Since the pollen descended in early spring, Del McCoury’s allergies have scratched up his alert high tenor voice, recently forcing the bluegrass master to curtail appearances in North Carolina and Texas. But with quarts of honey and lemon in reserve, he’ll be stretching for every lead and harmony at his very own DelFest this Memorial Day weekend in Western Maryland (May 25th – 28th), where he’ll welcome stars such as Dierks Bentley, the Trey Anastasio Band, Chris Thile, Bela Fleck, Gov’t Mule, and Marty Stuart for one of the summer season’s biggest stops on the bluegrass, roots and jam-band circuit. It’s also something of a homecoming for McCoury, who came of age playing in the music-hungry clubs of nearby Baltimore.
The allergies crept up in April during a run of shows with mandolinist David Grisman, whom he met in bluegrass circles back in the early 1960s. “We started getting something at the same time,” explains McCoury. “The first night we were okay but the second night, we had to change keys and do a whole bunch of stuff.” Since then, the graduate of bluegrass father Bill Monroe’s band has tried to save himself for the demands of hosting his festival, which pulls back the curtains for the 10th time at the Allegheny County Fairgrounds on the banks of the Potomac River.
Before it’s all over, tens of thousands of fans will have unfolded lawn chairs to get a look at jam band Leftover Salmon performing Neil Young’s classic Harvest, Billy Strings uncorking his unholy guitar runs, the Gibson Brothers serving up their new bluegrass album In the Ground, and mandolinist Chris Thile down from Minnesota after tying up his first season hosting public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion. And who knows? With both Thile and Sara Watkins in the house, perhaps there could be two-thirds of a Nickel Creek reunion.
“The festival’s very laid back and takes on Del’s personality,” says Eric Gibson of the Gibson Brothers, on hand for his third DelFest. “I have images of him riding around on a golf cart and everybody just saying, ‘There’s Del! There’s Del!’ And he’s waving to them with his eyes barely open and that beautiful smile he has and that beautiful hair blowing in the wind.” Gibson hopes his bus won’t leave the fairgrounds before his hero Marty Stuart takes the stage and can’t wait to see mandolin phenomenon Sierra Hull, who makes one of her quieter stops after playing everywhere from the Grand Ole Opry to Carnegie Hall.
McCoury hit the stage for the first time in his twenties, checking off every bluegrass club in Baltimore, which he could easily get to from York County, Pennsylvania, his home in the early 1960s. It was the heyday of bluegrass and country in Baltimore when immigrants from the South poured into town for plentiful manufacturing jobs and yearned for the sounds that could carry their minds back home. Inevitably, says McCoury, the booze started flowing in those clubs as easily as the banjo licks and out came the fists, knives and guns. “I was playing the Stonewall Inn, and they had this oval bar and the bandstand was at one end of the oval. So, I heard something go, ‘Pop!’ It sounded like a pistol to me and I looked and I saw a guy duck behind the bar at the other end. This other guy, he was standing upright and when this guy would pop his head up, he’d shoot his pistol at him. He never did hit him. Those guys were nuts. We just stood there and played the whole time.”
Then one night in 1963, like a scene from a Hollywood musical, the great Bill Monroe walked in unannounced off the slick streets of Baltimore and hired McCoury to play banjo in the Bluegrass Boys. Soon, the young man would take guitar playing and lead vocal chores and enjoy a stage like no other. He only stayed a year with Monroe, but it was long enough to learn that even bluegrass kings lose their voice in the fickle birth of spring. One trip through the deep South, Monroe’s bass player Bessi Lee Mauldin informed McCoury that he’d have to take over lead vocal duties for the night. “So I sang some of the Bill Monroe songs that I knew, and when we came off the stage, I’m standing there close to Bill and he ain’t speaking because he can’t,” McCoury says. “And this gentleman walks out to me, and he stuck his hand out. He said, ‘Mr. Monroe, I want to congratulate you on your singing.’ And Bill’s standing right beside me. He thought the singer must be Bill Monroe. I felt like apologizing to Bill, but I figured there’s nothing I can say that’s going to help that situation.”
Ahead of his performances at DelFest, McCoury spoke to Rolling Stone Country, sharing memories of some of his 2017 headliners from over the years.
“The first time I met Dierks, I was playing Telluride and my fiddle player Jason Carter said, ‘Hey, I’m going to ride back to Nashville with Dierks.’ And I said, ‘Who’s that?’ He said, ‘I play with Dierks on Broadway a lot in Nashville.’ So I met Dierks, and he had a big old Dually truck and that’s what they were riding in. I think the cops stopped him in Arkansas and searched the truck because it was two young guys in a Dually truck. They figured these guys are probably smoking. But they were clean. They didn’t have any dope on them. Then Dierks and Jason wrote a song on the way home from Telluride. And when he did a record he recorded a song I wrote, and then he wanted me to help him record it in the studio, and that’s how I got more acquainted with him.”
“His band Phish recorded a song that I wrote. They put it on a live record. They called my booking agent or manager and wondered if I’d bring my band to come and play their festival in Oswego, New York. We went up and played and when we got there, Trey said, ‘What can we do together on stage, and I thought, ‘Oh…with this rock band, I don’t know what we can do together.’ He said, ‘Do you know ‘Blue and Lonesome’? [“I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome”]. And I thought, I wonder if he’s thinking about the same ‘Blue and Lonesome’ that I’m thinking about. I don’t think a rock band would do that song. I said, ‘Are you talking about the one that Bill Monroe and Hank Williams wrote?’ ‘Yeah, that’s the one.’ And I thought, ‘This guy knows hardcore bluegrass if he knows that song.’ So we went out there and sang it and he knew the whole thing. That’s how I acquainted with Trey. He’s a great guy.”
“What is his name, Warren Haynes? Well, we played a show with them along with a band from Florida, I can’t remember the name. So we went out there and played that show with him and we did some songs. Right after that, my booking agent booked him at DelFest, this is one of the first or second years. So he played it. He came and he did acoustic. I must have gone out there and sung something with him. I got acquainted with his dad and his dad was a big bluegrass fan and he knew Red Smiley and Don Reno and those guys who came from around Asheville, North Carolina, so we had a lot to talk about. His dad’s more my age. Warren’s a lot younger than me.”
“I tell you the first time I saw Chris. Me and David Grisman were playing at Grass Valley in California, and I was sitting talking to somebody and David comes over and says, ‘I want you to come over here and listen to this little guy play the mandolin. I said, ‘Not another mandolin.’ But he talked me into it and I went over there and this little kid was there with a bunch of other little kids playing, and David said, ‘Now Chris, I’m going to play you this run.’ So he played a big long run on his mandolin and then Chris studied for a minute and he played that whole thing. He remembered it just by watching David play that long run and he was only about nine playing that mandolin. You wouldn’t believe how that kid was playing.”
“Marty had his own TV show here in Nashville, and I played it maybe three or four times. Me and Marty did the guitar and the mandolin and did gospel numbers, duets. I’ve known Marty since he joined Lester Flatt. He was just a boy then. He was just a little guy. We’ve been great friends ever since, and we’ll play music together when we play a date.”