Review: Old Settler's Music Fest

This appeared in the Austin American-Statesman - April 20, 2008

Sometimes the best finish last.

Or in the case of the Old Settler’s Music Festival at Driftwood over the weekend, the next to last. New Monsoon, a Dead Headish group from San Francisco, closed the fest again, but the last act to see for many was Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives band.

The hyperbole-driven name for this star’s backup musicians is no lie. These country-before-Nashville-turned-pop artists play like the ‘90s to the present never existed. And since Stuart is a godfather to instrumentalists (forget his stuck-in-the-‘80s poofy do), this is a band that knows how to come together as equals. Even the drummer Harry Stinson, with his high lonesome voice, came to the front of the stage to nail the gospel number “I’m Working on a Building” along with Stuart, guitarist Kenny Vaughan and bassist Paul Martin.

Stuart honored himself by honoring the ghosts of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash as he told how the former wrote “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” with Bill Monroe in a dressing room and how the latter, his former boss and neighbor, reminded him of a crow. Stuart’s song “Dark Bird,” sung solo on mandolin, painted a poignant picture of the man who dressed in black but flew out “on the other side” as a white dove.

Despite some maudlin bird silhouettes on video, Stuart’s sincerity rang true. His sense of fun within country’s traditions shone through be it a prison song, a train song or a surf guitar number.

Stuart even consented to an afternoon acoustic demo inside the Salt Lick Pavilion on the fest grounds. He wrapped that up, as he did for his Saturday night set, with Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” This is indeed a nice guy who knows good music knows no audience or authorship bounds.

Most of the traditional, masterful bluegrass at the fest this year was left to veterans Peter Rowan and Ralph Stanley. But what makes Old Settler’s soar repeatedly is the organizers’ willingness to put wings on the genre, from the gospel rock of the Jones Family Singers to the John-Paul-George harmonies of Beatlegras to the country command of Marty Stuart.

It’s all fun on just two stages, with a relaxation factor double that of many bigger, better- known festivals.

By Ed Crowell

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