About 10 miles southeast of Lockhart, Texas last weekend, I had my favorite musical experience in a long time. It was less crowded than the Austin City Limits Festival, less agonizing than South By Southwest, more fun than attending a show indoors, and all with the added bonus of being on a beautiful campground.
The Old Settler’s Music Festival, now in its second year at its own campground in Tilmon, Texas but in its 32nd year as a festival, is now the bar to meet for a music festival for me. Here’s a recap of my experience:
I stayed in downtown Lockhart at a place called The Birdie House. Built in 1898, the home has been restored and has modern amenities, but everything else, from the wood floors to the clawfoot bathtub, remain the same.
I stayed in the Alice in Wonderland room, which looked exactly what it sounds like.
I also hung out with the owners’ dogs, Ivy and Oliver. (My hosts were also the nicest people.)
Even though I lived in Central Texas for nearly four years and had driven through Lockhart many times, I had never stopped to explore the town. Thursday night when I got in, I ate Black’s BBQ (the original) for the first time and absolutely loved it.
Then, I went over to the year-old Caracara Brewery, located right downtown. The Howdy Hefeweizen was my favorite.
Old Settler’s Fest
Friday afternoon I drove down to Tilmon in time to grab some lunch at the campgrounds before the performers took the main stage. RV campers were parked on the side of the dirt road as I entered the grounds. Actual campsites for tents were located closer to the stage arena proper. I was only able to attend for one day, but I already want to try and get a campsite next year. In addition to getting to camp with other like-minded folks, there are also late-night acoustic campfire sets just for campers after all the other fest-goers have gone for the day, called “Camp Shh-Times.”
Related: On ‘Homeland Insecurity,’ Flatland Cavalry Reckons with growing up
After four straight years of either attending, planning or covering ACL, walking into a fest environment where everyone was laid-back and friendly and wasn’t trying to bumrush the stage was refreshing.
Speaking of that lunch, if you’re looking for some good food when you go to Old Settler’s, try out mmmpanadas. I was looking for a good veggie option, it being a Friday during Lent and all, and their spicy black bean and soy chorizo empanadas were amazing.
Other great food I had:
- Umami Bites, an Asian food truck. I got the veggie spring rolls
- Cooper’s Concessions ice cream
- North by Northwest Red Zeppelin beer
- Hi Sign Brewing’s Violet Blueberry Blonde beer
I didn’t go to church this last weekend, but I still had a religious experience. I usually do whenever I hear “Cover Me Up” live. The main reason I went to Old Settler’s was to see Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires perform an acoustic set with The 400 Unit.
You might also like: 2018 Year In Review: Is country music a genre anymore?
I’ve seen Isbell and Shires perform several times, but this was the first time I saw them go acoustic. I wasn’t disappointed — watching the two of them share a stage is a privilege for anyone in the audience, and they make each other better when they perform together.
But waiting to see Isbell and Shires work their magic meant camping out in front of the Original Black’s BBQ stage, which I was more than happy to do since the other performers I came to see were John Moreland, Shires and The Del McCoury Band.
Moreland, a singer/songwriter from Oklahoma, is a big man with a vulnerable heart and sad, sad songs. His lyrics combine the imagery and vocal inflection of Springsteen with the heartbreak that can only come through experience. Every song of his makes me want to hug my loved ones extra tight. Armed with only a guitar and fellow guitarist John Calvin Abney, Moreland’s set kicked the day off to a big start.
Texas native Shires, who opted to go electric for her solo set, mostly played songs from her latest album “To the Sunset.” Indeed, as she played, the sun began setting on the campground. This was the loudest I’ve ever heard her. Her voice soared on the “turn around” parts of “Parking Lot Pirouette” and her fiddle almost took on a voice of its own.
Related: John Prine caps an Austin-filled month with Amanda Shires at Bass Concert Hall
She had some fun introducing Isbell when he came up midway through her set to play guitar:
“Ladies and gentlemen introducing my best friend, and also my husband, Mr. Jason Shires Isbell.”
Isbell deadpanned back, “Yup, that’s me.”
That laid-back joking nature would come back later in their acoustic set, with Isbell stopping a song to let a junebug go free.
“Here, don’t tump it over, we gotta let it go free. There, now it’s gone. He’s got a little rosin on his ass but he’s safe. You know what they say, if you wanna play in Texas, you gotta have some rosin on your ass.”
More: 2018 CMA Awards: Low ratings and low relevance, with a few surprises
In between those sets, though, audience members were treated to the sounds of the Del McCoury Band, an Old Settler’s mainstay. I got up and roamed around during most of their set, but the banjo picking I saw from them was unbelievable. Should be illegal to be that good at something.
Then, the main event. Isbell and Shires brought the whole band — bassist Jimbo Hart, drummer Chad Gamble, guitarist Sadler Vaden and accordionist/keyboardist Derrick DeBorja — with them, but none of the big rig electric equipment. Most of their last album “The Nashville Sound” is electric and bombastic so I was curious to see if a stripped-down version would even work.
Oh, it did.
Watching this band perform under a crisp spring night sky in the middle of nowhere was one of the highlights of my year. I’ve heard these songs dozens, if not hundreds, of times before. And yet they still make me feel something every time I hear them, whether it’s the chills I get every time Isbell belts the “‘Til Percy Priest breaks open wide” line in “Cover Me Up” or the way he and Shires look at each other during “Traveling Alone” or the way Shires’ mournful fiddle and Gamble’s deliberate drums complement “Elephant” perfectly. Hearing them in an open environment, with thousands of other people all singing along and cheering (mostly at the “I swore off that stuff for forever this time” line) was akin to a religious experience.
More: Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires find the light in the dark at ‘Austin City Limits’ taping
That’s not to say the whole night was a serious endeavor. At one point near the beginning of the set, someone yelled out, “Vampire!” as a request [“If We Were Vampires”].
Isbell joked back, “I love it when someone requests a song that I include in every set list. You, sir, are gonna get what you came for. That’s like going to a basketball game and yelling, ‘Shoot the ball!’ You’re not gonna walk away disappointed.”
And as far as set lists go, this one spanned the breadth of Isbell’s discography, from “Outfit” to songs from “Southeastern” and “Something More Than Free” to “Nashville Sound” and his contribution to the “Star Is Born” soundtrack, “Maybe It’s Time.” I got to hear “Outfit” and “Alabama Pines” live for the first time.
The downside to camping out at one stage for the whole day was that I missed out on seeing Mandolin Orange, who played at the same time as The 400 Unit. Only going for one day also meant I missed out on seeing Brandi Carlile, Hayes Carll and The SteelDrivers. Next time.
More country music: ‘Desperate Man’ is a tale of two Churches
After the 400 Unit performance, I was tired and ready to go to sleep, but everyone I had talked to that day told me that Shinyribs was the main draw of the night.
I had heard some of the band’s studio albums and had read some of my Austin 360 colleagues’ interviews with the band’s frontman, Kevin Russell. But I had never seen a live performance until Friday night, and let’s just say I’m now going to make it a point to see them whenever they come through whatever city I’m in.
Combine the fervent fanbase energy of a Pearl Jam, or Jimmy Buffett, or Grateful Dead crowd, throw in a multi-genre band full of charisma and add an ukulele and a congo line and you’ve got a Shinyribs show.
I was blown away by the group’s blend of New Orleans jazz, blues, Americana, funky swamp scuzz and idiosyncratic covers (an ukulele version of “The Wind Cries Mary”; a full-band version of “Bitch Better Have My Money”; a blues-tinged interlude of “No Diggity”). After the almost reverent tone the crowd had during the Isbell and Shires show, Shinyribs woke everyone up and got everyone to dance, sending everyone back to the campground rejuvenated.
I was sold on Old Settler’s after just one day. Next year I’m coming back with a tent and a camping pass.
Setlists (for the most part):
- “Sallisaw Blue”
- “Old Wounds”
- “Losing Sleep Tonight”
- “Oh Julia”
- “I Need You To Tell Me Who I Am”
- “Heart’s Too Heavy”
- “God’s Medicine”
- “Your Spell”
- New song- “In Times Between”?
- “American Flags In Black and White”
- “3:59 A.M.”
Amanda Shires (*= with Jason Isbell on guitar)
- “Break Out the Champagne”
- “When You’re Gone”
- “White Feather”
- “Leave It Alone”
- “Parking Lot Pirouette”
- “My Love (The Storm)”
- “Take on the Dark”
- “Wasted and Rollin'”*
- “Pale Fire”*
- “Wasn’t I Paying Attention”*
- “Look Like A Bird”*
- “Eve’s Daughter”*
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
- “24 Frames”
- “Hope the High Road”
- “Different Days”
- “The Life You Chose”
- “Traveling Alone”
- “Alabama Pines”
- “White Man’s World”
- “Last of My Kind”
- “Speed Trap Town”
- “Cover Me Up”
- “Something More Than Free”
- “Maybe It’s Time” (From “A Star Is Born”)
- “If We Were Vampires”