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Old Settlers Music Festival, Driftwood, TX- 4/19-4/22

The Old Settler’s Music Festival is one thing that this state hasn’t yet Texas-sized. It’s far better for it.

While thousands upon thousands migrate to Austin each spring for South By Southwest and then again in the fall for the increasingly popular Austin City Limits Music Festival, this old-time jamboree held about 20 minutes south of town remains somewhat of a hometown secret. Much like Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado, Old Settler’s succeeds by not outgrowing itself. And, of course, by continuing to present top-flight music. (This year, artists spanned from festival favorites like Sam Bush and John Cowan to local talents such as Slaid Cleaves and Green Mountain Grass.)

In other words, imagine a cozy Elysian field with the vibe of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival or San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass that would seem to fit in the back yard. The Bluebonnet Stage offers the real charm. Nestled beside a slow-flowing stream and engulfed by tree cover, the festival’s secondary stage hosted a veritable who’s who of Americana singer-songwriters this weekend.

Mary Gauthier made the deepest impression. Accompanied only by guitar virtuoso Andrew Hart, the 45-year-old New Orleans native’s stage presence is as commanding as her harrowing tales of hopelessness and redemption. Gauthier’s delivery is as direct and affecting, too.

“Falling out of love is a treacherous thing/With its crucible kiss and its ravaged ring,” she sang in “Falling Out of Love,” the opening track to her acclaimed 2005 album Mercy Now. “With its holy whispers and labyrinth lies/Sacrilegious hungry sighs.” “We wanted to start with a happy song,” Gauthier joked after.

Humor was key. Much like Townes Van Zandt used to do, Gauthier cracks wise between the heartbreak to keep the mood above water. Her ripped jeans and red sunglasses helped, too. But, ultimately, what came across was the raw honesty of songs like “Mercy Now” and “I Drink.” In those two and others, Gauthier exhibits the maturity of a seasoned novelist, perhaps a result of gathering 35 hard years of material before writing her first song.

Jim Lauderdale, on the other hand, seems like he was born with a guitar and pen in hand. Best known as a songwriter (George Strait, Dixie Chicks and Vince Gill are just three of dozens who have cut his songs), the North Carolina native also tours exhaustively and his experience shows. Lauderdale is the consummate showman, at times to a fault. In fact, he name drops like others adjust their spectacles. Though he calls himself out in it, Lauderdale’s act is more reminiscent of Roy Clark than, say, Guy Clark.

“I wrote this with a guy named Robert Hunter,” the 50-year-old said, introducing the title track from his 2004 album Headed for the Hills. “You might’ve heard of him.” Talk about baiting a festival for applause. Either way, Lauderdale offered up “Trashcan Tomcat,” which he also wrote with the Grateful Dead lyricist, as well as “King of Broken Hearts” (written, he says, with George Jones and Gram Parsons in mind) and “Hole in My Head.” All are hillbilly gems. Hokey stage banter aside, it could be argued that Lauderdale is one of the finest traditional country music songwriter working today.

Robbie Fulks might be the yin to Lauderdale’s yang. A fine songwriter in his own right, Fulks takes a left toward the anti-establishment every time Lauderdale veers right. His manner is equally rehearsed, but more relaxed. “This one name-checks Texas,” Fulks said before opening with “Parallel Bars.” “But I’ll have you know that when I sing this in Maryland, I still sing Texas.’ I’m not just pandering to you.”

He offered a real treat in banjoist Danny Barnes. Though this was the first time that Fulks and the former Bad Livers frontman performed together onstage, it was immediately apparent that they’re kindred spirits. No matter that Barnes occasionally appeared finger tied. Trying to keep pace with songs he presumably only had passing knowledge of lent a from-the-hip feel that made their set all the more fun.

Honkytonk Homeslice tied everything together. The band String Cheese Incident’s Bill Nershi’s low-key pickin’ project with wife Jilian and pal Scott Law offered a meeting ground that incorporated Lauderdale’s professionalism and Fulks’ lawlessness. “These songs were recorded the old time way,” Bill Nershi wrote in the liner notes to Homeslice’s 2006 self-titled debut. “We sat in one room around open mics with no separation between our voices and instruments.”

That simplicity also defines the band’s live show, though it does come with drawbacks. All singing into one microphone and navigating each other’s space caused great songs like “Weary Homesick Blues,” “Magnolia Road” and “Shot in the Blue” to drift off into the ether barely noticed. It was a shame. (Organizers announced early in the festival that amplifiers would be turned lower in order to keep the stages from drowning out each other out. That worked most other times, but backfired during this set.)

That said, Honkytonk Homeslice’s cover of Elvis Presley’s first single, “That’s Alright, Mama” offered up tight, tough and tenacious might’ve been the standout highlight of this 20th annual gathering.

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