DelFest 2019: 10 Best Things We Saw at Del McCoury’s String Music Jam
Leaning back in a folding chair, singer-guitarist Bill Nershi sips on a cup of lemonade and finds a little bit of shade in the hot Appalachian sun. It’s day two of DelFest at the Alleghany County Fairgrounds in the rural panhandle of Maryland, and his band the String Cheese Incident is headlining that evening.
“There’s a big bluegrass component in the String Cheese Incident, and I’ve been a big Del McCoury fan for many, many years,” Nershi tells Rolling Stone Country. “The biggest thing that stands out to me about Del is how to be a front man, how to engage the audience. He’s got such a beautiful way of bringing the audience in, making them feel like he’s playing to every single one of them in the crowd.”
Named after McCoury himself, DelFest did more than celebrate its 12th anniversary this year. It also marked the 80th birthday of the iconic bluegrass singer-guitarist, who still travels the planet radiating that “high, lonesome sound” with his trademark tenor voice.
“Since Del was friends with [David Grisman] and [Jerry] Garcia, he’s not in a little bubble. He gets that there’s a lot of stuff out there beyond bluegrass music, and he’s always tried to incorporate those songs into his show,” Nershi says. “That, in turn, brings people that don’t necessarily listen to bluegrass into the bluegrass world. And the fact he’d play shows with the String Cheese Incident and Phish — he’s a broadminded guy.”
First coming to prominence as a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1963, McCoury, the nine-time International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Entertainer of the Year, is a pillar of American music — a living bridge between the long-gone originators of bluegrass (Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers) and the perpetuation of the genre in the 21st century.
“I think you have to be a certain age for something to really impress you. And when I first heard [banjoist] Earl Scruggs [as a kid], I wanted to know what that sound was,” McCoury says. “[Bluegrass] has stuck with me through the years. It always excites me, and sometimes I get tears in my eyes when I hear something really good onstage. And I think you have to have that in order to stay with it, you know? It’s something that caught my ear early — and I never forgot it.”
Here are the 10 best things we saw at McCoury’s annual string-music festival.
In the intense Southern heat on Friday afternoon, the guitar firestorm that is Billy Strings delivered a spellbinding set. The dust swirled out of the audience during the nine-minute melodic chaos that is “Meet Me at the Creek,” which then fell into “Dust in a Baggie.” “Aside from the musical inspiration, what I’ve learned from Del is just kindness,” says Strings, one of the true future stars of the genre. “He and his sons [Ronnie and Rob] have been so welcoming and kind to everybody, and that inspires me.”
The three-time reigning IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year, Hull has come into her own in recent years. A lifelong bluegrass player, the 27-year-old has seamlessly slid into her role as one of the faces representing the future of the genre. Joined by her multi-instrumentalist husband, Justin Moses, the couple fluttered around each other with dueling mandolins, leaving the listener hanging on every single fluctuating note. “[Del McCoury’s] influenced two generations of musicians before me, and now is influencing the generation coming after me,” she says of the festival’s host. “I can’t imagine what bluegrass music would be like without him.”
Yonder Mountain String Band
Yonder Mountain String Band’s 1:00 a.m. Saturday slot was a “who’s who” within the acoustic music scene. Early in the set, Lindsay Lou appeared for a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Busting into “Traffic Jam,” the group was joined by Larry Keel (guitar), Sierra Hull (mandolin), Jared Pool (mandolin), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), Jason Carter (fiddle) and Alan Bartram (bass). Yonder’s mando phenom Jacob Joliff then found himself in the middle of Bill Monroe’s “Kentucky Mandolin,” trading licks with Hull, McCoury and Pool. Launching into a hilarious yet intricate version of Ween’s “Piss Up a Rope,” Yonder finished its set with renditions of “Fade to Black” (Metallica) and “Shakedown Street” (Grateful Dead).
Larry Keel Experience
Storming onto the late-night Music Hall stage at 2:15 a.m. Saturday, Keel, adorned in a gold sequin dress coat, had a sinister look in his eye. Alongside his wife, standup bassist Jenny Keel, and mandolinist Jared Pool, the guitar master ripped through an acoustic whirlwind for over an hour. During a blazing rendition of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post,” Keel proved once again why he’s one of the finest flatpickers around.
The String Cheese Incident
For a former road dog act that seldom tours anymore, the String Cheese Incident showed no rust during its two highly-anticipated sets Friday evening. Recently celebrating 25 years together, SCI radiated its unique blend of three distinct worlds of music — bluegrass, rock and EDM. Fusing acoustic stylings with electric instruments, and layering that with all sorts of percussive elements (at the hands of Jason Hann), the sextet welcomed the Del McCoury Band during the first set for an ode to Hank Williams with “I Saw the Light.” Halfway through the second set, Billy Strings waltzed onstage for the rollicking “Black Clouds.”
Making his way around the festival circuit as a much-anticipated headliner this spring and summer, Childers remains a force to be reckoned with. A wrecking ball combination of incredibly perceptive songwriting backed by a world-class honky-tonk country band, the ensemble tore through Childers faves like “Whitehouse Road” and “Feathered Indians,” both of which have become bona fide anthems up and down the Appalachian Mountains. A true sense of place — of struggle, addiction, poverty and those left behind — reverberated through the massive crowd during a singalong of “Charleston Girl,” the mountains of West Virginia cradling the fairgrounds just over the North Branch Potomac River.
Del McCoury Band/Travelin’ McCourys
It was late Saturday evening when Del McCoury stepped out in front of an electric crowd of 10,000-plus, who promptly sang him “Happy Birthday.” Though the iconic Del McCoury Band performed throughout the weekend, it was the Travelin’ McCourys set within the birthday celebration that truly emphasized the importance of Del and his legacy on American music. Taking a seat in the shadows of the side stage, McCoury, with a grin ear-to-ear, watched his sons (and grandson, Heaven McCoury) proudly take the reins. It was a sentiment of generational transition, of deep purpose and respect, that was especially felt during “Brown Eyed Women” (Grateful Dead), the melody echoing throughout the fairgrounds right as a rainstorm passed through, “Sound of the thunder with the rain pouring down/And it looks like the old man’s getting on.”
I’m With Her
As slight raindrops fell onto the main stage Saturday afternoon, the acoustic power trio brought forth its unique brand of old-time mountain music with a modern twist. The magic of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan resides in the seamless way they’re able to tap into the essence of folk music — making a new song sound 100 years old and timeless, and vice versa. The haunting ancient tones and harmonies expose the centuries of musicians that paved the way for the survival of this music. And I’m With Her adds in a truly contemporary feel, one that harkens to the lighting-in-a-bottle vocal blends of Crosby, Stills & Nash or Dixie Chicks.
The Nashville songbird and her impressive Americana/indie-rock group eased into Saturday afternoon with Ronnie McCoury hopping up for a John Prine tune (“Pretty Good”) to open the set, and then transitioned into Blaze Foley’s “Oval Room,” a poignant melody from 1984 that still resonates deeply in this day and age: “He’s the president, but I don’t care/He’s a business man, he got business ties/He got dollar signs in both his eyes.” The sheer beauty of Lou’s performance resides in her magnetic presence onstage, something amplified into the ether amid her status as a rapidly rising songwriter in an electric band.
The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys
With its recognition last year by the IBMA as the Emerging Artist of the Year, East Tennessee’s own Po’ Ramblin’ Boys excel in fast-driving bluegrass pickin’ nurtured by three-part harmonies. Taking the Potomac Stage early Sunday afternoon, this quartet isn’t playing “bluegrass house.” Rather, it’s holding onto that traditional Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs sound, but never once coming across as a nostalgia act. Halfway through the set, mandolin maestro Frank Solivan joined the quartet for Lead Belly’s “Take This Hammer.” It’s the real deal, and it’s damn good — the kind of bluegrass that throws a little rocket fuel onto the next generation of this fiery mountain music.