2021 Old Settler’s Fest Features the Present & Future in Country Roots

Cedric Burnside / Sierra Ferrell / James McMurtry / Kelsey Waldon

Picture gallery below.

Old Settler’s Fest in central Texas has a lot going for it that other country and roots festivals just can’t rival. 34 years of history make for a lineage and a legacy that newer festivals just don’t have, no matter how much big money they may have behind them. For some friends and family, Old Settler’s is a long-standing tradition, and they go no matter what the lineup is, and the on-site camping facilitates intimate performances and late night jams across the four days of the gathering.

Old Settler’s has a huge, 145-acre permanent site they moved onto a few years ago, located within easy driving distance of both Austin and San Antonio, yet is an experience worth traveling out of state for. This gives the fest a greater foundation to grow from than other events. It’s an unusually kid friendly atmosphere, so you don’t have to pawn the kiddos off on the in-laws, they can come along if they wish. They also have a world-class youth competition that once helped give birth to the career of Sarah Jarosz.

It’s been a tough few years for Old Settler’s though. A dispute with their previous site owners resulted in a big public lawsuit, and an abrupt move to their new location before they were ready. Then of course, right as they were ready to take Old Settler’s to the next level, COVID hit, which resulted in multiple postponements. Due to tight budgets for the nonprofit organization, they had to let go their long time Executive Director Jean Spivey. There’s also been some turnover in their long time volunteer corps that help keep the festival going. As great as Old Settler’s is, it’s like they’ve been snake bit over the last few years. And with other big events happening on the same weekend—including Austin’s big F1 race—it was rough getting folks to pay attention to a grassroots country roots festival.

But pound for pound, the 2021 Old Settler’s Fest lineup conveyed as much entertainment value as any other event you’d find out there. Sure, maybe the 2021 lineup didn’t have the big flashy names like the 2019 fest when they had Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile headlining. But they made up for it with smart and studious curation that resulted in a stellar lineup and experience for 2021 Old Settler’s goers.

You had North Mississippi hill country blues revivalist Cedric Burnside, who is right up there with Billy Strings and Mike and the Moonpies is the most entertaining live music act in all country and roots music at the moment. You had the Hogslop String Band that anyone who’s seen them live will attest bring the party live like no other.

You had the future of independent country represented well in Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, the underrated and criminally-overlooked Logan Ledger, Kentucky sweetheart Kelsey Waldon, and Sierra Ferrell, who is one of the fastest-rising entertainers in Americana.

You had legacy acts like the groundbreaking and Grammy-nominated Della Mae, the Father of Newgrass himself Sam Bush, the Po’ Ramblin Boys who are one of the best true bluegrass bands who still know how to keep it fresh and fun, and The Travelin’ McCourys who love to stretch their legs out and explore the outer reaches of bluegrass just as much as they genre’s younger acts.

Apologies to the campground performers and others not mentioned below, but Saving Country Music could only pull itself away from officially business for Friday and Saturday of the fest. But once again, Old Settler’s Fest was a great opportunity to enjoy some of the best country and roots musicians around, and discover some new ones worthy of a wider audience.

Country punk queen, life coach, and overall general badass Sarah Shook had the unenviable task of opening Old Settler’s Fest early Friday afternoon with her dark songs more appropriate for a gloomy honky tonk, but nailed it anyway in front of an appreciative audience
Even if you arrived stone sober to the Steve Poltz set, simply from being in this man’s presence you will not piss clean for weeks. The singer/storyteller is much more than just a spitting image for Jimmie Dale Gilmore, he’s a modern day troubadour/soothsayer that will have you finding a new appreciation for life.
Jame McMurtry’s set at Old Settler’s Fest wasn’t some polite acoustic matinee at the Continental Club. Like his latest album “The Horses and the Hounds,” it was a full tilt rock show with all the crunch and attitude indicative of his early career, with the songs still packing as much of an emotional wallop as possible.
Grace Rowland helps front Austin’s The Deer, who call themselves psychotropic folk music. They are a superband of sorts that includes former members of Asleep at the Wheel, Wood and Wire, and the South Austin Jug Band.
If you’re looking at Kelsey Waldon, you’re looking at Kentucky. She came out on stage at Old Settler’s Fest in a Rhinestoned Nudie jumpsuit with a snake running up one leg, singing with her sincere Kentucky inflections unparalleled in purity.
Tony Kamel is a member of Austin’s premier bluegrass band Wood and Wire, and just released a new solo album called Back Down Home that takes a more country approach. It’s worth seeking out.
From left to right, Maddie Witler, Vickie Vaughn, Celia Woodsmith, Kimber Ludiker, and Avril Smith of Della Mae.
Simply being in the audience of Jade Bird—who was forced to play a quarter hundred songs to fulfill her 75-minute headlining set—it’s near impossible to not be incredibly endeared with her. The songs are the enviable combination of easy melody and infectious pentameter, while still remaining surprisingly earthy and involved. Meanwhile, her vocal control and range are incredible.
Cedric Burnside is one of the best live acts in all of country and roots music at the moment, period, laying down in that north Mississippi Hill Country groove, playing bass with his thumb, and bringing the serious get down vibes that get the limbs to twitchin’ uncontrollably. R.L. Burnside is looking down with some serious pride.
Fruition not only put together an enjoyable set to close out the Bluebonnet stage Friday night, they had one of the best moments of the fest helping Steve Poltz perform John Hartford’s “Up On The Hill Where They Do The Boogie.”
Jeremie Albino originally from Toronto was one of the big takeaways from Old Settler’s 2021. He’s a dynamic live performer of the blues discipline.
Hogslop String Band, with an extended tribute to bass player Casey “Pickle” McBride (below).
Pickle with “Sparkle Joe”—Old Settler’s (semi-official) mascot in 2021.
Sierra Ferrell seems almost more myth than material being, melding her ragtime jazz and mountain music into an alluring and intoxicating concoction that leaves lifted spirits and broken hearts in her wake. Her billowy vocals beam you to a world of Chantilly lace and sea foam, spiriting you away from everyday mundanity to a colorful place of enchantment. She is not of this time, or of this world.
It was upon hearing the voice of Logan Ledger in a demo recording that legendary producer T Bone Burnett determined he’d struck gold, deciding to delay his impending retirement and tackle the task of attempting to insert Ledger into the conversation of popular music. Logan Ledger is one of the best, and most underrated singers around.
When soulful Texas artist Bonnie Bishop shakes the apple, it’s done been shook.
From left to right, Rob McCoury, Cody Kilby, Ronnie McCoury, Alan Bartram, and Jason Carter, also known as The Travelin’ McCourys.
Ronnie McCoury
Jamestown Revival was joined on stage by their current producer and Old Settler’s alum Robert Ellis. Their new album Young Man is out January 14th, 2022.
Elle Townley from Georgetown, Texas was the winner of the 2021 Old Settler’s Youth Talent Competition, and came out playing songs by Dolly Parton and Brooks & Dunn, along with an original song she wrote called “Fighter.” A future voice in country music.
From Bowling Green, Kentucky, the By God Father of Newgrass, the once member of Emmylou Harris’s Nash Ramblers, and as of 2020, a Bluegrass Music Hall of Famer, the one and only legendary bluegrass mystic Sam Bush.
Tomar & the FC’s closed out Saturday night on the big stages before everyone retreated to the campground for more music.
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