“My wife says, ‘You should get in the studio and record,'” says Del McCoury with a laugh, “‘You’re going to run out of time one of these days.'”
It’s the week before DelFest — McCoury’s eighth annual Memorial Day festival set for this weekend in Cumberland, Maryland — but the bluegrass legend sounds as relaxed as if he’s on an extended vacation. Clearly he’s as undaunted joking about his own mortality as he is about the idea of spending the holiday weekend performing in likely sweltering heat and humidity before capacity crowds on a stage just a stone’s throw from West Virginia.
“I never did mind the road,” says McCoury, who turned 76 in February. “The first time I knew about homesickness was when I was married and moved to California and my wife had never been away from home. I’d look at her and think, ‘What is wrong with that girl?’ And then I realized she was homesick. That’s why we only stayed out there six months. The road never did bother me. There’s just a certain routine that I’m used to.”
While many other musicians of his generation grouse about travel and the rigors of touring, McCoury — who is on the road full-time — always seems genuinely pleased to meet his fans. No paid meet-and-greets for McCoury, who is often in the DelFest crowd, chatting and posing for pictures.
“We want this to stay family-friendly,” says Ronnie McCoury, who joins his brother Robbie and other performers as instructors at the multi-day DelFest Academy the week prior to the festival. “We are guests in the town and we want to make sure everyone has a good experience.”
And family-friendly is just the McCoury way. Consider that in the early morning hours, after the late shows end, Del McCoury rides through the camping areas in a golf cart, making sure the festivalgoers are settled in. Newcomers to the festival, which is not solely bluegrass, are surprised that the headliner is so accessible.
It’s easy to hear McCoury squirm as he confirms his in-demand status and an abbreviated list of high-profile shout-outs, like Bruce Springsteen waving off McCoury’s introduction: “Hey, you don’t need to tell me who you are,” he said. “I’m a fan.” Or the time Dierks Bentley told an arena audience that he came close to abandoning music but continued thanks to Del’s inspiration. Even Phish’s Jon Fishman has said he first read about Del in a Rolling Stone article, in which Jerry Garcia was quoted as saying, “I’ve just been trying to sing like Del McCoury all my life.”
Nora Guthrie, daughter of iconic folksinger Woody Guthrie, is among the latest to publicly show her faith in McCoury. When she unearthed a treasure trove of unfinished Woody Guthrie songs, she asked the musician if he’d complete them.