Delfest, a music festival that strikes the right balance between roots and branches, takes place every Memorial Day weekend at the Allegany County Fairgrounds in the mountains of western Maryland. The Old Racetrack sits on the north side of the Potomac River, and directly across the river rise the vertical cliffs of West Virginia. On these cliffs, when the sun goes down, a projector projects a portrait in shadow and light, several hundred meters high, of the namesake of the festival, Del McCoury.
In this depiction at the edge of the cliff, McCoury has her head tilted back and her mouth open in hearty laughter. That’s how most people think of the musician, as he bursts into infectious laughter every few minutes whether he’s on stage or not. And it’s his instinctive amusement at all the quibbles and weaknesses in the world that keeps this festival running as well as it does.
McCoury is a bluegrass giant, the most imposing figure in the field this century, but it would be a mistake to describe Delfest as a bluegrass festival. Rather, it is a festival of strings, an opportunity to explore all the possible sounds that can be produced by a particular set of instruments: violin, mandolin, banjo, dobro, acoustic guitar and double bass. These instruments cannot be limited to bluegrass; after all, they were making country music long before Bill Monroe invented bluegrass in the early 1940s, and they’re now being used in ways unimaginable when Monroe died in 1996.
Watch The Del McCoury Band live at Paste Studio on June 8.
This year’s festival, the 11th annual, featured these instruments used by classic bluegrass bands such as the Del McCoury Band and Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. But it also made room for new grass artists such as Jerry Douglas, the sons of Sam Bush and Del, the Travelin’ McCourys, for old-time artists such as Old Crow Medicine Show and Dustbowl Revival, for jam artists such as Greensky Bluegrass. and the InFamous Stringdusters, for singer-songwriter acts such as Richard Thompson and Rhiannon Giddens, and chamber music acts such as David Grisman and the Kruger Brothers. There was diversity, but it was connected by the sound of music made from hollow wooden boxes.
“Dad always wanted to have a festival,” Del’s son Ronnie McCoury said on the McCoury bus. “We wanted a festival that could accommodate everyone we love and everyone we’ve played with. It covers everyone from string bands, because that’s what we love. The very first year, in 2008, we had both Dierks Bentley and Jon Fishman from Phish. Many of these bands were fans of Dad. Phish called us; String Cheese Incident too.
“I didn’t even know who Phish was until Ronnie told me,” Del admitted. “But when Trey Anastasio invited me on stage to sing with him, he asked me if I knew ‘Blue and Lonesome’. I said, ‘You mean that song that Bill Monroe wrote with Hank Williams?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ He knew his bluegrass, and that started a great friendship.
Del was Bill Monroe’s vocalist and rhythm guitarist in 1963, and he can still do the high-lonesome sound of fundamental bluegrass as well as anyone ever has. But he also agreed to record songs written by Tom Petty, John Sebastian, Steve Earle and Richard Thompson, adapting those roots rock tunes to Monroe’s approach. The Del McCoury Band, featuring Ronnie on mandolin, his brother Rob on banjo, Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bertram on double bass, played every night of the four-day festival. On Friday, they presented songs from their new album, Del McCoury still sings bluegrass, released the same day, half a century after Del’s 1968 debut album, Del McCoury sings bluegrass.
Del showed off his remarkable high tenor, steely in strength yet true in feeling, on the album’s remake of Ernest Tubb’s “Letters Have No Arms.” Written correspondence, he sang, is fine, but it’s no substitute for physical contact – a message as true for us email senders and texters as it is for snail mail fans. by Tubb. As deftly as it adapted Tubb’s honky-tonk classic, the McCoury Band also handled Shawn Camp’s rockabilly comedy, “Hot Wired.” For this song, Ronnie’s son Heaven McCoury, the electric guitarist of Nashville funk band Broomestix, joined the family reunion with a blues-rock solo.
With his upright posture, shiny gray suit, and combed-back silver hair, Del looks like he stepped right out of the 19th century. But it’s surprisingly open to almost any kind of roots music, especially if it involves the basic instruments of bluegrass. It is this combination of an indisputable link with the past combined with an openness to the new that gives Delfest its distinctive character.
“When I started,” he recalls on the bus, “the only structure for a band I knew was Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. I never thought of doing anything different. There came a point in my life when I heard something, and I said, “I’d like to do this. For example, my manager called me and said that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band had invited me to sing on their next album, and I said, “I’d like to try that. I ended up singing two songs on the album, and it worked out so well that we ended up doing a tour and another album together .
His two sons having grown up, their musical tastes infected their father. They bonded with Earle and Thompson and brought those songs into the group. As the now 79-year-old Del slowed down, the rest of the band got to work as Travelin’ McCourys, with former Ricky Skaggs guitarist Cody Kilby handling guitar. Last year, Ronnie reported, they went on about 75 dates with their dad and 75 dates alone. And last Friday, they too released a new album, The Travelin’ McCourys, their debut under this name. With two Grateful Dead songs plus songs from Nick Lowe and Buffalo Springfield, it expands the possibilities of string band music even further.
Old Crow Medicine Show gave a nod to Memorial Day by including the Dead’s “US Blues” in their closing set of the festival on Sunday night. At a press conference that afternoon, lead singer Ketch Secor resisted describing bluegrass for the band, despite the presence of fiddles, banjos, mandolins, acoustic guitars and double bass during their show. “Virtuosity was never our goal,” he said; “we manage by the mind.”
However, they are not entirely dependent on the mind. More accurately described as an old-school band, Old Crow were aided a lot by terrific songwriting, primarily from Secor, Critter Fuqua and Chance McCoy. On Sunday, they presented several strong songs from their new album, Volunteer, most notably the contagious anthem, “Flicker & Shine.” They evoked particular American landscapes in songs such as “Child of the Mississippi”, “Alabama High Test”, “Dixie Avenue”, and “Cumberland River”.
Another band from the old days, Dustbowl Revival, took the merger between the Del McCoury Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and took it even further. Combining fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitar and double bass from the McCourys and trumpet, trombone and soul gospel vocals from Preservation Hall, Dustbowl demonstrated just how much old country and traditional New Orleans jazz have in commmon. Performing on the only indoor stage on a rainy Sunday afternoon, Dustbowl had it all: dazzling soloists in violinist Connor Vance and trombonist Ulf Bjorlin, savvy songwriter in Zach Lupetin and smashing singer in Liz Beebe. When the band climaxed the show with their signature party song, “Lampshade On,” a handful of fans in the crowd were already wearing lampshades over their heads.
While Old Crow, Dustbowl and the Wood Brothers managed to combine soulful sound with well-defined songwriting, many of Delfest’s young bands had the sound but not the songs. Jam-grass too often suffers from the same problem as jam-rock: loud playing and weak material. The Birds of Chicago, Twisted Pine, Mandolin Orange, Greensky Bluegrass, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, and Fruition had talented pickers and lots of energy, but the only numbers you could remember were the covers.
A different kind of songwriting was in the spotlight when the new Dawg Trio performed on Friday afternoon. Playing only their second gig as a band, mandolinist David Grisman, his son and bassist Sam Grisman, and guitarist/banjoist Danny Barnes locked themselves in so well they could play the delicate melodies and countermelodies of the old Grisman in perfect mesh, even when they started improvising variations on the themes. Much has been written about Grisman’s ability to cross the line between bluegrass and jazz, but rarely is credit given to European chamber music based on continental folk music. But the contours of his themes and their articulation betray this debt. Call it bedroom weed.
The same term can be applied to the Kruger Brothers, a trio formed in Zurich and now based in the hills of North Carolina. Banjoist Jens Kruger is a Grisman-like composer, and he presented two movements of his “Appalachian Concerto,” an ambitious piece whose mountain music flavors and classical structures justify both halves of its title.
Saturday night’s performances were delayed by a downpour, then dampened by a constant drizzle that fed the huge puddles that developed around the audience’s feet. Nevertheless, Del McCoury convened the first annual session of the “Bluegrass Congress”, and one by one he invited such figures as David Grisman, Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton and Stuart Duncan to sit with the McCoury Band and share the vocal mic with himself. No one relied on gerrymandering to get into this legislature; it was a meritocracy.
There was more rain on Sunday afternoon, but the precipitation stopped for the last sets of the McCoury Band and Old Crow. But a mountain mist crept in and crept along the Potomac. From the stage, Del could gaze out over the river valley to the west, watch the setting sun tinge the mist pink between the green slopes, and hear a train pass. It was the perfect setup for the final set of songs, a journey through American music via a weather lament (“Rain and Snow”), a gang song (“Blackjack County Chains”), a killer ballad (“Eli Renfro”), a country classic (“Crying Heart Blues”), a gospel quartet (“Get Down on Your Knees and Pray”) and a railroad song (“Train Wreck of Emotion”). were the right songs sung by the right man at the right time.