Bluegrass legend Del McCoury performs with his band during DelFest 2022 held over Memorial Day weekend at the Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland. (Photo by Casey Vock)
How much vibrancy can one artist bring to their music? And how big of a community can one individual cultivate around that music?
If DelFest 2022 was any indication, bluegrass legend Del McCoury — at the ripe age of 83 years old — has done as much if not more for his craft than any of the fine musicians who came before him and made this particular breed of roots music their life’s work.
Hosting what was the 14th edition of the annual music festival on Memorial Day weekend at the Allegany Fairgrounds way out in Cumberland, Maryland, Del and his family picked the strings on stage and pulled them behind the scenes in bringing to fruition a magnificent, curative four days of live music held in a picturesque setting.
Thousands of people, including full families galore, began making their way onto the fairgrounds property starting the morning of May 27 for the beginning of the first DelFest held since 2019, a hiatus that enhanced an already-insatiable bluegrass appetite in the many regulars who have made this their destination the same holiday weekend each year.
“This is where I’ll be every Memorial Day Weekend for the rest of my life,” one attendee said to a good buddy as they moseyed into the Grandstand Stage area just as things were kicking off on Day One with an invigorative soundcheck set by the DelFest hosts themselves, The Del McCoury Band.
Produced in association with High Sierra Music, DelFest was founded on the vision of a family-friendly festival where some of the most respected artists can collaborate and where bright, up-and-coming acts can take the stage to be discovered by an informed, encouraging audience. And this year’s gala seemed to pick right up where it left off as a crucial and potentially career-boosting destination for not just bluegrass bands but a diverse lineup that speaks to the inclusive and progressive musical mindset of the McCoury family.
“It’s been a long time,” Del said to an already large audience the opening afternoon, and if any attendee wasn’t close enough to observe it with their own eyes, they could see on either of two large monitors the look of elation on not only Del’s face but everyone in the group. He commented on some of the major changes brought on by the last few years, pointing out the addition of a staff doctor on site.
“Well, we came back didn’t we?” he said with a glow. “It’s good to see you all out there. This is the biggest Thursday that we’ve had. … I’m just so proud.”
Consisting of Del, his son Ronnie on mandolin, his son Rob on banjo, fiddler Jason Carter and bass player Alan Bartram, the Del McCoury Band came to be in the 1980s when Del began playing with his two lads—first with Ronnie and then about six years later, Rob joined them. With only a couple personnel changes over the years—Carter joined in the early 90s—The Del McCoury Band has been honed into one of the most respected bluegrass outfits of all time. Distinguished by Del’s miraculous piping voice, the group’s collective sound is definitive to the genre, and now it’s one that has helped inspire experimentation and creativity within it and crossover with other styles of music.
Stream The Del McCoury Band’s newest album, Almost Proud, via Spotify:
Empowered by the jaw-dropping talent of each member, the band’s sound rang with a glorious immortality and a skyward trajectory up to the clouds as those on the grounds enjoyed the music as well as the breathtaking views of the surrounding Ridge and Valley province of the Appalachian Mountains. The casual nature of the opening performance established a relaxed, oftentimes spontaneous tone as Del joked and cackled in between every song, his wife Jean watching on from stage side left with a warm look of approval, his sons grinning and sometimes shaking their heads and laughing along with him.
“People ask us ‘how do you know what you’re going to do up there?’ And I say ‘we don’t! We just get up there.’”
The crowd roared at his every quip. “I love him,” declared women, men, everyone, all weekend long. “DEL YEAH,” the ingenious exclamative slogan created by his following, was shouted all weekend long and it was even printed on some of the custom-made merchandise being sold by vendors lined up in a curve inside the racetrack known as The Greater Cumberland Raceway.
Ronnie, Rob and Jason, all world-class musicians who’ve only gotten better with age, have each been honored by the IBMA as the most outstanding player of their respective instruments—Ronnie and Jason numerous times. And Bartram, who joined the group back in 2005 and in 2017 was honored as the IBMA bassist of the year, has become just as respected and an equally beloved member of the Del McCoury Band, but also the Travelin’ McCourys—the group that formed in 2009 and includes the masterful Cody Kilby on guitar.
And though he wasn’t on stage for the opening soundcheck, Del’s grandson and Ronnie’s son Heaven has also become a regular contributor to both The Del McCoury Band and The Travelin’ McCourys. Del, reminding everyone that the set was simply a casual start to the whole affair, hinted that his grandson, along with a long list of notable guests, would be joining them throughout the course of the four days.
Stream The Travelin’ McCourys’ 2020 Randy Scruggs cover, “Passing Through,” via Spotify:
And what a four days it was, as some 68 different performances took place across the three stages on site, and fans used the DelFest app the whole time to navigate to as many of those as possible. All the while, the event’s longtime emcee, Joe Craven, was marvelously poetic in his gorgeous, thoughtfully crafted introductions for each of the acts to take the main stage. He would blow minds with his kaleidoscopic outfits, his eyes wide and intense as he delivered his words—which were indeed deliberate.
“We want everyone here to feel comfortable,” Craven told the crowd, and he filled newcomers in on what has become the customary DelFest greeting, a playful bump of the arm joint appropriately called a “Delbow.”
Artists from all over the continent and some from overseas came and went all weekend long, and those musicians themselves were clearly thriving in the communal atmosphere. They’d interact with fans as they made their way to the different stages, and they’d greet their fellow musicians backstage, posing for photos with one another and celebrating the opportunity to play live music on a holiday weekend commemorating the Americans who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.
Check out the DelFest 2022 lineup video via the event’s official YouTube channel:
Among the musicians on site were attendees of this year’s DelFest Academy, an educational and immersive bluegrass experience that features instruction and workshops led by members of The Del McCoury Band and The Travelin’ McCourys as well as a rotating cast of special guest musician instructors who ultimately take the stage during the festival. The participants work in teams and the camp culminates with each of those groups writing its own song together, which the members perform in front of the staff as part of a competition. An annual tradition at DelFest, this year’s winning group took the stage immediately after the Del sound check to perform their original song, a special moment for friends and family on hand.
Once the event was in full swing, the Grandstand Stage would host an impressive, ranging assortment of widely-adored artists, highlighted on the opening night by Anders Osborne & Jackie Greene, followed with an endearing set by veteran songwriter and roots entertainer Robert Earl Keen. But that wasn’t the end of it—each evening featured a pair of late-night performers taking stage inside the DelFest Music Hall, and the exhibit space was packed at the stroke of midnight with fans who partied and grooved into the twilight hours.
For anyone who wore themselves out and needed a jump come Friday morning, a healthily stocked and colorful Bloody Mary bar inside the DelFest Music Hall ignited the festivities and bands were jamming by as early as 10:30 a.m. For those seeking active options, yoga sessions—including vinyasa and slo-flo—were scheduled throughout the weekend and drum circle sessions led by Rhythmetrix turned into thunderous, rousing displays that drew crowds.
Friday culminated with a series of unforgettable shows on the main stage, including the Jerry Douglas Band and Bela Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart, featuring an incredible amalgamation of instrumentalists, including the red-hot and inspirational fiddler Michael Cleveland of Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper. It was exactly the culture of collaboration the McCourys hope to foster each year: any artist could decide on a whim to invite a guest appearance from a musician friend they saw standing to either side of the stage, and it was a who’s-who of bluegrass stars all festival long.
A full-blown Friday night set by the Del McCoury Band—dressed in suits and all business for this one—saw the field filling out even as rain fell and many who couldn’t be there Thursday were finally taking position on the wet grassy field. Shortly after, Leftover Salmon, the enduring progressive bluegrass unit formed back in 1989, closed out the first full day of music at DelFest 2022 in celebratory fashion.
Though Friday had brought enough rainfall that it turned the ground to mud by Saturday morning, people embraced getting their feet dirty as they shimmied and shook, bopped and skipped all day and night to another unthinkable slate of performances.
Watchhouse, Sierra Hull, Railroad Earth, The California Honeydrops—unquestionably a DelFest standout—and then The Travelin’ McCourys each delivered unforgettable sets from the big stage as the audience grew larger and more enthusiastic. In a wild showcase of the otherworldly mandolinists on hand, Ronnie invited a whole pack of them out for The Travelin’ McCourys Saturday night finale, including Sierra Hull, Lauren Price of The Price Sisters, Frank Sollivan and Jacob Joliff.
Watch Sierra Hull live at Paste Studio on the Road appearance, one of several filmed at this year’s DelFest, via the official Paste Magazine YouTube channel:
Numerous DelFest fundraisers ran concurrent to the music, as the McCoury family is supporters of a variety of different causes, including a food drive to benefit the Western Maryland Food Bank and a benefit to support the Ronald McDonald House led by Ronnie’s wife, Allison Bliss.
And while the McCourys are working to make a positive impact far beyond the stage, they were praised all weekend long for what they do on it. After one of Sunday’s most stirring performances courtesy of Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway, the great Sam Bush took the stage for a solo performance and throughout it heaped praise on the McCourys and Del specifically.
Del, as many know, cut his teeth as a guitarist for Bill Monroe. And though Monroe is often referred to as “The Father of Bluegrass,” Bush seemed to be championing a different moniker for the eldest McCoury.
“If there’s a King of Bluegrass, his name’s Del!” Bush exclaimed to the audience after inviting Del out for one of the many drop-ins he made at the festival. Bush would repeat the phrase numerous times when making his own guest appearances, and as the sun would set and Del’s face or the “DEL YEAH” slogan was projected up onto the ridge just across the North Branch of the Potomac, Sam’s comments seemed only more appropriate as DelFest took the form of a community built around a wondrous and inspirative form of music that can find its imprint on so much of the styles we call modern today.
Taking in and dancing to as much of it as possible at the Allegany Fairgrounds, it became clear that this festival has in its existence intentionally introduced many attendees every year to not only carefully-selected up-and-coming bluegrass musicians, but others just a few degrees away—this year, artists like The Ghost of Paul Revere, Cabinet and Twisted Pine, and even some of our leading local musicians, like Cris Jacobs, and burgeoning area acts like The 19th Street Band and The Dirty Grass Players.
Following an energizing and rewarding Sunday sunset performance by The Del McCoury Band, Tyler Childers took the stage with support from The Travelin’ McCourys to deliver an enthralling, provocative sampling of his blue-collar, neotraditional country sound that has helped him stand alone as one of the most admirable artists alive. Having teamed up with the Travelin’ McCourys in 2020 to release “House Fire” as part of a Spotify Singles project, Childers familiarity with this seasoned pack of players foreshadowed what would be the treat of the festival.
Stream “House of Fire,” the 2020 Spotify Singles collaboration by Tyler Childers and The Travelin’ McCourys, via Spotify:
With the audience visibly swelled to its largest expanse of the weekend, Childers’ cut-open voice and the truthfulness in his lyrics raised the hair on the arms of everyone on hand as he covered tremendous emotional terrain with one of the weekend’s most convincing and fetching sets. After starting off with a blistering take on “House Fire,” a howling, pluck-centric edition of “Percheron Mules” fired up the audience just before another gift: a compelling cover of Bob Weir’s “Greatest Story Ever Told.”
It was natural common ground, as The Travelin’ McCourys have shown a penchant and a love for compositions by the Grateful Dead and its members—and this DelFest rendition even drew praise afterward from Weir himself. But of course, the set would see an anticipated appearance from the man of the weekend, Del, before Childers performed a series of solo tracks.
“This whole thing’s awesome,” Childers told the crowd. “It’s made my week.”
As the McCourys returned to the stage and Childers really began loosening up, humorously providing insight into the days he’d had leading up the show—a wasp sting, a brush with poison oak—his demeanor revealed a deep appreciation for the chance to play his music alongside one of the most respected families in all of music.
“It’s been fun to play these songs in a bluegrass settin’,” he said with a nod, and the boisterous audience screamed with everything it had.
Though Childers would quietly make his way off the stage to mark the end of the music on the Grandstand Stage, The Travelin’ McCourys kept it going in the DelFest Music Hall with a late-night illusory offering that lasted from 2 a.m. until nearly 4—a remarkable display of endurance and imagination by this professional posse of tight-knit players.
When sunlight broke Monday morning, and stages were already mostly disassembled, most campers were in no rush to say goodbye. Some were sound asleep and hadn’t even thought about breaking down while others mingled and enjoyed coffee and the conversation, and some took to the nearby waters of the Potomac for rafting, swimming or just floating in the sunshine.
But no matter who you asked, the sentiment was similar: DelFest doesn’t just achieve what the McCourys set out to do with it in 2008. Rather, it’s raised the bar for what a weekend of music with family and friends can be—like something from a dream.
Here are images of various performances at the 14th DelFest held at the Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland from May 27 to May 30, 2022. All images copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.
The Del McCoury Band Soundcheck
Festival Emcee Joe Craven
Anders Osborne & Jackie Greene Friday Night Set
Robert Earl Keen Friday Night Set
Bela Fleck Friday Set
Leftover Salmon Friday Night Set
Railroad Earth Saturday Evening Set
The Travelin’ McCourys Saturday Night Set
Tyler Childers with the Travelin’ McCourys Sunday Night Set