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.