More Than Just a Music Festival – A Passing of Tradition: An Inside Look at DelFest 2013

“When you want genuine music,” writes Mark Twain, “music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose – when you want all this…invoke the glory-beaming banjo!”  Or, better yet, make your way to the mountain side of Maryland and invoke the glory-beaming gem of a music festival known as DelFest.  Not only will you find music that’s truly genuine, but a place that after only a few days’ time you’ll come to call home.

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Twain’s writing came from a period in American history when a new culture was born out of carved gourds, animal hide and strings – when the concept of “old-time roots music” emerged in the 1800s, country twang, ancient rhythms and front porch blues weren’t the only things that broke ground with it – values were something that could be heard and a strong sense of community resonated from the plucking of five strings.  From the minstrel shows of the 19th century to the rise of Appalachian folk in the 1900s to the jam/grass/blues blend we hear today, roots music is alive because of the shared tradition that is the stored energy within it. No man better exemplifies this ideology than bluegrass legend, Del McCoury, for with DelFest he has created a space for all to come together under a single canopy that transcends both place and time.

Taking place over Memorial Day weekend, the festival had the opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the summer and its unique blend of music education, unbeatable live performance, picturesque surroundings, and overall value for family and community make the DelFest experience a tough one to beat.  Nestled among the Allegany Mountains just outside of Cumberland, Maryland, the festival’s home is the Allegheny County Fairgrounds – perhaps one of the most ideal places to host a festival of this kind.  From the flowing waters of the Potomac River, to the steel iron crossing of the railroad tracks, from well-maintained facilities (yes, folks – actual bathrooms) to the intimate venues that hosted the weekend late nights, from sustainably-minded food vendors to one of the best family camping areas one could dream, the infrastructure was in place to keep festival-goers happy, dancing, smiling and continually exchanging the weekends’ coined but surprisingly not over-used phrase, “Del Yeah”.

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There are several things that set DelFest apart from other music festivals scheduled to happen throughout the summer, but one truly unique component to the DelFest experience lies with that of its pre-festival musical education opportunity, the DelFest Academy.  From Jason Carter teaching fiddle, to Ronnie McCoury guiding students along the mastery of eight-coupled strings, students who attended the academy had the privilege of studying music with the very musicians set to take the stage throughout the course of the weekend.  Other instructors included Don Rigsby (mandolin), Rob McCoury (banjo), Alan Bartram (bass), and Ronnie Bowman and Kenny Smith (guitar).  In many ways, the DelFest Academy captures what we see on stage with members of The Del McCoury Band – the passing on of bluegrass tradition and technique, the sustainability of a type of music that calls us home.

On Thursday, students of the academy traded in their pre-fest wrist bands for the colored cloth that granted them access to one of the best-kept secrets of the festival season.  With sets from the Rambling Rooks, the Jerry Douglas Band and Leftover Salmon, opening day of the festival set the pace for what would become the “Weekend of the sit- ins,” with members of The Del McCoury Band stealing the collaborative crown.  Leftover Salmon’s set featured Jason Carter on fiddle throughout its entirety and Rob and Del McCoury inaugurated the stage as they collaborated with Salmon on “Midnight Blues” the featured McCoury/Salmon track on 1999’s acclaimed album, The Nashville Sessions.

By Friday, the record-breaking attendance of this year’s event continued to climb and the camping moved out from the central grounds and made its way to the other side of the railroad tracks.  “I always love it when the train rolls by at Delfest,” remarked Jeff Austin during Yonder Mountain String Band’s Sunday night set, and there is no question as to why. While pitching a tent only feet away from the steel roll of the tracks may not seem ideal, one couldn’t think of a more appropriate addition to a bluegrass festival – the train rolling by was a constant fiddle and brought a certain inexplicable magic to the weekend.

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“This band can change a group of strangers into a full-out hoe down at the drop of a hat,” remarked DelFest’s very own MC, entertainer and multi-instrumentalist Joe Craven (Mamajowali) when introducing Trampled by Turtles, whose Friday afternoon slot kicked the party into full-swing.  The band displayed their impressive capacity in musical juxtaposition by opening their set with the soft ballad, “Widower’s Heart” and immediately shifting energy into a high-powered rendition of “Sorry” – both of which appear on the band’s latest album, Stars and Satellites.  Bassist Tim Saxhaug took an impressive vocal lead on a tune that was seemingly inspired by summer – and while the song’s title remains unknown, it came as a nice radiance of warmth during a set when there was a strong chill in the air, comparable to, as lead vocalist Dave Simonett put it, “Minnesota weather.”  Chilly, windy, over-cast or not, heads were bopping, and feet were moving – it was apparent that the boys of TBT felt right at home and the powerhouse acoustic five piece was all anyone needed to feel the heat.

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When a festival has so many talented, highly acclaimed national acts on the weekend bill, it is only natural that the one leading frustration an attendee might have is the age-old dilemma of overlapping sets.  While Trampled by Turtles was raging heavily on the main stage, whimsical sounds were emulating from the Potomac Stage as Elephant Revival enchanted the crowd with their heartfelt, infectious tunes birthed out of nature as the band’s premier muse.  “I absolutely love this band, everything about them is beautiful,” was a statement that echoed from a captivated crowd and one truly could not think of a better description for this Colorado five piece.  In celebration of the full moon that was to appear later that evening, the band made time to include a most glorious rendition of “Ring Around the Moon” featuring Bonnie Pane on the musical saw, but it was their performance of “Time” that received the strongest response, for it featured an incredible washboard solo – scrubbing clothes or wringing out rhythms, the washboard is an embodiment of strong, virtuous women –  exhibited both by Pane and later on in the weekend by Breezy Peyton of The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band.

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Del McCoury and Trey Anastasio took their respective bands to the stage as Friday’s full moon headliners; bringing the two together made for a truly unforgettable experience.  Compared to the other acts on the bill, the presence of the Trey Anastasio Band is what made Delfest’s line-up truly unique.  When hearing Trey, one wouldn’t necessarily think “old time,” or “bluegrass,” but the inspiration within the genre is something that is clearly heard.  “I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking about it,” remarked Trey as he described the impact that Del McCoury’s album Blue Side of Town had on his music while traveling with Phish back in 1999.

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When Del graced the stage, together he and Trey’s band performed “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” and “Beauty of My Dreams”.  Later, Jason Carter and Ronnie McCoury joined in for the set’s encore, featuring “Heavy Things” and Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” but the collaborations were not the only notable moments during the set.  An unexpected cover of Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood” resulted in a crowd-pleasing uproar and the full moon breaking free from behind the clouds mid-set created a profound sense of unity for all. Friday night at DelFest.  What magic!

The Travelin’ McCoury’s and Leftover Salmon hosted the late night Friday Pickin’ Party at the DelFest Music Hall – while the headlining performances of the night certainly raised the bar high, there’s something to be said about the boys of the Travelin’ McCoury’s when they loosen up a couple of buttons and trade in the blue jacket for a weathered flannel and a taste of the late night crowd.

While this year’s DelFest showcased some of the finest acts in bluegrass/newgrass/old-time/roots, call it what you will, it also lent an opportunity for up and coming bands to take their stab at a heightened sense of fame.  Saturday morning brought the final round of the bluegrass band competition at the Potomac Stage.  This year’s winners, The Unseen Strangers, will have the privilege of performing at DelFest 2014, yet one band that didn’t quite make the bill, Cricket Tell the Weather, are certainly noteworthy and one not to miss.

Perhaps one of the most impressive performances of the weekend came from the soulful sounds of 22-year old Texas singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz.  “I’ve found my wings and I’m ready to fly,” were the heartfelt words that emulated from her lips during “Left Home” and there couldn’t be more truth behind the lyrics.  Coupled with her soulful voice, bouncing between the six-string banjo, octave mandolin, mandolin and guitar, this multi-instrumentalist withholds a sense of talent that makes her truly unforgettable.  Her rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” can bring tears to a grown man’s eyes and she can cover songs in a way that truly make them her own.  Following her set in the DelFest Music Hall was a small, “chill little performance,” as she put it, where audience members were able to ask questions and open up conversation with her in an intimate setting.  Paul Simon’s “Kathy’s Song” was a memorable moment from the music hall performance, one of many more to come.  Watch out for Sarah Jarsoz. While young, sweet and seemingly innocent, she truly is a force to be reckoned with.

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Performances by Greensky Bluegrass, Keller Williams with More Than a Little, Red Baratt, as well as the 6th Annual McCoury Family Jam took place throughout the rest of the day and trying to fit it all in, at times, seemed nearly impossible.  “If you want to sit around your tent, camp in your backyard,” was a memorable quote from Reverend Peyton during Sunday night’s late-night set, and this couldn’t hold itself to be more true while experiencing DelFest.  The festival is so rich with good, wholesome music, that camp was a place often abandoned until wee-hours of the morning, or after a disappointing rejection trying to catch one of the three sold-out late night shows.

Friday night was magic and Saturday night was on fire.  While the barnburner was scheduled for the Sunday late-night, the sparks emerged prematurely and the result was something worthy of the history books.  The Del McCoury Band’s Saturday night set featured, not only the original members of the band, but the Masters of Bluegrass themselves – JD Crowe on banjo, Bobby Hicks on fiddle, Bobby Osborn on mandolin and Jerry McCoury on bass. Together they showcased their mastery with tunes like “Love those Hills of Old Virginia” and “Wheel Hoss” a perfect precursor to their Sunday afternoon set.

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Then came Old Crow Medicine Show with an unstoppable energy unlike any other.   The band moved across the stage in a way that holds them true to their name, for they aren’t just a band, they truly are a show and one not to miss at that.  They come together, split apart and move across the stage in a way that claims it as theirs to own.  From fan favorite “Take Em Away” to “Methamphetamine” their set showcased a range of tunes, yet they all had one thing in common –  they left the crowd dancing and thirsty for more.  “If you’re going to play in Cumberland, Maryland, you have to have two fiddles in the band,” was a statement by front man Ketch Secor that opened the flood gates for a McCoury sit in and Del, Jason and Robbie joined in to add flavor to “CC Rider,” “Darlin’ Corey” and “Tear it Down”.

Entering the music hall for Saturday’s late night, the “less refined” Hackensaw Boys took the stage.  The juxtaposition to the Old Crow set couldn’t have been more appropriately placed and the Virginia Hoe Down was now underway. Chance McCouy (OCMS) sat in on fiddle and banjo, the venue was packed and the night gave way to hootin’, hollerin’, stompin’ and rompin’.  The Infamous Stringdusters kept the party going well into the early morning, opening with a high energy “Fork in the Road” making room for a crowd pleasing Grateful Dead cover “He’s Gone” and leaving room for guests Ronnie McCoury and Greensky Bluegrass’ Anders Beck to share the stage.   It wasn’t until after the music hall cleared out however, that things got truly interesting.  Post late-night jams in the coined “Moonshine Tent” with members of Greensky Bluegrass, Trampled by Turtles and Old Crow Medicine show lasted until the sun came up, and even then the party wasn’t over.  The sun was up, but fires were still burning and bows were still gliding rapidly across weathered strings.
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As if Saturday wasn’t satisfying enough, Yonder’s Ben Kaufmann described Sunday as “The best Sunday of my life,” and he wasn’t the only one who shared that sentiment.  There was a slight chill in the air all weekend but Sunday’s weather proved to be nothing short of pristine.  The day began with a gospel session that no Sunday morning at Delfest would be complete without.  Following was a set by Larry Keel and the Natural Bridge, bringing Jeff Austin on stage for his debut 2013 DelFest appearance on a cover of “Ramble on Rose”.  While the main stage offered up a variety of talent that day:  Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, The Infamous Stringdusters, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, there was a draw to the smaller of the two stages and memorable performances from Aoife Donavon of Crooked Still, The Hackensaw Boys and Spirit Family Reunion made the Potomac Stage the Sunday hot spot. Check out Yonder Mountain String Band’s set from Delfest on Archive.org

Perhaps most noteworthy, however, was the big sound that came out of the New York-based six-piece, Spirit Family Reunion. There was a purity that poured from their sound and they are not just a band to “stomp, clap, shake and holler with,” but rather a band to come together around.  There is something to be said in their name, for their performances cultivate family – they bring people together over a common theme woven throughout the originality of their sound.  Fred Moyse of The Hackensaw Boys sat in on the band’s closing tune, “I’ll Find a Way” and what resulted was something of true beauty.  Complete strangers came together, linked together, singing and swaying, repeating the chorus “Don’t worry about me, I’ll find a way,” and that was how Sunday at DelFest felt – care and worry free.
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Following the Spirit Family Reunion set, a crowd gathered in the music hall for a performance by Keller Williams and the Travelin’ McCourys.  Packed from one end to the other, the group played an impressive set, playing off of several covers, including yet another Dead tune, “Candyman” and a personal favorite, My Morning Jacket’s “I’m Amazed”.  Among others, Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” “Hobo Song” and “Something Else” off of the group’s latest collaborative album, Pick, also made their way into this unforgettable set.

“We’re going to give you our all, we promise you that,” noted Jeff Austin during the opening of Yonder Mountain String Band’s headlining Sunday evening set, and he wasn’t lying.  Yonder was perhaps the most appropriate pick for a Sunday night act, for they are Delfest veterans with enough gusto to breathe life back into a crowd that had been going strong on a bluegrass buzz since Thursday afternoon.  Yonder’s set was everything you’d hope for out of the band: a mind-exploding version of “Sidewalk Stars” with enough distortion to balance out an otherwise unplugged weekend, “Holdin’”, “Sometimes I’ve Won” the happy, catchy little tune “Don’t Worry, Happy Birthday” and so many more.  Claiming Del McCoury as one of the best champions of music any genre can have, Jeff Austin invited Del to the stage and he joined the band for “Prisoner’s Song” and “Hit Parade of Love”.  Ronnie McCoury and Jason Carter quickly followed suit, closing out the set and the main stage with a hyped up “Traffic Jam” into an encore of the traditional bluegrass “Red Rocking Chair”.  But the weekend wasn’t over.

Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band and Greensky Bluegrass were scheduled to burn the barn down in the music hall, but this wasn’t a show for just anyone; only the strong can survive when it comes to a Sunday late night and the performance was, according to Anders Beck, “a celebration of those still standing.”  RPBDB and Greensky served as a great pair for closing out the festival, as both bands have a certain roughness about them, a bit tattered and slightly torn, the perfect metaphor for the crowd gathered in the venue come Sunday night.

Greensky Bluegrass is a unique group of talented musicians that take bluegrass music to a different level – there is an originality in their sound that is not seen in other acts in the circuit and it is only a matter of time before they begin to soar in their own green sky.  Opening their late night set with “Jaywalking,” a track from their latest album, Handguns – the boys of Greensky Bluegrass certainly brought down the heat and the flame spread throughout as their performance advanced.  What makes Greensky different is something that exists beyond words: they hit at the depths of the soul and extract the beauty that is pain within us all.  Each band member has his own contribution to the Greensky sound, but Paul Hoffman and his mandolin stand at the forefront while Dave Bruzza extracts the darkness with his deep, almost haunting vocals and incredible capacity to express feeling with the hollowed sound of his acoustic guitar.  They closed their set and in turn, the weekend, with a cover of Bob Marley’s “Could You be Loved,” rounding out the circle and centering in on the roots of the music celebrated at DelFest.
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Sometime around 4 a.m., the music hall cleared out and the late night wanderers found their way back beneath a darkened sky.  Approaching the tracks, the whistle of a train approaching off in the distance became more evident and shortly thereafter the bars at the crossing lowered.  It was a cloudy evening with the moon completely out of sight, leaving the lights on the passing train to twinkle like the stars absent from the sky.  Soon after, the bars rose and the train was out of sight but its whistle could still be heard.  The 6th annual DelFest may have been over, but the tradition it has created lives on – not just until next year, but always.  And there is one person to truly thank for that – the legendary master of bluegrass himself, Mr. Del McCoury.
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You can also read about our preview coverage by ‘s Kristen Mack-Perry – Family-friendly DelFest is Full of Tradition

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Than You to our Contributing Photographers – Mark Loveless and Susan Skidmore