A Knee-Slappin' Good Time!

Review of the 1999 Old Settlers Music Festival

By Paul Johnston

Wonderful! Just wonderful! These are the words that I would use to sum up my musical experience at the 12th Annual Old Settler's Music Festival in Round Rock, Texas this past April 9-11, 1999. The City of Round Rock, the many sponsors, musical talent, vendors, volunteers, and the festival committee can all be very proud of the first class musical and family entertainment event that was created this Spring at the Old Settler's Park in Round Rock, Texas.

The Hill Country Stage

Even though this event is centered around a bluegrass musical theme, most people will find many different entertaining aspects of this well organized festival to keep them happy and entertained. This was my first time to attend this event. Besides the obvious attraction of the enormous lineup of musical talent, I came there with the intention of photographing as many of the performers as I could. I was not disappointed! My cameras were clicking to my heart's content.

Camping on the hillside.

The festival was easy to get to. It was just off Highway 79, just a few miles east of Interstate 35. This park like a true Texan's heart is BIG! Plenty of room for everyone and their buggies. During this time of the year some of the park's hillside landscape has our wonderful Texas wild flowers growing. If one desired, camping during the event was free. I noticed some campers had taken advantage of the beautiful floral displays by camping on top of a hill overlooking this panorama of the best of the Texas Hill Country scenery.

Banjo Workshop

The main festival area is located on top of a large gently sloping hill. On top of the hill among the live oak trees are three of the smaller stages and audience tents. The Open Mike stage was available to anyone who wanted to try their hand at entertaining a crowd. The Discovery Stage with its 30' x 30' tented area was used for a variety of entertainment ranging from musical talent, children's entertainment to musical instrument and song writing workshops. The Bluebonnet Stage with its 30' x 60' tented area held its share of musical performers and workshops. At the base of the gently sloping hill was the concert- sized Hill Country Stage. At the smaller stages, seating was provided by folding chairs under the tented areas. One could bring their own chairs or sit in the grass under the oak trees just outside the perimeters of the tents. At the Hill Country Stage folks brought their lawn chairs or sat on blankets. The sound systems were first class for all stages.

Children trying their hand at stilt walking.

Running through the central part of the festival grounds were the numerous vendors. These vendors had all types of food, drink and ice cream available. Artists had their displays of beautiful arts and crafts. A large tent was set up with a huge number of stringed instruments for sale. There was an area setup for the sale of CDs from the actual musical artist performing at the festival. Some of the sponsors had their tents and displays set up also. Toward the northeast end of the festival area, one could look out over a small park lake. Like I said before, plenty of room for the body, soul, and mind to roam while at the event.

All stages have entertainment going on simultaneously. You can switch entertainment areas as frequently as you wish. No one stage had "the best" entertainment all the time. All entertainment was excellent. What was nice too, was that the entertainers' performances moved from one stage to the next. Therefore in one day's time, you could go to where the entertainers were, or you could stay in one spot and let the entertainers come to you. For my purpose of trying to photograph as many entertainers as possible, this worked out well. Even though I moved between stage areas to maximize my efforts, my efforts were of a casual nature, nothing hectic.

On my second day at the festival, Saturday, I spent some time photographing in the vendor, sponsors, and arts and crafts area. Naturally as I would photograph a certain booth, it was easy to strike up a conversation with the people there. As I was talking to a couple of gentlemen at one booth, one of them told me that he had not seen the other gentlemen, his high school buddy, for 25 years. They had met by chance. Neither had been to this festival before. We discussed what the odds of something like this happening.

Zemer's Rootbeer / Chris and Joy Zemer, owners.

Another delightful conversation took place at Zemer's Rootbeer stand. As I talked to Chris and Joy Zemer from Tyler, ( New Harmony, actually) Texas, I realized that they were from near the East Texas area from where I had grown up. I found my conversation of the nuts and bolts of the rootbeer business fascinating. On one of the wall of their stand I noticed a calendar that had old photographs of their family's rootbeer stand going back to the 1930's. Chris's great grandfather had started the business and now he was head brewmeister. I remembered the sweet smell of the sassafras roots from which rootbeer is made as I dug and played amongst the sassafras trees in my backyard as a child. It looks like American entrepreneurship is still alive and well and thriving at the Old Settler's Music Festival. Hurrah!

As far as the musical talent at this festival, there was more talent here than you could shake a stick at. I liked them all. These are hard-working folks plying their profession. The dedication of these musicians and singers is truly amazing. Take a look at some of their performance schedules and you will see that it is a tough row to hoe. It is not unusual for these performers to have multiple gigs during one day's time.

The performances were memorable. I was amazed at the truly amazing low vibrations coming from the girl's upright bass of Two High String Band as she used a bow to play. The power of those low frequencies created an emotional response within the audience. From the performance of Slaid Cleaves at the Cactus Café in Austin I had seen a few weeks prior to his numerous performances at the festival, this is one hard-working performer. Who would have thought that a bluegrass group, Druha Trava, from the Czech Republic could teach us a few things about one of our native musical forms, but they did! The friendly and cordial persona of Leeann Atherton came through in her music. John Cowan and Barbara Lamb put on a first class presentation. If you wanted to do a little rocking, then Joe Ely and Fred Eaglesmith certainly did the trick.

"Washboard Hank" and his nuclear powered washboard!

If you think the washboard is a simple instrument, then you need to meet Washboard Hank of the Fred Eaglesmith band. His dazzling contraption , I think, could kill a bear! If you wanted to witness how the sole performer could mesmerize an audience, then you should have seen the performances of Guy Clark and Patti Griffin. If you wanted to Praise the Lord, then the gospel group Bells of Joy would suit you just fine. For an encore, the leader came down into the audience and sang and danced with audience members as he helped us see the light.

Each evening as the official entertainment paused until the next day, the musical performances were far from over. As I walked back to my car on Friday evening, I heard pretty melodies coming from a group of musicians gathered around their RV picking and singing. Don't you know that these entertainers enjoy visiting and playing with their old friends under the stars of the wide open Texas night sky? Each person attending the Old Settler's Music Festival will have their own opinion of just what a beautiful experience it is. Mine? Wonderful! Just Wonderful!

Copyright - 1999 - Paul Johnston