Home Live Review Live Review: DelFest 2024 @ Allegany County Fairgrounds — 5/23-5/26/24

Live Review: DelFest 2024 @ Allegany County Fairgrounds — 5/23-5/26/24

Live Review: DelFest 2024 @ Allegany County Fairgrounds — 5/23-5/26/24
Bluegrass legend Del McCoury performs with The Del MCoury Band at this year's DelFest at the Allegany County Fairgrounds. (Photo by Casey Ryan Vock)

Not all festivals can thrive, but few were founded for the very sake of uniting and nurturing an entire community of devoted musicians and their enthusiastic followers.

This year’s Memorial Day weekend brought yet another unforgettable edition of DelFest as more than 25,000 revelers made their way to the Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland, to enjoy live music, amusement, and gorgeous scenery over the course of four days along the North Branch of the Potomac River.

Arguably the most influential of all bluegrass festivals, DelFest continued to set itself apart with what was billed as the 16th go-round of the gathering named after a living legend — bluegrass hero Del McCoury — and now hosted by his esteemed family in association with High Sierra Events.

Exceeding the expectations of a loaded schedule that ran from May 23 into the wee hours of May 27, DelFest 2024 featured a slew of fantastic performances by a list of acclaimed headliners as well as non-stop cameos that showcased the world-class musicianship of so many of the weekend’s artists.

None might have been more impressive than the diligent members of The Del McCoury Band and its offshoot the Travelin’ McCourys, who showed stamina and dexterity — and brought excitement in dropping in on sets and making every day an unpredictable adventure across the three different stages.

The Del McCoury Band, as it does each year, opened the event with a casual Thursday soundcheck set. Del and his accomplished and trusty crew kicked off the night with a spontaneous set of songs, honoring plentiful requests shouted from the happy-hour crowd.

A National Heritage Fellowship recipient, a Grammy winner and a member of the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame, Del was joined by his sons — Ronnie on mandolin, Rob on banjo — along with Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bartram on the upright bass.

Called the “King of Bluegrass” today by close pals in the industry, Del is famously known to have toured with the genre’s creator, Bill Monroe, as a member of his Blue Grass Boys in the early 1960s.

DelFest 2024 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

The Del McCoury Band performs at DelFest 2024. (Photo by Casey Ryan Vock)

But the group he’s fronted since the late ’80s has blossomed continually and its players are now some of the most respected in all the land.

Each member has been honored by the International Bluegrass Music Association for his play: Ronnie has been named IMBA Mandolin Player of the Year eight times, Carter has earned Fiddle Player of the Year honors six times, including last year, and both Rob and Bartram have each won their respective award once.

And the next generation, two of Del’s grandchildren, were just behind them playing guitars on stage for much of the weekend: Ronnie’s son Heaven and his and Rob’s nephew Jacob Van Buer; they’re cousins who additionally play as a duo.

Outfitted in vacation attire for the opening set, it wasn’t long before Del was sharing tales of rock ‘n roll stars like Jerry Lee Lewis and going back and forth with DelFest regulars he’s gotten to know over the years. The calls for “Baltimore Johnny” — Ronnie’s ode to Charm City fiddler Jon Glik — were loud and clear, and it was one of the first songs the band played.

Listen to The Del McCoury Band’s most recent studio album, 2022’s Almost Proud, via Spotify:

Thursday night went on to feature a cast of tastemakers, as the Grandstand Stage gained steam with performances first by East Nash Grass, then by progressive bluegrass veterans Yonder Mountain String Band and finally Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country.

“I wish you could see the view that we have,” said Yonder bassist Ben Kaufmann just as the sun was setting. “You all look amazing.”

Already a DelFest favorite, Yonder’s set was taken up a notch as Ronnie and Rob McCoury and Carter were invited up to complement several tunes, including a thrilling take on the Allman Brothers Band classic “Whipping Post.”

Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country, one of the event’s most anticipated acts, invigorated the growing crowd with kaleidoscopic sounds and eye-popping guitar skills as Donato and his mates lit up the Music Meadow.

While so many of the musicians dazzled attendees at the fairgrounds, Del — at 85 years old — defied logic. Paying visits all weekend, he took the stage with vigor and exuberance for what will live on as some of the most epic sit-ins in the event’s colorful history.

Del joined Ronnie, Rob and Carter on stage with Donato, and together they put a marvelous cap on the first night, serving up a blazing take on the classic “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” (popularized by Flatt & Scruggs) and then a stunning rendition of “Banks of the Ohio,” a murder ballad from the 1900s.

Clearly enlivened by the young guitarist’s breakneck speed and tenacity, the elder McCoury gleamed and even let out hoots as he admired Donato in action.

Listen to Daniel Donato’s latest album, Reflector, via Spotify:

A growing tradition and a terrific cure for those who craved late-evening festival performances, this year’s must-see DelFest afterhours shows completed each day and established new bar for the weekend with an unthinkable amount of live music.

It was Baltimore’s own Dirty Grass Players to first take the stage for these hot-ticket performances that transpire each year in the Music Hall. John Craigie, the heralded singer-songwriter from LA and now based in Portland, played into the early morning only to rally his troops the next day for another wonderful set on the Grandstand Stage.

Friday brought unforgettable moments across the fairgrounds, highlighted by the McCoury Family Jam in the Music Hall. There, Del warmly invited his brother and seasoned bass player Jerry to the stage to perform an intimate batch of tunes alongside his sons and his grandsons, too.

Other Day Two highlights included a late afternoon set by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives and another set by The Del McCoury Band, with a guest appearance by Stuart. A monstrous two-set shindig hosted by Greensky Bluegrass saw the Michigan-based posse invite Ronnie to help with “Burn Them” and then both he and Del joined in on “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”

Listen to the new EP from Greensky Bluegrass (with Holly Bowling), The Iceland Sessions, via Spotify:

The event’s head-turning itinerary was augmented by near-perfect weather, as most sets were blessed with bright sunshine and only a couple were impacted by the few dark storms that blew over the area.

Each day, concert goers — most of whom camped on site in tents or RVs — grabbed their favorite inflatable tube and marched to the river to enjoy the rite of passage that has become floating down the Potomac. Families connected their tubes or climbed onto multi-person floats to keep groups together, while friends popped cold beverages or puffed whatever they had and let the current take them.

All the while, the sounds from the Grandstand Stage bounced off the colossal rocks on the West Virginia side of the river and echoed down below, where it could be heard by folks soaking the rays atop blow-up unicorns, dragons or pink flamingos.

Artists, too, took their turns strolling to the Potomac’s edge, where the tree coverage and rolling water provided a picturesque setting to record clips for the ongoing DelFest “Riverside Sessions” video series.

When artists took to the main stage, they were customarily flattered by the event’s longtime emcee and a close friend of the McCoury family, Joe Craven.

Craven, who appeared on some of the most celebrated progressive bluegrass albums of all time, told the audience just how much he appreciated the chance to be back at the fairgrounds.

“The McCoury family is the best boss I could ever ask for, and I feel really honored to be working for them,” he put it simply for the audience.

But Craven’s eloquent words about the performers have helped define the culture of the event: he thoughtfully drafts each introduction, and his impassioned delivery helps onlookers understand and appreciate how these players made their way to DelFest.

On Saturday, Craven was moved to introduce a particular artist, and one close to an old friend: David Grisman’s son Sam.

“… One of my favorite places to celebrate one of my favorite people, Mr. Del McCoury, and to play some of my favorite music with some of my favorite friends,” said the upright bass player.

He brought his Sam Grisman Project to the big stage after packing the Potomac Stage a day earlier, performing songs that his father recorded with Jerry, and others that they never got to — but, he imagined, “they would have gotten there, and it would have been great.”

He was accompanied by regarded instrumentalists, including fiddler John Mailander. And he brought up second fiddling expert, Daryl Anger, who performed two sets as Mr. Sun and made numerous guest appearances.

DelFest has always been a treasure trove of acts both established and on the rise, and Saturday featured a wide range of options, including sets by Irish quartet JigJam, Big Richard out of Colorado, and Mountain Grass Unit from Alabama.

Fans got a kick out of the Larry Keel Experience on the Potomac Stage, while Shinyribs — a sprawling “swamp funk/Southern soul” squad from Austin — paid a Memorial Day tribute by way of a solo trumpet rendition of “Taps,” quieting the entire Music Meadow with the powerful gesture.

DelFest brethren Leftover Salmon, after hosting afterhours Friday night, pleased many followers on hand with their two-hour set, including appearances by headliners Lukas Nelson and Sierra Ferrell.

But Saturday night brought one of the event’s greatest treats of all time, as Nelson — a son of American country music icon Willie Nelson — teamed up with the Travelin’ McCourys to join their sounds and present one never heard before.

DelFest 2024 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Luke Nelson performs with the Travelin’ McCoury’s at DelFest 2024. (Photo by Casey Ryan Vock)

Nelson led the way as tracks like “Just Outside of Austin” and “Find Yourself” were reimagined but still showcased his tender voice. Cody Kilby, the masterful, award-winning guitarist for the Travelin’ McCourys, shined alongside Nelson.

“Being up here with you guys is one of the best experiences of my life,” Nelson told the group, which formed in 2009 and won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 2018.

Set to headline Sunday night, the skyrocketing Ferrell showed up early and joined the Nelson-McCourys set for what was a keepsake of the weekend and one that went viral by the next day: an unexpected, stunning cover of Adele’s smash hit “Someone Like You.”

After a quick set break, the Travelin’ McCourys used the last bit of the night to show their might in a demonstration of rapid-fire picking, plucking and fiddling, with delightful harmonies, too. With wherewithal and precision, the McCourys laid out their vision of where bluegrass is headed.

Later, the Brothers Comatose out of the Bay Area donned silky track suits to pull off one of the funkiest, most enjoyable late-night sets in DelFest history. Immediately following, the Davisson Brothers out of West Virginia pounded the Music Hall stage with their boisterous rock and super-charged twang, with assistance from Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon and Heaven McCoury.

Listen to the latest album from Leftover Salmon, 2023’s Grass Roots, via Spotify:

With so much going, not everyone might have grasped the breadth of community activities running concurrent to the performance schedule.

The DelFest Foundation, launched in 2009, had another successful weekend selling raffle tickets for an enticing collection of prizes. The non-profit has now raised more than $750,000 for area charities.

Since 2011, Del’s Army — a selfless group of longtime attendees — has been collecting food at each DelFest to donate to the Western Maryland Food Bank. This year added to the estimated 2.5 tons of non-perishable donations collected thus far.

While these efforts might be overlooked by some, this year’s ticketholders undoubtedly left with respect and appreciation for the work of one DelFest community member whose life was recently cut short.

Roy Carter was a co-founder of the High Sierra Music Festival and DelFest, and he’d become a close friend to the McCoury family. He unexpectedly passed away in April at the age of 68.

During an annual set dubbed Dré and the Gospel Collective, Del, his son Ronnie, Bartram, and Carter joined Dré Anders and Kenny and Amanda Smith to pay an emotional tribute to Carter.

Del explained that Roy was instrumental to the genesis and success of DelFest, as he had scouted the fairgrounds and thought it to be an excellent place for such a gathering.

“He has his finger on all the spots,” Del said.

He pointed to the rock wall towering over the Potomac.

“When I walked on the grounds here … I told Roy, I said, ‘I’ve played a lot of festivals in my lifetime, and this is as beautiful, or more beautiful, than any I’ve played, you know.’ … So, Roy said ‘it’s looks like we’re gonna be here.’”

The group honored Carter with a moving cover of Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” and by its end, most of those on stage were moved to tears missing their old friend.

But Carter would most certainly be proud to see DelFest swinging back to gain its pre-pandemic momentum. And even though one set would be cut short, and another shifted back, Sunday played out as one for the ages at DelFest 2024.

Featuring the likes of Don Was and the Pan-Detroit Ensemble on the Grandstand Stage, additional sets by the Brothers Comatose, Davisson Brothers, and Craven’s annual set, the fourth day presented options as vast as any of the weekend.

Listen to the Brothers Comatose’s live album released in 2023, Kickin’ Up The Dust, via Spotify:

Alongside Craven in his Folk ‘Em All Trio, Frostburg native Jody Mosser is one of the few musicians who’s attended the event every single year since its inception. He was applauded during the set for his perfect attendance.

Now a member of the Plate Scrapers and the Jakobs Ferry Stragglers and a frequent guest of Baltimore’s Cris Jacobs, Mosser’s life was essentially transformed when he started attending DelFest.

“I was kind of at the point where I’d been playing a lot of electrified music. I’d been playing electric guitar for the first 15 years of my career,” said Mosser, now a co-owner and a lead instructor at the Frostburg Music Academy located about 20 minutes from Cumberland.

Mosser attended the event for seven or eight years as a ticketholder, enjoying fun-filled weekends with his friends. Over time, he was drawn to like-minded fellow musicians, who at DelFest gather on a moment’s notice to play together and, more importantly, learn from one another.

DelFest Academy, held in the days leading up to DelFest, gives the most adamant prospects a chance to learn from the McCourys and some of the weekend’s artists who double as guest instructors. The culture of the camp carries over to the festival, as the top-performing “team” of students is annually brought on stage to be recognized and past attendees — like the Dirty Grass Players — are now on the bill.

But Mosser points out that any festival attendee can advance their skills, as he did.

“You learn a lot by just going around from circle to circle and everybody knows a lot of the same songs because the music is so old and that’s the beautiful thing about it,” Mosser said. “You’re going to find a pocket of pickers that all know the same songs and that’s super cool to me. So, this place really opened that door big time.”

An entry point for many fans, DelFest is more than ever a destination for some of the most vital artists in bluegrass and those connected to it as well, and Sunday at DelFest 2024 brought some of the most distinguished guests to the Music Meadow.

Though Ferrell’s set would be the one unfortunately cut short by lightning, many stuck around to see the foul weather pass and took in a high-flying presentation by none other than Old Crow Medicine Show.

Led by longtime founding members Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua, Old Crow broke out tunes old and new and turned the final night into a nutty affair. Fittingly, Ronnie McCoury was on stage for part of it.

Listen to the latest album from Old Crow Medicine Show, Jubilee, via Spotify:

The ever-changing outfit shared favorites like “James River Blues,” “CC Rider,” “Take ‘Em Away,” and the modern-day classic “Wagon Wheel.” With its loaded roster of Morgan Jahnig (bass), Cory Younts (keys and more), Mike Harris (guitar, banjo), Dante Pope (drums, washboard), and PJ George (mandolin, accordion), the group concocted rip-roaring takes on more recent tunes like “Tennessee Bound” and “Wolfman of the Ozarks.

The party never really stopped, as Secor, Fuqua, and company quickly made their way over to the music hall. Within a half hour, OCMS had shifted gears and was already into a reggae-themed “Midnight Jahmboree” set that featured a wild assortment of covers. Sampling UB40, Jimmy Cliff, and John Denver, nothing was off limits for these brave and zany characters.

Somehow still functional after a marathon four days of performing, socializing, and ensuring guests were having the time of their lives, the Travelin’ McCourys took the stage after 2am for what has become the final tradition of the weekend: the closing set.

Family members of all ages were packed onto the Music Hall stage — even Rob’s youngest son, Vassar, was in the mix as the McCourys shared songs from their award-winning self-titled album, along with music in the works, and grandiose covers that have become standards, including masterpieces like Garcia’s “Loser” and the Dead’s “Bird Song.”

Listen to the Travelin’ McCoury’s Grammy-winning self-titled 2017 studio album, via Spotify:

The music finally ended just before 4 a.m., but some fans still wanted more. They exited the building to find it in the form of picking circles churning in any corner of the property.

When the sun came up a few hours later, some were still going.

Below are images from all four days of this year’s DelFest held from May 23 to 26 at Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Ryan Vock.

The Del McCoury Band

DelFest 2024 @ Allegeny County Fairgrounds Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

East Grass Nash

Yonder Mountain String Band

Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country

The Dirty Grass Players

John Craigie

DelFest 2024 Allegany County Fairgrounds 05.23-05.26.24 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

McCoury Family Jam

The Del McCoury Band @ DelFest 2024 Allegany County Fairgrounds 05.23-05.26.24 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

DelFest 2024 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Del McCoury Band (with Marty Stuart guest appearance)

The Del McCoury Band @ DelFest 2024 Allegany County Fairgrounds 05.23-05.26.24 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Greensky Bluegrass

The Del McCoury Band @ DelFest 2024 Allegany County Fairgrounds 05.23-05.26.24 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Sam Grisman Project

Larry Keel Experience

Big Richard

Leftover Salmon

Lukas Nelson & The Travelin’ McCourys (with guest appearance by Sierra Ferrell)

DelFest 2024 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

DelFest 2024 @ Allegeny County Fairgrounds Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

The Davisson Brothers

DelFest 2024 Allegany County Fairgrounds 05.23-05.26.24 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Joe Craven and the Folk ‘Em All Trio

Dré Anders and the Gospel Collective

DelFest 2024 @ Allegeny County Fairgrounds Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Don Was and the Pan-Detroit Ensemble (guest appearance by Ketch Secor)

The Brothers Comatose

DelFest 2024 Allegany County Fairgrounds 05.23-05.26.24 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Sierra Ferrell

Old Crow Medicine Show (guest appearance by Ronnie McCoury)

DelFest 2024 Allegany County Fairgrounds 05.23-05.26.24 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

Old Crow Medicine Show “Midnight Jahmboree”

The Travelin’ McCourys

DelFest 2024 Allegany County Fairgrounds 05.23-05.26.24 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock

DelFest 2024 Allegany County Fairgrounds 05.23-05.26.24 Photo by Casey Ryan Vock


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here