Monday, April 23, 2007

Winding down at Old Settlers'

Beth Swindle made it only for getaway day at Old Settlers' Music Festival, which she found to be more of a family campoout than a formal fête.

Throwing a bag of snacks and six-pack of bottled water into my old Beetle and bumping out to Driftwood TX in the misty morning, I expected the typical festival: tall stages and throngs of gyrating revelers, $6 sodas and fried bread on a stick, much like the pics on the Old Settlers web site promised. And that may have been the case on Friday and Saturday, but this was Sunday.

Camp Ben McCulloch was a squatters' community: nests of colorful tents and party lights, kids with hula hoops and at least one mom rolling up the family teepee. Dads pulled on their tie-dyes and ten-gallons as they popped the first beer of the morning and dragged up to hear the Gospel Project hold church. In bag chairs and on old benches, generations deep in peeling paint, families collected to clap along to the modern inspirational music. The fine drizzle incantated a mystic intimacy, pressing everyone under a tin roof elevated by ancient cedar posts.

By one o'clock, Sarah Borges' magnetic rockabilly Broken Singles band drew in the second wave, which overflowed the shelter. Dressed in contrast to the weather, a straight black skirt and converse high tops, Sarah's grace and energizing stage presence lured the dreadlocked twenty-somethings and their first-generation hippy ancestors. Fragile women with flowing gray hair wrapped themselves in gauzy shawls and danced along, chanting to Sarah's intoxicating request for audience participation. We could have seen her in a more "festival" setting — she played on a big stage Saturday afternoon — but her off-mic kindness would not have touched every attendee as it did on Sunday.

During a lull, as they dismantled the Broken Singles' borrowed equipment — "They wouldn't let us bring amps or drums on the plane!" — I wandered among the live oaks to discover Honkytonk Homeslice warming up. In t-shirts and jeans this fast-pickin' trio impressed with their close harmonies and beaming smiles. Embroidered snap shirts and a larger audience may have dampened that sense of joy they exhibited, when caught by accident.

By mid-afternoon I was missing the food vendors only a little. I considered a walk across the road to the Salt Lick – the hill country's famous BYOB, all you can eat barbeque oasis. Nobody else noticed: they were all chomping on sandwiches and swiggin' canned beer carried over from their compounds. I wonder if this wasn't what the Old Settlers themselves had imagined 20 years ago when they organized the festival: parents and kids spending picnic time together and enjoying their American musical birthright under the oaks. You can experience it too: call the caretakers of Camp Ben McCulloch (512-858-2084) and reserve your spot!

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