After a seemingly endless absence, DelFest returned to Cumberland, MD for the 14th-annual iteration of the festival. Named after the great Delano “Del” McCoury, the festival brought some of the best pickers in the country to the Allegany County Fairgrounds for the enjoyment of all. This year followed the same formula that has made DelFest rise up in the festival circuit: beautiful scenery, good vibes, and of course, some of the best live music in the country you can find on Memorial Day weekend.
A spritely 83 years young, Del McCoury still plays music with the heart and soul of an emerging musician. Officially, he played three sets over the weekend with the Del McCoury Band—a soundcheck set on Thursday, and sets on Friday and Sunday evenings. Unofficially, he stayed plenty busy as he sat in with many of the musicians that came to play at his festival. In addition, one could see him on the side of the stage watching as his children (and grandchild) played their own sets as the Travelin’ McCourys, or generally seeing his name, likeness, and image everywhere across the festival.
Del is truly omnipresent and it all begins with the music. Del has mastered the acoustic guitar and his accompanying vocals are what have made him a legend. Eschewing traditional setlists and instead opting for basically whatever he wants, or whatever the crowd requests loud enough for him to grant, no show is ever the same. The highlights that he produced were “What Made Milwaukee Famous” on Friday night or perhaps the “Hot Wired” from Sunday for which Del’s grandson Heaven McCoury was allowed to play an electric guitar. As Del himself mentioned, he hasn’t played with electric too many times over his decades-long career. It isn’t just about the music with Del though, it’s his entire vibe.
His lighting rig is minimal, only having a few can lights on his rig. The red velvet curtain behind the stage, along with the lights, make it seem more like a studio than a stage. Of course, Del and his bandmates are all in suits and ties. Del’s cloud-white hair is perfectly combed, and he couldn’t be any more dapper. In between tunes, the banter provided might just be as engaging as the music. His comments are often accompanied by a short laugh, and the smile he often flashes is felt from the rail-riders all the way to those in the back of the field or sitting in the grandstands, and everywhere in between. The fact that one of the special moments of the festival was when he brought his entire family up on stage and introduced them to the audience is not only a testament to the man he is but also his ability as an entertainer to make that into something interesting and fun, Del McCoury is a national treasure and his festival gives him the time to shine.
There is more to DelFest than Del McCoury though. You have to mention the other McCourys. His two sons Ronnie and Rob are two members of the Travelin’ McCourys, playing the mandolin and banjo respectively. With a fiddler, upright bassist, and guitarist in tow, they were quite busy all weekend with sets on Saturday and a late-night Sunday. Their reverence toward the Grateful Dead certainly showed as they covered “Cumberland Blues”, “Scarlet Begonias”, and “Bird Song”. The latter had Ronnie McCoury on a four-string Fender Mandocaster, or to the layfolk a baby guitar. It produced some fairly wild effects, making this “Bird Song” a psychedelic trip, or at least as psychedelic as a bluegrass group could make it. Their final tune of the night, “Rawhide”, evidently brought all the mandolin players that were on the fairgrounds onto the main stage for what they self-proclaimed was, “The day the mandolins destroyed the world.” If you’ve ever wondered if eight mandolins are just too much, it’s not. It’s just exactly right.
The biggest headliner of DelFest was Tyler Childers. The man who has become increasingly more reclusive since the pandemic began reared his head for the final act on the main stage. The crowd swelled to its largest point by far. In fact, it seemed like there was a lot less sitting and a lot more standing, even in the back of the field. Perhaps because of the bluegrass festival environment, Childers opted not to bring his band along and instead played with the Travelin’ McCourys backing him.
Opening his set with “House Fire”, it noticeably lacked the punch that a drumset provides but did not lack any energy. The crowd, which had a noticeably different vibe than basically all the other sets, roared with cheers as he began the song. Childers played a rendition of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” the song that he played with Bob Weir only weeks ago at Radio City Music Hall. Similar to those versions, Childers stopped playing his acoustic guitar and lent all his effort to the vocals of the song.
Tyler Childers & Travelin’ McCourys – “Percheron Blues”, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (Grateful Dead) – 5/29/22
It was at the third song of the set that Childers really started showing his emotions onstage and began letting the hollering out of his system. He mentioned how much he enjoyed learning and playing “Greatest Story Ever Told” so it wasn’t too surprising to have it pop up at DelFest. Midway through his set, Del McCoury joined the band on stage as the only sit-in of the performance, as the crowd voiced its approval. They played “The Old Country Church”, a song that Childers said he knew from when he was the tender age of five years old. It was clear during and after the song how much respect and admiration Tyler held for the elder McCoury. Meanwhile, Del had his signature smile the whole time. Eventually, everyone but Childers left the stage, leaving him to entertain the crowd by himself. Entertain he did, playing an especially poignant “Lady May” before The Travelin’ McCourys joined him for the end of the set. With so much good music to share, one can only hope Childers performs a bit more often as the year progresses.
Tyler Childers & Travelin’ McCourys – “Lady May” – 5/29/22
There were many other great acts at DelFest, almost too many to name, with Railroad Earth rising to the top as a festival highlight. Their two sets were well played and were uniquely in the minority in that neither featured a sit-in. Their rendition of “Terrapin Station” that ended their late-night set was one of the gems of the weekend.
Bela Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart was well played, despite the fact that it featured none of the musicians that were on tour with Fleck only months ago at the end of 2021. Instead it drew from the many bluegrass musicians that were already playing at the festival. The setlist included “Big Country”, with Fleck’s older material getting the proper love. Sam Bush played a great set, especially considering he played solo after members of his band tested positive for COVID. Bush nonetheless looked completely comfortable alone, and still invited up various others including Del McCoury, Ronnie McCoury, and Sierra Hull.
In every regard, DelFest was a success. It was hard to tell who was more overjoyed to have it back after three years—the fans or the musicians. There was palpable gratitude that emanated from all directions while walking the fairgrounds. It never took too long to stumble across something that would delight the senses. Mother Nature played her role in the weekend, providing rain early on as well as unadulterated sunshine on Sunday. Overall the vibe was excellent. DelFest delivered on all fronts. Hopefully, it won’t be another three years for everyone to enjoy it again.
Scroll down to check out a gallery of images from DelFest 2022 courtesy of Daniel Ojeda as well as a collection of fan-shot videos.
Leftover Salmon – “Black Hole Sun” (Soundgarden) – 5/27/22
Leftover Salmon – “Boogie” – 5/27/22
Railroad Earth – “Elko” – 5/28/22
The Travlin’ McCourys – “White-Wheeled Limousine” (Ricky Skaggs) – 5/28/22
[Video: blair deal]
Sierra Hull, Molly Tuttle – DelFest 2022