining one much less two
nights, but they drew

the rest like a magnet with a beautiful version of the Stones' "No
Expectations" which they

dedicated to John Hartford, whose last live performance occurred at this
festival two years ago.

Many of their jams were more extended solos than actual jams, but there was
no arguing with Ben

Kaufman's jugband style "What's Goin' On in the Head of That Woman" or with
Dave Johnston's much

improved banjo pickin'. Benny Galloway, who recently recorded an entire
album with the band,

joined the Nederland Four for several tunes that failed to impress and
dispersed much of the

evening's late night crowd.

As with all good bluegrass festivals, half the fun was to be found in the
campground. Campfires

raged thanks to the "cold" front, and the pickin' trilled away far into the
night.

Saturday came bearing more muted skies and drifting mist taboot. Our day
started at two with

last year's winners of the New Talent contest, Spurs of the Moment. Hailing
from Wimberley, TX,

the Spurs are a group of eleven and twelve-year-olds who play well beyond
their age. Sarah

Jorosz handles the primary singing duties and picks mandolin well (no, not
"well for an

eleven-year-old," just well). Jesse Chisolm saws expertly at the fiddle,
and Nathan Barecky

quietly anchors the band with his steady, careful flat-pickin'. Jorosz has
a frighteningly

powerful voice that rang true on one of the weekend's many "Wayfaring
Stranger"s, but she really

shone on Gillian Welch's "Orphan Girl" where she played the upright bass.
Far too much soul to

be eleven.

Ruthie Foster is a woman from a
small town in Texas

with a voice that won't quit, literally. Her voice seems to flood out of
her, as if her body

isn't a sufficient vessel to contain it. She sings, "Hello." She sings
between songs. Hell,

she turns away to sing off-mic during songs. "Those notes aren't
meant for you," she

seems to say, "I just had to get those out of the way so I could go on
singing the real song."

And what a voice it is. It spills from the very center of her, deep and
resonant, as if her

whole body were the instrument. Her gospel heavy folk and blues can
mesmerize. She peppered the

set with originals like "Full Circle" and covers like Terri Hendrix'
brilliant "Soul In My

Pocket", holding the bulk of the audience in the palm of her hand.

Peter Rowan didn't make his early slot with Vassar Clements, so the Brights
and the boys from Railroad Earth filled in admirably.
Bryn Bright sang

"Pig in a Pen" in Rowan's stead, but the real highlights were the originals,
with Vassar swing

away at Billy Bright's "Alabama" and everyone joining in for a Railroad
tune. The dizzying

mandolin workshop followed as Billy Bright, Ronnie McCoury, Kym Warner of
the Greencards, and

Matt Slusher of South Austin Jug
Band swapped the

lead back and forth on "Billy in the Lowlands", a Bill Monroe blues, and the
gorgeous tremolo of

Monroe's "Lonesome Moonlight Waltz". The fiddle workshop with Jason Carter,
Eamon MacLoughlin

(of the Greencards), and Patrick Ross (now of Blue Merle) seemed a little
lacking in comparison,

despite a fine "Soldier's Joy" with Eamon and Patrick shifting the tempo in
the middle.

The Hottest Band In the World (all apologies to KISS) took the main stage
next behind Del

McCoury. There is really nothing quite like the Del Band. It is is quite
simply bluegrass as

Bill Monroe intended it. They dance around the two microphones so
intricately that the movements

must be diagrammed. I can just see Del hunkering down like Tex Winter and
drawing up the plays.

"Alright Bubb, soon as you slap that last note, get on out the way and look
for Ronnie coming

around a pick from Jason." Ronnie proved that he was holding back during
the workshop when he

stepped into his new instrumental, "Hillcrest Drive". That really may be
the fastest thing I

have ever heard. He was breaking laws, not to mention land-speed records.
Still, it was Del's

voice that stole the set (as usual) on his reading of "Black Jack County
Chain". The patriarch

has got some pipes.

A brief dash over to the Bluebonnet Stage was disappointing. Patrick Ross
and Beau Stapleton of

the now seemingly defunct Smokin'
Grass have joined

Blue Merle. Not much needs be said here about what in the end amounts to a
pop band, but these

two players are far too talented to be in a band whose primary focus is
anything other than the

instruments.

After the carefully orchestrated movements of the Del band, Peter Rowan's
big stage set felt like

mayhem. He opened the set with the Brights, Vassar Clements, and Robbie
McCoury (banjo). He

wasn't three songs into the set before he had Ronnie, Del, and another
fiddler up. Then he

brought a friend out to sing an original that excluded nearly all of the
guests, who sank into

the backdrop. All was redeemed when Del, Peter, and Vassar took center
stage. Several of the

set's best moments came when Ronnie McCoury and Billy Bright stepped up to
the mic together, but

those three former Bluegrass Boys stole the weekend. We're talkin' nearly
200 years of bluegrass

know-how there folks, and it showed. They fittingly performed a number of
Monroe tunes and a few

of Rowan's standards like "Land of the Navajo" and "Walls of Time". The
"Old Joe Clark" encore

was very well chosen, and the set, which Rowan insisted was all in honor of
Vassar, was one of

the weekend's best.

The Greencards are a bunch of dirty foreigners (Actually, they are
impeccably clean and quite

nice. The misplaced nationalism just seemed to suit the times. What's
more, they all seem to be

here to stay for a while.) The accents during banter give them away, but
Kym Warner's rendering

of Steve Earle's "Texas Eagle" is all Americana swagger.

The final set for our crew this evening was a rather quiet one from the Two High String Band. They opened with
the delicate round,

"Insofarasmuch" and generally avoided the blistering instrumentals that some
expected. The clear

highlight of the rather short set was Billy's "Jerusalem Cafe" featuring
Vassar Clements, an

honest tune that Vassar seems to love to play.

Sunday morning came way too early for many folks, but that didn't stop the
faithful from crawling

out to catch the kind of Two High
set many were expecting

the night before. Their now traditional Sunday morning set always has a
gospel flavor, and they

didn't disappoint. Bryan Smith takes the primary vocal duties, and his
"Rock of Ages" set the

tone for Easter Morning. Still, their original instrumentals were the real
treat. From the

Norman Blake tribute "Thanks Norman" to the Dawgish "Dang Howdy" to the
closer, "Tipped Over",

the band was right in sync. Geoff Union was note perfect, and it seemed to
push Billy Bright

into some of this best playing of the weekend, which says something when you
consider that this

set marked his eighth appearance of the weekend.

So with Bryan Smith and Bryn Bright singing us away to the tune of "High On
the Mountain", we

broke down the camps and packed it all in. This festival has improved each
year in the last

four. A few logistical problems aside (do all the bathrooms have to
be in the same

place?), the weekend survived fairly foul weather unscathed. The organizers
and volunteers

deserve a hand for again pulling off a festival of this size without hitting
any sizable snags.

More and more people seem to be travelling to the festival. I guess they
know that it is hard to

beat the Texas Hill Country during April, and it's even harder to beat Del
McCoury, Peter Rowan,

and Vassar Clements cutting loose on a few old Bill Monroe gems.

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