Written by Carly Shields.
Del McCoury is a man with a past. He’s a man with a family, a career, a lucrative talent, a great head of hair. He’s like a lot of men in those ways, and he reflects on his 80 years with the pride of a thousand men. He looks toward his future as well, and counts every blessing he’s been given along the way, including that of DelFest, his annual festival at the Alleghany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, MD. Each Memorial Day weekend for the past 12 years, pickin’ fans have gathered at the base of a ginormous rock wall on the banks of the Potomac River for a four day celebration of roots music laced with improvisational and progressive talent who all pay homage to Del. The legendary guitarist, who started as a teen with the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, can be found not only during his own sets and his live audience-request soundcheck, but also sitting in with his famed contemporaries, his stunning successors, and his immediate and extended family who have found the skills of their patriarch in music, collaboration, festival planning, and more. The Jamwich had the opportunity to speak with Del on all things DelFest:
The Jamwich (JW): So how did you come to pick the Alleghany County Fairgrounds for DelFest?
Del McCoury (DM): In the beginning, my manager asked if we ever wanted to have a festival, and of course I did but I didn’t want the full responsibility, and our partner came up, Roy Carter who was from High Sierra, said he would take over the majority of booking and producing. We trusted him so he came to the east coast and looking for a site, we had a bunch lined up in New England and Pennsylvania, but the very first place we visited, Cumberland, MD- the minute we walked through those fields I thought this was perfect. I said as far as I was concerned, we didn’t have to go anywhere else. ‘Course there’s a lot of politics when you move in to a place like this, a lot of the good ol’ boys up there in their offices. Initially they said they would help out making this happen and getting all the approvals but they didn’t and you know what? The young people voted those folks out, honestly, and now we have just about everybody on our side. Even the firemen and people who own the property and everyone in the community, they’re all for it. We feel really welcome now.
JW: How long into the festival did it take for the community to accept it?
DM: It was just a little bit at a time, but we finally got it all smoothed out thanks to Stan, my manager. He’s pretty diplomatic, I felt bad for him at times because he took a lot of heat, but he did a good job with everyone. I was really needed to tell the community we wanted to help, give back to the community. I went in there and had the easy part after Stan did all the hard work.
JW: Tell me some of the ways you get involved in the community.
DM: Oh jeez, I don’t even know all the ways anymore… we raise money for kids lunches, I forget how much money we give every year but we donate a lot because we can afford it now, and we‘re more than happy to do it.
JW: Back in 2007 when you started this, did you know you would be able to give so much? Could you have ever expected it to grow the way it has?
DM: No, you know, in a way for me it was like a trial thing, we were gonna take it a year at a time. From the first year, we were prepared to lose money, but we broke even and from that time on, it grew every year. That gave us a little boost and we were really ready to do it. My daughter in law [Lisa McCoury] took up running the academy- they teach all the bluegrass instruments. She has a waitlist of students that are trying to get in every year because students from last year all want to go again. Sometimes she’ll have 3 different musicians teaching the same instruments to get all the student in. It’s really a big thing, and helps us grow because the young people want to bring their friends.
JW: Speaking of the young people, I notice every year the line-up has a great variety of music catering to such a range of ages. What ways do you help with the line up?
DM: Well, Roy really knows what sells and what’s gonna be good and Ronnie keeps his eye on the new stuff and knows who’s up and coming, and I generally agree with who they wanna bring on. We try to have bluegrass, but we also try to have other types of music too so the fans have a variety of stuff to watch. We have 3 different stages with lots going on at once so we have a variety of things to listen to at any given time. A lot of these folks I’ve played with on stage and even recorded with them so it’s really great to join them on stage.
JW: Do you have any advice to first-timers coming to DelFest this year?
DM: Well for musicians, if they’re trying to get started playing, get with other musicians instead of playing by yourself too much. Keep playing with better musicians, keep your timing straight, with a group of 5 the timing will be good, but if you linger too long playing by yourself, you’ll lose that reliable timing you get with a group. Once you get all that and you’re in a band, just be yourself. There’s a lot of people you can copy and you do in the beginning and that’s fine, but at some point when you’re young, decide what you wanna do and do it well, and that’s when your own personality comes out. As for fans, they can’t expect anything. You never know whos gonna be playing with who as far as bands getting together.
Though it isn’t noted in this transcript, Del was giggling and going on tangents just about all the way through this enlightening conversation. He has so much to share from such a life rich with experiences- from his first show with his sons who became The Travelin’ McCoury’s, who now headline the festival every year, to his set with the Bluegrass Congress in 2018 with some his best friends and favorite musicians. This is one of many joys of DelFest, nevermind seeing him driving around his Cadillac, or golf cart, or ripping acoustic guitar from stage to stage, with his great big smile and vibrant, thick white hair bouncing off the mountainside. The secret of Maryland that’s come to be known by Deltopian’s as the Red Rocks of the East holds one of the summer’s best line-ups every year, this year headlined by (besides Del and his sons) The String Cheese Incident, Trampled by Turtles, Tyler Childers, Railroad Earth, Sam Bush, I’m With Her, and more. Single day and full weekend passes are still available. Visit their website for more info.