The big, expensive festivals touting electronic dance music, Radiohead, and Jay-Z get most of the media attention, but a number of more intimate Texas festivals have thrived without the hype. These may not be trendy, but they’re definitely cool and worth your consideration as the spring and summer concert seasons approach.
Following the spirit of the Kerrville Folk Festival, which established its “listener fest” mentality in 1972, these are blissful gatherings where the music and the scene are intertwined. You go there to see and hear, not to be seen. Jumbotrons are not necessary because fans can usually get close to the stage.
And unlike the Austin City Limits Music Festival in October, which upwards of 75,000 people a day attend, smartphones are not an integral part of the experience. Social media posts are sparse because when you’re at the place to be, bragging about it will only make it more crowded next year.
You won’t see many Billboard chart-toppers at the five Texas music festivals highlighted here. One of them even has “Old” in its name. But you will hear the best in folk, bluegrass, honky tonk, conjunto, country, rock, and Americana.
OLD SETTLER’S MUSIC FESTIVAL
April 19-22, Tilmon (near Lockhart)
2018 Headliners: Greensky Bluegrass, I’m With Her, Railroad Earth, Bob Schneider, and JD McPherson
2017 Attendance: 16,500 over four days
Family Friendly: Yes
Like a smaller version of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, except with banjos and mandolins instead of accordions and pianos, Old Settler’s reminds one how Austin used to feel. The crowd is made up of old hippies, young hippies, and free spirits who defy classification, but c’mon, they’re just hippies who smell good. When folks describe OSMF they can’t help but use the word “vibe.”
This year marks the first at a new location—Old Settlers’ fourth—after 16 years at Driftwood’s Salt Lick Pavilion, which was getting mighty crowded. Although the new spot, owned by the nonprofit festival, lacks a river or lake feature, there’s twice as much room, potentially accommodating 5,000 campers. After the night’s entertainment ends, a vibrant campfire folk singalong starts, so bring earplugs if you want to sleep before 3 a.m. New this year: an open-mic on the Wednesday night before the fest begins.
The eclectic booking on three stages is first rate, with the core of national bluegrass acts (Greensky Bluegrass, The Travelin’ McCourys, etc.) branching out to every style of the Americana tree, from Calexico to Bob Schneider, plus some jam-band activity for kids born too late to see the Grateful Dead. Grammy-winner Sarah Jarosz, who got her start at Old Settler’s as a 10-year-old mandolinist, will return in 2018 with her trio I’m With Her, featuring Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan.
“It’s a great mix of established acts and up-and-coming ones,” says music fan Jim O’Brien, who has attended 28 of the 30 Old Settler’s fests and has never seen a fight there. “It draws good-hearted, music-loving people. It’s my favorite festival of the year.”
Steve Berlin of 2017 headliner Los Lobos likens the backstage scene to that of European festivals, where everything’s a little more lax. “I just got here an hour ago, and I’ve already met some great people and reconnected with many friends,” Berlin says. “It’s just so relaxing out here. And then you get to play music.”
LARRY JOE TAYLOR’S TEXAS MUSIC FESTIVAL
April 23-28, Stephenville
2018 Headliners: Aaron Watson, Randy Rogers Band, Josh Abbott Band, William Clark Green
2017 Attendance: 56,000 over six days
Family Friendly: Not so much
The college kids and regional music fans, who’ve made this celebration of “red dirt country” one of the wildest music fests in Texas, call it “LJT” after the initials of its founder. A former songwriter for Gary P. Nunn, Jerry Jeff Walker, and The Lost Gonzo Band, Taylor became the Jimmy Buffett of Texas when he turned his ranch outside of Stephenville into a mini-Bonnaroo.
Though the audiences are generally young adults, LJT maintains nostalgic elements, hosting a chili cook-off, re-creating an old-style Texas pub called T-Bird’s (air conditioning!), and booking acts like Jason Boland and the Stragglers and Randy Rogers Band, which hark back to the “outlaw country” heyday.
The first year in 1989, barely 100 people showed up, but word-of-mouth is a powerful thing. By 2002, LJT had outgrown its original site in Mingus. After stop-offs in Thurber, Possum Kingdom Lake, Glen Rose, and Meridian, the purchase of Melody Mountain Ranch was in order. Since then, this event has grown substantially—and added a Texas Mardi Gras feel with all the purple and yellow bead necklaces sold by on-site vendors. “This is not your typical South by Southwest-style festival,” says Chelsea Powell, 30. “It gets crazy, but everybody’s got your back.”
Performer Josh Abbott says the interaction with fans is what makes LJT special. “I love to go out into the crowd during the day,” says Abbott, who’s played the fest since 2009. “Then at night sometimes we’ll just take our guitars to the campgrounds and play songs.”
Elizabeth Watters, 25, and a handful of friends were treated to such an impromptu campfire concert at last year’s event. “Deryl Dodd sang ‘God Bless America,’” she says. “And if you didn’t get chills there was something wrong with you.”
This is one of the few music fests that allows patrons to bring their own beer, so those coolers on wheels are almost as prevalent as women in cutoffs and cowboys boots. When the beer you’re drinking—and sharing—costs about 10 percent of what you’ll pay at the big outdoor fests, you can afford to drink more. What you can’t afford, however, is a DUI arrest, so it’s no wonder the 2,500-plus camping and RV sites usually sell out in advance. There’s not a bigger party in Texas than LJT.
TEJANO CONJUNTO FESTIVAL
May 16-17 at Guadalupe Theater and
May 18-20 at Rosedale Park, San Antonio
2018 Headliners: Flaco Jiménez, Boni Mauricio
2017 Attendance: 6,000
Family Friendly: Sí, por supuesto
Traditional Mexican-American music at its best! Two things dominate the country’s first—and longest-running—conjunto festival: dancing and the accordion. Every band, ranging from eager unknowns to timeworn legends, has a squeezebox that’s made to get the folks twirling around the concrete dance floor. “This feels like a homegrown festival for San Antonio,” says Steve Jordan III, whose accordion-playing father, Esteban “Steve” Jordan, played the first one 36 years ago. “But you’ll meet people from all over the state, all over the country. If you’ve got passion for the accordion, this is where you want to be.” Jordan III’s band Rio Jordan, which he and bassist brother Ricardo took over after the 2010 death of their father, was a highlight of the 2017 fest, playing the favored rancheras and cumbias for about 3,000 fans that looked like more, with their portable camp chairs ringing the dance floor 15 rows deep in some spots. “It’s up to the younger generation of musicians to keep the tradition alive,” Jordan III summates.
Indeed, some musicians from the 30 acts spread out over three days grew up playing in their parents’ bands. Oscar Martinez, who has been to many of the Tejano Conjunto affairs at modest Rosedale Park, offers, “Our music is our culture. You won’t hear a bad song all weekend.” That’s 27 hours of live music! At $40 for three-day tickets (in 2017), this fest is an all-time bargain. And with only one stage, you don’t have to choose between favorite bands playing at the same time.
Mexican accordion music may all sound the same to fans of hip-hop and rock ’n’ roll, but conjunto aficionados like Tejano vinyl collector Martinez smile at the little nuances the younger acts throw in there. He laughs when Mando y la Venganza of Corpus Christi plays a cumbia number that quickly fills the dance floor. “That’s [‘Cumbia de la Cobra’], which was a big hit about 15 years ago by Fito Olivares,” Martinez explains. “The original version has alto sax as lead instrument, but Mando’s got it covered on accordion. That’s what I love about the younger acts. They give the old songs their own twist.”
It’s not rare to see three generations of families attending the Tejano Conjunto Fest together. There’s a big playground for the kids, Tejano clothing vendors for the teens, old-fashioned taco stands (and other food vendors) and beer booths for the hungry and thirsty, and terrific people-watching for the old-timers.
But on the dance floor there’s only one generation. Everyone’s 23—even the couples married 40 or 50 years.
KERRVILLE FOLK FESTIVAL
May 24-June 10 at Quiet Valley Ranch, Kerrville
2018 Headliners: John Gorka, Mary Gauthier, Johnsmith, Steve Seskin, and The Peterson Brothers
2017 Attendance: 20,000 over three weeks
Family Friendly: Yes
On a Monday morning at the Kerrville Folk Festival—about halfway through the three-week musical marathon—15 harmonica players gather in the shade of the festival’s main stage for an instrument workshop.
“The spirit here is about you guys as players, about us as players,” instructor Rob Roy Parnell says. “Drop any apprehensiveness. It’s about having fun and learning.”
Such is the spirit of the Kerrville Folk Festival. For the 47th year this May, the festival will draw songwriters and music fans to play, sing, learn, and celebrate among Kerr County’s limestone bluffs and oak-shaded hills.
About 20,000 people make the pilgrimage to the festival’s Quiet Valley Ranch each year, many of them for the nightly concerts featuring premier songwriters and bands from Texas and beyond. Most any high-profile Texas songwriter you can name has played here, from Lyle Lovett and Steve Fromholz to Marcia Ball and Nanci Griffith.
Named for the late Rod Kennedy—festival founder and a dedicated folk-music promoter—the Kennedy Outdoor Theater offers bench seating and a lawn for stretching out with folding chairs and blankets; arts-and-crafts booths and food and drink vendors ring the outskirts of the amphitheater.
The main-stage concerts serve as the jumping-off point for Kerrville’s vast musical ecosystem. Everybody here has got a song to share—or can’t wait to hear yours.
“It’s the sense of community and the thread of music throughout everything you do while you’re here, whether it’s on the stage or not, that is so special,” says Dalis Allen, the festival’s producer. “That’s the main thread throughout everything—how the music brings us together.”
Along with the harmonica class (June 4-6), the festival hosts workshops for songwriters, ukulele players, guitarists, and teachers. There are also daytime children’s concerts during the weekends and the prestigious Grassy Hill Kerrville New Folk Competition, which draws entries from hundreds of aspiring songwriters.
Much of the action takes place in the Quiet Valley Ranch campground, a 25-acre makeshift city of tents and RVs where up to 2,000 “Kerrverts” camp during the festival. Many of the camps—with names like Camp Coho, Camp Inertia, and Dances with Armadillos—host nightly songwriter circles and jam sessions day and night. (No drums in the camping area!)
Austin singer-songwriter Idgy Vaughn has been attending the festival since the early 2000s, and in 2004 she was honored as a New Folk winner.
“I had grown up in a small town in Illinois, being the town weirdo for writing my own music,” she recalls. “I came out here, and there was this whole huge community built around valuing the one skill that I actually had. And it’s priceless. It was life-changing for me.”
VIVA BIG BEND
JULY 26-29 in Alpine, Marfa, Fort Davis, Marathon
2018 Headliners: TBA in May
2017 Attendance: 10,000 over three days
Camping: Plentiful at nearby state parks
Family Friendly: During daytime shows
Viva Big Bend is like no other music festival in the world. It’s a mix of outdoor and indoor venues and made for club-hopping—as many are—but VBB takes place simultaneously in four different towns, at least 20 miles apart. “That’s the beauty of it,” says writer Joe Nick Patoski, who hosts a Saturday-night Texas music show in Marfa on KTRS. “Those are some of the most spectacular drives you can imagine.” And here’s something you won’t find at most festivals: parking within two blocks of every venue.
For those who want to drink to the likes of Dale Watson, Shinyribs, Ruben Ramos, Aaron Watson, and BettySoo, shuttle bus rides are free with a wristband.
Viva will never get too big because of the distance from cities and scarcity of motel rooms. The majority of wristband-wearers are locals who look at this tiny festival as a West Texas Woodstock. They’re a fun and curious bunch, a mix of classic cowboys and artsy freaks. This event could be called Burning Marlboro Man Fest.
To out-of-towners like Stephen Ray of Austin, VBB has become an annual destination. “You’ve got high-quality acts in intimate settings,” he says. “And it’s relatively cheap.” Beer prices at Lost Horse Saloon, Railroad Blues, Planet Marfa, and other venues are about half of what you’d pay at other fests.
“It takes about half an hour to drive to some of the clubs,” Ray concedes, “but that’s about how long it takes to drive about six blocks in downtown Austin during SXSW.”
Grammy-nominated journalist Michael Corcoran, who’s been covering music in Austin since 1984, is glad there are still festivals in Texas that don’t have electronic dance music.