In celebration of its 10th year, DelFest has assembled an All-Star roster for its annual Memorial Day Weekend extravaganza in Cumberland, Maryland. This year’s lineup is topped by the Trey Anastasio Band, Govt Mule, the Travelin’s McCoury’s featuring Dierks Bentley, Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, and Bela Fleck & Chris Thile, is easily one of the best festival schedules around. Throw in namesake Del McCoury’s four sets over the weekend (which includes the traditional festival opening “soundcheck” set, and a guest laden spot which will feature Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys, Jon Fishman from Phish, the Preservation Hall Horns from New Orleans, and Ronnie Bowman) and the guarantee that Del will sit in with what seems like every band throughout the weekend and you would be hard pressed to find a better four days of music over Memorial Day Weekend this year. Continue reading DelFest Preview 2016, preparing to celebrate 10 years→
With an influx of Appalachian migrants who came looking for work in the 1940s and 1950s, Baltimore found itself populated by some extraordinary mountain musicians and was for a brief time the center of the bluegrass world. Life in Baltimore for these musicians was not easy. There were missed opportunities, personal demons and always the up-hill battle with prejudice against their hillbilly origins. Based upon interviews with legendary players from the golden age of Baltimore bluegrass, Bluegrass in Baltimore provides the first in-depth coverage of this transplanted-roots music and its broader influence, detailing the struggles Appalachian musicians faced in a big city that viewed the music they made as the “poorest example of poor man’s music.
Bluegrass in Baltimore examines the highly-influential scene in Baltimore that produced such key figures as Del McCoury, Earl Taylor, Walt Hensley, Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, Mike Seeger, and Mike Munford and explores the impact the music they made had on a wide-range of musical luminaries including Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Sandy Rothman, Pete Wernick, Sam Bush, and many others.
(Excerpted from Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound and its Legacy by Tim Newby, published by McFarland Books, June 2015.)
On a cold night in early February 1963, in a small nondescript neighborhood in Southeastern Baltimore, on the corner of Pratt and Chapel Streets, in the shadow of Johns Hopkins Hospital there was a small bar that you would have been hard pressed to find then, and does not exist now. Called the Chapel Café, it had a much too low ceiling with bad lights that seemed to do nothing but provide a ghostly haze that gave life to the heavy cigarette smoke lingering in the dank air. This served to make the ill-mannered, boorish disposition of the locals hunched over the bar even more menacing as they seemed to revel in yelling “play or get out” at the band perched on the small stage every time there was a lull in the music. The fourteen-year-old bassist on stage that night remembers it as “nothing but cigarette smoke and spilled beer, one of them rough places, the kind of place where the bouncer would have to throw out at least one guy a night.” Into this atmosphere, across the sticky beer-splattered floor, beyond the bar area that was just to the right of the door and over towards the stage tucked into the corner on the opposite wall walked a man.
This bar was much like countless other bars that were littered across Baltimore; Jazz City just a couple blocks away on Pratt street in Fells Point, the 79 Club in Federal Hill, the legendary Cozy Inn, and the chicken wire-covered stage at Oleta’s and Marty’s Bar KY. They were all tough beer-and-a-shot joints that were small, worn down, reeking of stale beer, and teetering on the edge of violence each night.
But the man who walked into the Chapel Café that night was not like the countless other patrons who inhabited them. He was a tall man who cut an imposing figure and known to be of few words. He was often referred to as an “ornery old cuss” by those that did not know him, though in reality he was a much more complex man than that simple, limiting description. He also had started a band that lent its name to a still developing sound that had its roots in the mountains of Appalachia, found its way to the city streets, and was now being played in this poorly-lit bar, much like it was at similar other bars around Baltimore. This sound was still shaking off its earlier label of hillbilly, so-named for the migrants who brought this music with them when they came down from the mountains or moved from the south to the cities to find work and a better life, and was beginning to be recognized by another, less derogatory name: Bluegrass.
The man who walked into that small corner bar was Bill Monroe, who with his band Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys had first given shape and life to this new exciting style of music. Bluegrass was born from the old time string band music that Monroe learned in his youth back in his rural home in Rosine, Kentucky, and from the fiddle of his favorite uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, who Monroe went to live with after his parents died when he was a teenager. Uncle Pen would become a role model for Monroe in all aspects of life, but it was through music that he would have his greatest impact on the young budding musician. Years later, after Monroe’s musical genius was widely recognized, he would give credit to his Uncle Pen referring to him as “the fellow I learned how to play from.” Monroe would later immortalize his Uncle in one of his most famous songs, “Uncle Pen,” in which he sang about the late night hoedowns and dances he played at as a teenager with his Uncle.
Monroe mixed his Uncle Pen’s fiddle sound with the country, gospel, and blues that was in the air at the time, and ratcheted it up to a breakneck speed with his distinctive trademark mandolin to create what famed folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax called “Folk music with overdrive” in a 1959 article for Esquire Magazine. Levon Helm from Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers The Band saw Monroe as a six-year-old and says this new style of music “really tattooed my brain.” He recalled how Monroe had taken, “that old hillbilly music, sped it up and basically invented what is now known as bluegrass music: the bass in its place, the mandolin above it, the guitar tying the two together, and the violin on top, playing the long notes to make it all sing. The banjo backed the whole thing up, answering everybody.” Country music-outlaw Waylon Jennings would echo Helms’ sentiment about the impact of Monroe and this new style of music he was playing. “In my house, in Littlefield, Texas, it was the bible on the table, the flag on the wall, and Bill Monroe’s picture beside it. That’s the way I was raised.” And for a brief time nowhere was this new style of hillbilly music, this folk music with overdrive, played better, faster, or in such a way that it would leave as permanent a footprint on the history and development of bluegrass than in Baltimore.
The teenaged bassist, Jerry McCoury, who was on stage that cold February night at the Chapel Café in 1963, recalled with a laugh when Monroe walked into the tiny Baltimore bar, “I actually didn’t recognize him at first. He was wearing his glasses and he had a hat on. Then I realized who it was and I was in total awe.” With admiration and high praise in his voice he continues, “It was like meeting God.”
Monroe’s stop in Baltimore was no accident. He had stopped by to see a former member of his band, Jack Cooke, who was playing that evening. Monroe needed a couple of players to fill out his band for an upcoming gig at New York University in New York City for the Friends of Old Time Music on February 8, just a few days later. He was hoping Cooke would join him on guitar, and he wanted to check out the older brother of McCoury who was a banjo player Cooke had recommended.
McCoury’s 22-year-old banjo playing older brother, remembers that same evening when the man rightly called the “Father of Bluegrass” walked in during their set:
We were playing the Chapel Café in Fells Point one night in 1963, when Bill Monroe walked in front of us. I could have fallen over right then and there. The purpose of him stopping by was to take Jack [Cooke] with him up there to play a show in New York City. He didn’t have a guitar player or lead singer at the time. Whoever it was had quit and he thought Jack would do it. He also didn’t have a banjo player either so they took me up there to play.
The banjo player, Jerry’s older brother Delano, joined Monroe’s band, which at the time included Kenny Baker on fiddle and Monroe’s longtime partner Bessie Lee Mauldin on bass. After the show in New York City Delano joined the band full-time, and at the request of Monroe he switched from banjo to guitar and took over lead vocals as well. It proved to be a career-defining break for the young banjo player turned guitarist/singer. Though his time with Monroe was short, it was an influential time as the bluegrass legend helped introduce the world to the voice of Del McCoury, a voice which might be the most perfect in bluegrass, a voice that is the living embodiment of the “high and lonesome” sound, a voice about which country music superstar Vince Gill declares, “I would rather hear Del McCoury sing ‘Are You Teasin’ Me?’ than just about anything.”
Since his brief time with Monroe, McCoury has gone onto establish himself as one of the truly legendary figures in the genre. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Hall of Fame in 2011, has released over thirty albums, won fifteen IBMA awards – including being named entertainer of the year nine times (with four straight wins from 1997-2000) – and won two Grammy Awards in 2006 and 2014 for his albums, The Company We Keep and Streets of Baltimore. He is a man whose roots stretch back to the earliest days, but who stands firmly in the now. A man who is not afraid to collaborate with any number of bands who might be assumed to be outside the normal wheelhouse and comfort zone of an aging bluegrass legend, mixing it up with younger bands like Phish, Yonder Mountain String Band, The String Cheese Incident, Old Crow Medicine Show, Leftover Salmon, and Steve Earle. Bands that are pushing the sound his one-time mentor Bill Monroe first created so many years ago into new and bold directions.
For Monroe to stumble upon such an absurdly talented player in Baltimore was no lucky break. During the fifties and sixties Baltimore was teeming with talent and a rare convergence of people. In addition to Del McCoury, a host of other influential pickers and musicians all would emerge from Baltimore during this time, including Mike Seeger, Bill Clifton, Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys (the first bluegrass band to grace the stage at Carnegie Hall), the pioneering duets of Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, and the groundbreaking banjo wizardry of Walt Hensley. They would all help to introduce the hard-driving style that was best found in its most pure form in those rough, corner bars on the streets of Baltimore, and bring this energetic style to the music world at large.
Baltimore was one of the few places in the United States where musicians from the mountains and the South could meet and play with folks likely outside of their normal social strata. College-educated city folk and hillbilly migrants from Appalachia mingled easily in Baltimore over the common-ground of music, and in particular string-band and early bluegrass music. Seeger provides the best explanation of Baltimore’s unique personality as a city:
We were quite conscious in Baltimore of being a place where the city and the country met. You’d have tough bluegrass bars, where the city people were the outsiders. You’d have bohemian parties, where the country people were the outsiders. It was a place where different classes and different cultures were meeting. It was a time of curiosity and discovery and friction and exhilaration.
Much of the focus on bluegrass as it relates to its growth in cities tends to revolve around Nashville, with its well-deserved Music City title, and the bluegrass scene that eventually developed in Washington D.C. around such genre-defining bands as the Country Gentleman and The Seldom Scene. While there were many other urban settings at the time with a large population of Appalachian migrants and that also had important urban hillbilly scenes, it can be argued that none of them had the lasting impact that Baltimore did. During those early years that saw the identity of bluegrass truly formed, it was the vibrant, special scene a short drive north of D.C. on I-295 in Baltimore that Seeger recalled which truly laid the foundation. With his trademark chuckle Del McCoury agrees:
There was Nashville, and then there was Baltimore. There were other places, Detroit was pretty big, and Cincinnati, there was a big bluegrass scene in those two cities, and Washington [D.C.] as well, but Baltimore was the hot town for this kind of music back in the fifties and sixties.
In the years following World War II, as the factories and industries boomed there was an exodus from the mountains and the South into the cities and Baltimore found itself the recipient of an extraordinarily talented crop of musicians who settled into an area ripe with possibilities and opportunities. In a house on Eager Street that held weekly gatherings of like-minded urban folk-music people and hillbillies, in neighborhoods across Baltimore called “Little Appalachia,” in “hillbilly ghettos” where migrants clustered in the cramped row houses that hosted nightly pickin’ parties, and in the working-class bars that could just as easily erupt in a brawl as they could in live music, the sound of hillbilly or bluegrass music was not only being played, but redefined and pushed in new directions.
These sounds soon started reaching the ears of young, impressionable musicians across the country who were just beginning to find their way musically. Sam Bush, one of the originators of the modern bluegrass sound that began developing in the 1970s, was a teenager in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and one of those young impressionable musicians in the late 1960s when he first came across the “hard-driving Baltimore-style.” His band, New Grass Revival, was a revelatory shot in the arm to bluegrass music when they burst on to the scene in 1971. They were a bunch of young hot-shot pickers breaking the normal restrained bluegrass mold at the time with their long hair, jeans, and t-shirts; who, with their psychedelic-influenced take on bluegrass fused everything from jazz, funk, blues and rock together. They shook off the shackles that had tethered the genre for too long and changed the face of modern bluegrass. It was an album Bush came across by Baltimore banjo-picker Walt Hensley that proved to be the first time Bush would discover the spark that would ignite his passion to move bluegrass into new realms and hear a term that would go on to define those early years of Bush’s long, storied career. Bush heard Hensley’s groundbreaking 1969 album Pickin’ on New Grass, and it blew away the young artist, instigating the formation of the band, New Grass Revival, and was part of the birth of a new style, “Newgrass.” With his mind fully-blown he explained, “He [Hensley] was stretching the boundaries there.”
Many of those early Baltimore musicians who inspired that young impressionable talent, like Sam Bush, and helped provide such a unique voice to this still developing musical style, would seem to have been within arm’s reach of making it big, of reaching that musical summit, only to fall short due to a litany of reasons. With a scene built around a large influx of poor migrants with limited education, it is not surprising to hear McCoury say that the bands in Baltimore “were less professional” than those in other cities, and to find so many players who were so talented on the music side fail so easily on the business side. This lack of business acumen or professionalism proved to be the biggest hindrance for many musicians from Baltimore.
For every Del McCoury or Hazel Dickens that clawed their way out of Baltimore and achieved that lofty legendary status there are countless stories of those who could not quite obtain what their seemingly unlimited talent placed within their grasp. Whether due to lack of education, poor business sense, too much drink, a lack of faith in one’s abilities, or quite simply bad luck, many of these Baltimore pickers found that instead of etching their name in big letters on the roll call of greats they were more often than not resigned to the overlooked role of early innovator or forgotten influence. The scope of these musicians’ influence was wide and far-reaching, but unfortunately as bluegrass musician Artie Werner (who years later played with many of the early pioneers from Baltimore in Cincinnati) says, “People don’t realize how much bluegrass was influenced by Baltimore-area musicians.” It seems with the passage of time, this has come close to being forgotten, as Baltimore is often overshadowed by their big brother to the south, Washington D.C., and the impact of these pioneering musicians is relegated to a passing memory or a simple mention in a lyric. But Baltimore’s story is the story of early bluegrass. Without it and the musicians who lived and played there, what we know and hear today would not be the same.
Delfest 2015 featured the usual multiple sets from Del McCoury, as well as sets from David Grisman, Trampled by Turtles, Leftover Salmon, Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, Jason Isbell, Jeff Austin, Brothers Comatose, and many more.
Entering its eighth year, DelFest has firmly established itself as one of the premiere bluegrass Festivals in the Country. Returning to the Allegheny Fairgrounds in Cumberland, MD, with a line-up this year topped by Old Crow Medicine Show, Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, Jason Isbell, and Greensky Bluegrass, it is again one of the best festival schedules around. Throw in namesake Del McCoury’s five sets over the weekend (which inlcudes a set with David Grisman and a Family Jam on Sunday) and you would be hard pressed to find a better four days of music over Memorial Day Weekend this year.
As usual DelFest features three stages and will host late-night shows every night. The three stages are in close proximity and allow easy travel back and forth allowing for maximum music viewing over the weekend. The four late nights this year will feature Railroad Earth and Larry Keel Thursday, Greensky Bluegrass and Steep Canyon Rangers on Friday, Leftover Salmon and Dead Winter Carpenters on Saturday, and a Sunday night blow-out with The Travelin’ McCourys and Jeff Austin.
With a line-up that covers all ends of the bluegrass spectrum – from classic bands like the Seldom Scene, Hot Rize and Del McCoury, to established jam-grass stars Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, and Greensky Bluegrass, to bands slightly outside the bluegrass world Trampled by Turtles, Jason Isbell, Otiel Burbridghe & Roosevelt Coolier – DelFest has something for everyone and something new for everyone to discover. It is a can’t miss event on your festival calendar. tickets are still available now at: DelFest.com
Check out past coverage of DelFest from Honest Tune:
Honest Tune Features Editor Tim Newby’s new book will chronicle the history of the influential bluegrass scene in Baltimore.
Due to an influx of Appalachian migrants who came looking for work in the 1940s and 50s, Baltimore found itself the recipient of an extraordinarily talented crop of musicians and for a brief time was the center of the bluegrass world.
Based upon interviews with many of the legendary players from this golden-age of bluegrass in Baltimore, who had moved to the city in hopes of a better future and found it in music, Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound & Its Legacy, is the first book to take an in-depth look into how the music that was played in Baltimore came to wield influence across a broad musical landscape.
The book will be published by McFarland Books and released May 2015.
Bluegrass in Baltimore looks in detail at the highly-influential scene in Baltimore that produced such key figures as Del McCoury, Earl Taylor, Walt Hensley, Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, Mike Seeger, and Mike Munford and explores the impact the music they made had on a wide-range of musical luminaries including Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Pete Wernick, Sam Bush, Chris Hillman, and many others.
The journey of these Baltimore musicians was not an easy one. They struggled in the face of a music industry that viewed the music they made as the “poorest example of poor man’s music.” There were missed opportunities, personal demons, and the always up-hill battle these pioneers had to fight because of the prejudice against their hillbilly backgrounds. Due to this many of these original Baltimore musicians found they were often resigned to the overlooked role of early innovator or forgotten influence, but the music they made and the influence they had has lasted forever.
Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound and Its Legacy is available for pre-order now: McFarland Books
High Sierra Music Festival
July 3-6, 2014
The 24th annual High Sierra Music Festival took place over the 4th of July weekend in beautiful Quincy, California. The weather was hot and so was the music; with diverse genres like rock, electronica, roots, jazz, bluegrass, country, and blues, there was something to please every taste.
Headliners Widespread Panic delivered a blistering two-set performance, and STS9 went back to their roots with old school musicality. Chris Robinson Brotherhood and Hard Working Americans bringing good ole whiskey fueled R’nR, while Lettuce and Turquaz brought the funky dance party. Meanwhile, the classic jazzy stylings of legends Bill Frisell and Ernest Ranglin delighted the jazzbos. Del McCoury and Greensky Bluegrass represented the grassy side of things well.
Next year for the silver anniversary High Sierra will once again stoke the family vibe plus provide some surprises for 2015.
Click the thumbnails to check out Susan Weiand’s shots from the weekend!
So heading in to Delfest this year there were two questions on everyone’s mind. First what would the weather bring? Would it be the Del Hail from 2009, wet and muddy conditions, or the blazing heat that seems to roll it to Delfest every year? It was none of the above as this year brought something never seen before at Delfest, un-seasonably cold weather. While it was possibly the driest Delfest has ever been, a brief rainstorm late Thursday afternoon, and a few sprinkles that same night during Leftover Salmon’s set being the only precipitation seen all weekend it was the cold that will be remembered weather wise this year. The days were generally comfortable and mild, but as soon as the sun set behind mountains, the temperature dipped to near record lows every night, reaching into the low 40s, high 30s most nights. Fortunately the cold temperatures did nothing to stifle the hot-picking on stage at night.
The second question revolved around the inclusion of the Trey Anastasio Band as a headliner. While there is no doubt of Anastasio’s love of bluegrass and there was palpable excitement leading up to the fest in anticipation about his set (actually two sets), there was some trepidation about the influence his addition might have on the family-friendly-easy-going nature that usually permeates Delfest crowds. The phrase “Please Don’t Wook Delfest” was bandied about quite a bit before the weekend, but it ended up being lot of worry over nothing. There may have a been a slight increase in crowd size, but whether that was due to a natural growth in the size of the fest or because of Trey was really a moot point as the same easy-going-laid back atmosphere that is so pervasive every year at Delfest was evident again. And since Anastasio’s set and appearance was so heavily discussed before the fest, it should be as equally discussed after. To sum up his set in as few words as possible, quite simply he killed it.
Anastasio’s two sets were fairly typical song selection wise for what he has been doing lately with his band. He pulled from all of his various solo albums, though his set this evening was weighted heavily with songs from his self-titled release playing, “Cayman Review,” “Last Tube”, “Drifting”, “Push on till the day”, and “Money, Love, & Change,” this evening. He included the obligatory Phish songs that are a regular part of the Trey Band rotation, “First Tube,” “Gotta Jibboo,” “Sand”, and “Heavy Things.” The “Heavy Things” encore was particularly nasty with the inclusion of Ronnie McCoury’s mind-blowing mandolin work and the tasteful addition of Jason Carter on fiddler. The real highlight of the set was perhaps the worst kept secret of the weekend, the mid-2nd set sit-in of the Del McCoury Band. Rumors had been circulated in the weeks prior of a collaboration between the two. Anastasio in his trademark rambling-story-telling-style explained how he had gotten a copy of a Del McCoury album from the guys in Aquarium Rescue Unit back in the early 90s and was hooked since then. While onstage Del and Anastasio recounted their time playing together back at Phish’s Camp Oswego in 1999, before launching into a brief two song collaboration, “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” and “Beauty of My Dreams,” which was in the running for the most smile inducing song of the weekend.
As with every year at Delfest the McCoury family are perfect hosts, and Del and his two sons Ronnie and Rob seem to welcome almost every band to the festival by joining them onstage at some point. Del seemed to sit-in a little less frequently than he has in years past, but in addition to his four main-stage sets, an afternoon Masters of Bluegrass set, and the annual McCoury Family Jam, he still found time to join the headliners, Leftover Salmon, Trey Anastasio, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Yonder Mountain String Band for a couple of tunes each night. He also took to the stage with dobro master Jerry Douglas, and walked on with Keller Williams and the McCoury’s to sing his verse in “Bumper Sticker.” Younger brother and banjo picker Rob, while sitting in less than his Dad and brother, made the most of his limited guest spots, with his full set sit-in with the Rambling Rooks (Ronnie Bowman, Don Rigsby & Kenny Smith from the Lonesome River Band), a real Thursday treat.
The MVP of the McCoury family for the weekend and of the entire festival was hands down mandolinist Ronnie. Already a busy man as it was with his four appearances with The Del McCoury Band, a set with Keller & the McCoury’s, a late night set opening for Leftover Salmon with the Traveling McCoury’s, and a Saturday afternoon inclusion as part of the special one-off All-Star band of Pikelny, Sutton, McCoury, Bulla, & Bales, Ronnie still found time and the energy to grace the stage with a variety of other bands countless times over the weekend. His set with Pikelny, Sutton, McCoury, Bulla, and Bales was a nice surprise Saturday afternoon. Assembled by banjo picker Noam Pikelny (Punch Brothers) and including guitarist Bryan Sutton (Hot Rize), fiddler Luke Bulla (Lyle Lovett Band), bassist Barry Bales (Allison Kraus & Union Station), and McCoury, the all-star collective blasted through a set through that pulled tunes from all of their vast repertoire’s.Â The set was a picker’s dream, highlighting some of the best young musicians in the bluegrass world. In addition to all his regularly scheduled sets, Ronnie was a ubiquitous present throughout the weekend, seemingly playing with every band that was at the festival. The phrase, “And will you please welcome to the stage, Ronnie McCoury,” just seemed to be how bands introduced every one of their songs all weekend, as it would then be followed by Ronnie ambling on stage to rip through yet a mind-bending mandolin solo. Listing all the bands who he sat in with would be akin to listing all the bands that were at Delfest. Late night, mid-day, main stage, music hall, it did not matter Ronnie was there. He was not the only musician in Cumberland, it only seemed like it.
As usual the Delfest line-up was stocked with classic legendary bluegrass musicians as well as younger emerging stars. One of the most anticipated sets of the weekend was the Masters of Bluegrass, or as Del called them, The Mob. Comprised of Del on guitar and vocals, his brother Jerry McCoury on bass, JD Crowe on banjo, Bobby Osborne on mandolin, and Bobby Hicks on fiddle, The Mob is truly an once-in-a-lifetime line-up of living legends who can all trace theirÂ roots back to the earliest days of bluegrass. They all joined Del on Saturday night for a brief main-stage appearance that was a showcase for their unparalleled talent. But it was their Sunday afternoon set in the music hall then exemplified their true greatness. Playing without the constraints of time inside the spacious music hall. (Who is going to tell you to wrap it up when your name is the name of the festival?) The five legends played a set that was a journey through the history of bluegrass with Del as your narrator. They played without a set list taking requests from the crowd and each other. The discovery of a previous band’s set list still taped to the stage lead to a humorous exchange within the band about what they should play next.
At the opposite end of the spectrum were those younger bands who are hoping to become the next legends of the genre. At Delfest there were a trio of bands that all seemed to fit that description. Two of them have stormed the jam-grass scene lately. They both arrived on the scene a few years back in a swirl of high-energy picking and jams that finds them easily seguing from a classic Jimmy Martin tune, to a Grateful Dead song, to some random rock cover. The Infamous Stringdusters and Greensky Bluegrass have both seen their respective audiences explode over the past few years, and their rise at Delfest has mirrored that same explosion. They both started as early afternoon bands on the side stage their first years only to quickly find themselves main stage stalwarts and headliner late night acts. This year they both played a pair of main stage sets, as well as each serving as a late-night headliner. And they did not disappoint during either set. Unsurprisingly Ronnie McCoury made an appearance with both of them during their late night sets, joining Greensky for “Eat My Dust”, and the Infamous Stringdusters for a double shot of “Pioneers,” and “Wheel Horse.”
The other band that seemed to garner so much attention over the weekend was Colorado’s Elephant Revival. Elephant Revival is a five-piece band that mixes subtle strains of folk and bluegrass, with dreamy heart-felt lyrics that float along a river of gentle melody weaved by gypsy souls. Every year at Delfest there is that band that seems to burst out of nowhere and Elephant Revival was that band this year. Their two-sets on Friday, on the side-stage and in the music hall were both must attend moments of the festival. Their Behind the Music Artist Play Shop in the Music Hall was overflowing with people and provided a unique insight into the band and their music as they told stories about themselves and their music throughout the set.
As with years past at Delfest, one went into it worried about the weather and anxiously looking forward to the music. And as with years past the weather threw a curve-ball that no one saw coming; this year being the crazy cold temperatures. But at the end of the weekend, as it always does, the weather became a distant thought when thinking back on the weekend. And whether you caught every appearance of Ronnie McCoury, or heard every glorious note that Del sung, or were worried if the world was going to end because Trey was there, in the end it did not matter because just as it is every year at Delfest not matter where you looked, whether on the main stage with the Masters of Bluegrass, in the music hall with Elephant Revival, on the side-stage during the band competition there was some hot picking happening and some incredible music being made, and as it does year after year, Delfest showed why it is one of the best festivals around.
Click the thumbnail(s) for more images from Delfest by Jordan August…
Click the thumbnail(s) for more images from Delfest by Tim Newby…
Del McCoury and Jomeokee Music and Arts Festival are proud to announce the â€œJam with Del McCoury at Jomeokee Festâ€ YouTube contest. Musicians are encouraged to submit a video of themselves jamming, soloing and shredding to win the chance of playing onstage with bluegrass legend Del McCoury at the first annual Jomeokee Music and Arts Festival this September 14-16, 2012. One winner will receive 2 artist credentials to Jomeokee Fest and a once in a lifetime opportunity of playing in front of a live audience alongside the Del McCoury Band.
â€œThis is an exciting chance for a fan to take part in a special performance with our friends,â€ says Del McCoury. â€œI love festivals that give a you family reunion feel; a big party with friends that you donâ€™t get to see that often. Thatâ€™s what Jomeokee Fest is shooting for!â€ He continues, â€œThey gave me a whole stage to treat like a pickin’ party at my house!â€
To enter, musicians must submit and upload a live performance video to the Jomeokee Fest YouTube channel www.youtube.com/jomeokeefest. Video entries must be less than two minutes in length. Entrants are asked to submit videos that showcase their skill. Video entries do not have to be of a full song – feel free to edit a previous performance that showcases a solo or particularly engaging moment. All instruments are encouraged to apply, but keep in mind: the winner will be performing with a band comprised of mostly acoustic instruments, therefore, heavy effects are discouraged. The sound for the video must be from the original recording, videos with an audio track overlaid will not be considered. The contest is open to all ages and entries must be received by August 10, 2012.Â
A panel of judges, which will include Del McCoury, will choose one grand-prize winner and two runners-up. The winners will be announced on August 17th. In addition to playing a song with the Del McCoury Band at Jomeokee Music and Arts Festival, the grand-prize winner will receive two artist passes with access to premium camping during the festival. Runners-up will receive a Jomeokee Music and Arts Festival poster signed by the Del McCoury Band.
Delfest isn’t so much a music festival as it is a massive family reunion. Delfest is built around the charms and talents of one man, Del McCoury, who has been playing this music since before man landed on the moon. In spite of the fact that he is doing the same thing today that he has been doing since the early sixties, he is doing it with the same passion, the same skill and he is having just as good a time doing today as he ever was.
In many ways, Delfest is a celebration of the past. Del’s own band, the Del McCoury Band (DMB) which features MCoury and his two sons Ronnie and Robbie on mandolin and banjo, respectively, along with Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bartram on bass – plays traditional bluegrass music the way that it was meant to be played: by masterful musicians standing around a single microphone and telling a story with each tune. Doyle Lawson, who sat in for a majority of the DMB Saturday night set, is a bluegrass gospel master. Ironically, one of the purest throwback groups of the weekend was the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys. It’s ironic because the band is fronted by three brothers from New Jersey ranging in age from 10-14. But these boys play straight ahead, Flatt and Scruggs-inspired bluegrass. And man can they play. They are an anomaly in the bluegrass world; they went viral on YouTube. And they can pick. Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars along with his new group, The Wandering, masterfully played several sets of old time blues music. All of these groups help keep the past alive and tangible. They are historians as much as they are musicians and the world is a better place for all of them.
Delfest also featured many bands still striving to hang onto the old traditions but also looking to make them their own. The all female Della Mae seemed to be everywhere throughout the weekend, playing their own sets, doing a group playshop and sitting in with various other musicians. They play sweet and soulful bluegrass, centered largely on original songwriting. Birds of Chicago, an enchanting group centered around a male and female vocalist, took pop and soul and turned them on their heads just enough to create something new and beautiful. And Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek might be young, but she has a sound and a voice that date back generations.
But Delfest does not settle for the past, rather it is constantly looking to the future. The festival featured a slew of bands that use bluegrass instruments – masterfully – to create whatever sounds are in their heads. The Emmitt-Nershi Band, centered on Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon and Bill Nershi of The String Cheese Incident, obliterates everything you think you know about bluegrass. They believe in the traditions and they hold them true, yet somehow are constantly breaking boundaries and exploring new musical ground every time they play. Other bands in attendance following in the footsteps of these two giants are The Infamous Stringdusters, Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass and Friday night’s headliner, the Yonder Mountain String Band. Bands like these are helping to bring whole new generations into the fold, to keep it evolving and growing as any such movement must. But even as they look forward and make their way further and deeper into the unknown, they are constantly looking back. And what a blessed tradition in which the trailblazers cannot only look back to their heroes and idols, but get to share the stage with them. That is what Delfest is all about.
And then there is Bela Fleck. Bela was only at the festival on Sunday, but his dance card was full. He did a Bluegrass All Star jam on the main stage. He sat in with practically everyone on several stages. All that is to be expected by someone of his stature. But he also did something completely different. He played a full-on jazz set along with the Marcus Roberts Trio. The trio consists of a pianist, upright bass player and a drummer, and they all are serious jazz musicians. And then there was Bela with his banjo. What he brings to the table is simply incredible. On some numbers, he played along with them and passively mastered their sound. On other numbers, he took the lead and led them into territories that were so outside the box, there isn’t really a label for them. When he took charge, it was less a Flecktones sound and more of a solo, acoustic Bela feel. But it was also something completely different. The trio was clearly thrilled to be playing with Bela, as was Bela thrilled to be sharing the stage with them. The real winners however were the few hundred people who got to enter the room, escape the sun, and witness the magic unfold.
As always, Joe Craven served as MC of the main stage, welcoming each act onto stage and whetting the musical appetites of those in the audience. Joe writes, or improvises, beautiful, poetic mini-essays about every group set to take the stage. He sets the mood for what is to come. He also led his annual playshop on improvisation in which he strives to help us all remember to be children in our lives, everyday, not just in the open and understanding atmosphere of Delfest. This year, he also brought with him the Joe Craven Trio, where he was backed by a keyboard player and a drummer. When he wasn’t playing nasty fiddle or mandolin with these guys, he was rocking a solo on a cheese grater or scatting beautiful nonsense with perfect rhythm and intention.
The Travelin’ McCourys are the Del McCoury Band sans Del and they have become the house band for bluegrass music. Motown had The Funk Brothers, bluegrass has the Travelin’ McCourys. Four masters on their instruments, these guys did back up sets with Keller Williams, with whom they just released a new album, backed up Bela Fleck’s All Star Bluegrass jam (sans Robbie) and sat in and backed up over a dozen artists throughout the weekend, either on their own or in a group. They are pitch perfect bluegrass musicians, both vocally and instrumentally, and while they are usually seen playing bluegrass the way their father taught them, they looked just as comfortable playing Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” or “Freaker by the Speaker” alongside Keller. The headliner of Sunday night was the DMB along with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Preservation Hall is New Orleans in a suit and tie. With a horn line (featuring two sousaphone players!), piano, funky drums and killer vocals, these guys merged their sound with Del and the boys for a killer set following the second massive storm of Sunday night.
Oh right, there were storms. In the words of Del: it wouldn’t be Delfest without a couple of storms. Unfortunately, this is a true statement. It is worth mentioning that the fairgrounds were better equipped for rain this year than they have been in the past, having laid fine gravel over the dirt to avoid turning the first fifty feet of ground in front of the main stage into a massive mud pile under the weight of thousands of pairs of dancing feet. But not to worry, there was mud! There was one massive storm on Saturday evening and two on Sunday night. During those times, everyone without an RV or a wish to get massively soaked headed into one of only two (relatively) dry areas in the fairgrounds. One was the indoor music hall and the other was the bleachers that sits alongside the main stage. The entirety of the main stage area is surrounded by a track and the bleachers sit outside of that. Thousands of people came together to sit in the bleachers and watch the storms pass. But this was no boring crowd. There was singing and chanting and several impromptu waves. There were also the brave few who decided that no muddy field should go unplayed in. There were full on touch football games, wrestling, relay races and even an (attempted) human pyramid. Delfest had seen its first muddy Delympics!
On Sunday evening – in between the two storms, replete with huge gusts of wind, heavy rain and breathtaking lightening that lit up the sky over the mountains – everyone in attendance was treated to something truly special. Steve Martin did a set, backed up by the Steep Canyon Rangers. This set was one part comedy show, one part great bluegrass set and all parts awesome. Steve Martin definitely has his shtick. He dropped one-liners between every song and had whole bits worked up with his backing band (who clearly had many fans of their own in the crowd). But he is not a comedian who plays the banjo, he is a banjo player who tells jokes. He plays – with picks and clawhammer style – like an old pro. He left most of the singing to the Rangers, but did bring out one original a cappella song, performed with the band, that was something special. He preempted it by leaving stage and letting the Rangers do a gospel a cappella number. He then returned and made a comment about how unfair it was that Atheists do not have songs of their own. So he had written one called “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.” This song bridged the gap between Steve’s two massive talents. It was a splendidly written, arranged and performed piece, but was made complete by the insertion of his comedic skill. Before the set was over, he had also welcomed to the stage Bela, Sam Bush and Del and the boys. At its peak, there were four banjos, three mandolins, two guitars, two fiddles and an upright bass on stage.
The weekend ended with Leftover Salmon and the Travelin’ McCoury’s doing an epic late night set that went and went and went. With each song, the group of musicians on stage grew. And the night just got rowdier and rowdier. Everyone knew that it would be another year before this family reunion met again and they wanted to squeeze every last drop of magic out of the weekend, now spilling over into its fifth day.
There is something timeless about bluegrass. It is a young music in the scheme of things but it comes from somewhere deep inside. Del McCoury is an embodiment of that depth. He conjures up ancient sounds and distant places as he sings songs, new and old. Del was sitting in with sets throughout each day of the festival. He was still there as the late nights were winding down. He may be eligible for social security, but he never tires. He never slows down. He is always standing, always smiling, always excited. As another Delfest comes to a close, it becomes clear what it is we love about Del McCoury. We keep getting older, but somehow, he stays the same age.
Delfest: More than just a namesake
By Tim Newby
Nestled at the base of the Appalachian Mountains near the northern end of the Potomac River and just outside the city limits of Cumberland, Maryland, is one of the true hidden gems of the ever-expanding festival season. It is a festival that is unique in its approach and scope. Whereas most festivals are made up of a collection of genre specific or completely random bands, Delfest, though held together by a vague notion of bluegrass, is really all about the festival’s name sake and founder, Del McCoury. The 73 year old bluegrass legend’s personality, music, and incredible spirit permeate everything about the festival. From the music on the stage to the family atmosphere that is in the air and the genuine appreciation and joy each band and every fan seems to carry with them throughout the weekend, McCoury is the inspiration for it all.
During his headlining set Friday night, Yonder Mountain String Band’s Jeff Austin, made his feelings regarding McCoury quite clear. “One of the great joys of getting to play this festival is there are a lot of people in the music world who I admire,” Austin proclaimed from high atop the festival’s main stage for the third year in a row. “The top two are Jerry Garcia, who I never got to meet, but I admired from afar and who inspired everything I do,” he continued, “and the other one [Del McCoury] is about to walk onstage and sing some songs with us, and that is just awesome in so many ways.”
But McCoury’s appearance throughout the weekend was not limited to his couple of sets and a sit in with Yonder. McCoury is omnipresent all weekend. If one turned spotting McCoury around the festival into a drinking game, he would be mighty drunk pretty quickly. Whether seeing a blurred version of his immaculate white pompadour zipping around on a golf cart, spotting him hanging by the merch tent, looking away and turning back only to see that he had somehow jumped on stage with Leftover Salmon during “Midnight Blues,” the statesman of string music makes the rounds. But the true sign of a great host is not just how well you can mingle with your guests, but which guests you choose to invite.
An impressive array of headliners topped the guest list, including a band that is now in its junior Delfest year, Yonder Mountain String Band did exactly what they seemingly always set out to do by providing their usual high-octane set. As per usual at Delfest, the sit-ins were abundant.
A highlight of the set came courtesy of a guest fiddle convention that consisted of Darroll Anger (Republic of Strings), Jason Carter (Travelin’ Mccourys) and Tim Carbone (Railroad Earth). The three distinct masters of the same tool of their trade literally held church before a fully engaged crowd. The lengthy once in a lifetime workout weaved its way through a trance infused “Dawn’s Early Light” that was succeeded by Talking Head’s “Girlfriend is Better” and wrapped with “Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown.”
Amongst a pioneer heavy lineup — that also included Sam Bush — was Saturday’s poly-ethnic Cajun headliner, Leftover Salmon, who brought their festival perfect sound in a set that relied heavily on the recently released Â Aquatic Hitchhike.
Sunday headliners, Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers, had to endure a brief rain-delay before talking the stage, but after they did, they showed why they were named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Entertainer of the year for 2011, a fact that Martin was more than pleased to remind the crowd of during their set.
As with years past though, Delfest is not just about having a couple of big headliners carry the day. The beauty and strength of the fest is in how the bluegrass spectrum is spanned, from an early morning gospel set from someone with as long a history in the genre as Doyle Lawson & Quicksliver to the thrashed out rockabilly-punk-grass of Devil Makes Three, the jam-friendly sound of Railroad Earth and the legendary banjo work of Bela Fleck. Herein lies yet one more great aspect of Delfest. While many events seem to pride themselves on forcing their attendees into the all too common schedule dilemma, Delfest gives some of the bands multiple sets throughout the weekend. As a result of this, the festival holds onto what many value most about an event of its type: discovery of new acts, something that is all but lost when forcing decisions that typically end up in the sacrificing of the unknown in the name of certainty and familiarity.
While at its thematic core, the festival can be summed up as a “Bluegrass Fest,” the theme is not limiting. Bands that teeter on the edge are always included. This year, in addition to his main stage set with what was billed as The Bluegrass All-Stars, Bela Fleck also played a set with the Marcus Roberts Trio that found the common ground between the smooth jazz trio and the more traditional sound of Fleck’s banjo. Another guest whose band challenged the label was Delfest Freshman, Luther Dickinson’s (North Mississippi Allstars) latest all female backed ensemble, The Wandering. who masterfully played several sets of old-timey roots music.
It is hard to list all that make Delfest such a unique and smooth-running festival. You can talk about the stellar lineup that is billed every year. In fact, there are so many honorable mentions in regards the summary of its greatness that it is staggering. It is great to be able to see bands multiple times through the weekend. The annual band competition that is held on Friday and Saturday afternoons has birthed new favorite bands for attendees over the years. That is great too. Of course, your feet would be most congratulatory to the organizers for putting together a layout that does not force you to walk to the ends of the earth in order to get back to camp, buy ice or visit the stages.
The fact is that the list of things that go into making Delfest great each year would be as long and as impressive as the guest list each year. In the end though, it really comes down to one thing that makes the whole festival so special: Â the aging legend with perfect white hair to match his faultless voice that causes the crowd to go crazy each time he hits one of them high notes that only he can reach. That is right, its greatness can be boiled down to one man, Del McCoury.
Click the thumbnail(s) for more images from the fest by Tim Newby…
See Below: links to download choice audience recordings from the fest and to stream a preview of YMSB’s soundboard recording.
May 27, 2012- Leftover Salmon with guests: Jason Carter- fiddle, Ronnie McCoury- mandolin, Robbie McCoury- banjo, Courtney Hartman- guitar, Del McCoury- vocals, guitar, Billy Nershi- guitar, vocals, Andy Falco- electric guitar, Alan Bartram- bass & Chris Pandolfi- banjo
Del Yeah is back and bigger than beforeâ€¦.and this time itâ€™s hitting the Midwest!Â After very successful 2010 & 2011 labor day weekends, Del McCoury music is excited to announce the 3rdÂ annual â€˜Del Yeahâ€™ weekend – a multi-day, multi-venue â€˜happeningâ€™ taking place over Labor Day weekend.. The idea of Del Yeah is to create a festival atmosphere in an outdoor setting or otherwise non-traditional venue complete with impromptu jams and unscheduled collaborations.
Initial plans include shows on August 31st, and September 1stÂ and 2ndÂ featuring the award-winning Del McCoury Band and their friends Emmitt-Nershi Band, Mountain Sprout, Cornmeal Â and many others joining along the way. Shows will be programmed for a full afternoon and eveningâ€™s worth of music and entertainment, culminating in closing jam sessions that will have audiences on the edge of their seats or dancing to the music all night long.
Friday, August 31: Crossroads KC at Grinders, Kansas City, MO
w/ The Del McCoury Band, Emmitt-Nershi Band and Mountain Sprout, Reverend Peytonâ€™s Big Damn Band
Saturday, September 1: Old Rock House, St. Louis, MO
w/ The Del McCoury Band, Emmitt-Nershi Band, Mountain Sprout, Cumberland Gap, and Elemental Shakedown
(plus special late night indoor show with Infamous Stringdusters)
Sunday, September 2: Rustle Hill Ampitheater, Carbondale, IL
w/ The Del McCoury Band, Emmitt-Nershi Band, Cornmeal, Chicago Farmer, Bawn in the Mash, and The Bankesters