DelFest’s Distinctive Roots

Nancy Dunham on May 16, 2014

It’s not a stretch to say DelFest would be Jerry Garcia’s kind of festival.

And not just because he was a major league Del McCoury fan boy – he once told Rolling Stone he spent his whole life trying to emulate the famed bluegrass singer and musician – but also because DelFest features all kinds of Dead alumni and kindred musical spirits.

Last year when Trey Anastasio told the DelFest crowd how much McCoury has influenced him he was only the latest in a series of world-renowned musicians – including Bruce Springsteen, Jon Fishman, Bruce Hornsby, Alison Krauss — to shower McCoury with accolades. And the feeling is clearly reciprocated

“All music is related,” said McCoury. “I didn’t realize that when I was a kid, of course, but I appreciate all of it even if I can’t see myself playing it. I always am learning something when I listen” to different kinds of music.

This year’s four-day DelFest over Memorial Day Weekend showcases that musical breadth with acts ranging from The String Cheese Incident to Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby (with Skaggs’ band Kentucky Thunder), Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn and beyond.

As for the Grateful Dead connection, “The first time [Jerry] ever saw Bill Monroe, it was 1963 and my dad was in the band so that made a huge impression on him,” said McCoury’s son Ronnie, a virtuoso mandolin player in his own right, relating Garcia’s words during a circa 1990 get together at the now-defunct Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. “So when we sat down to talk music, you know, [my dad and Jerry] hadn’t seen each other in 20 years or so. I was 21 years old or so I was wide eyed, I had been to several Dead shows with my friends [who had told me] ‘You play bluegrass; The Grateful Dead does, too.’ How true that was and [my friends] didn’t even know it! So here I am at the table with [my dad and Jerry] and they are cutting a deal on banjos and it was great just to be there, to watch them talk and reunite.”

Not that the beauty of the music Del and his band, which includes Ronnie and his banjoist brother Robbie, is lost on non-bluegrass lovers in the crowd.

“It’s funny what people like,” said Ronnie, musing about the near hysteria that greets the Del McCoury Band’s appearances especially at DelFest. “There is nothing mainstream about what we do or how my dad sings. It just hits certain people. It’s what those certain people like.”

It’s also funny that McCoury’s work with bluegrass legend Monroe is often the first thing people mention about him. Despite the close association, McCoury has a very different attitude toward music than his former boss, who was a strict bluegrass traditionalist.

Consider multi-Grammy Award winners Ricky Skaggs, a long-time friend of McCoury’s, and former Dead member Bruce Hornsby, coming to this year’s DelFest to play their brand of music. Of course the appreciation goes both ways. Last year, when Skaggs was artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame, he invited McCoury, Hornsby, Emmylou Harris, Brad Paisley, Peter Frampton, Gordon Kennedy, The Whites, Alison Krauss, Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill to perform.

“That was so great. Ricky called me and wanted me to do it. The boys [in my band] were on the road, but I went. Bruce told me he saw a picture of me, him and Jerry [Garcia] and, you know, I have that picture [he mentioned] at home.”

Not that McCoury pushed his kids to become musicians. In fact, McCoury took many years off the road – he worked as a logger – so he could stay at home and help raise his family. When they did show an interest and proficiency in music, the while family moved from Pennsylvania, the York area, to Nashville.

“My dad never pushed us. I have never heard him say, ‘You have to go practice,’” said Ronnie of how naturally music became his calling. “When we play together it’s the most joyous time. We used to watch him on stage and that made us really want to do that, too.”

Of course McCoury was a seasoned musician when the family moved to Nashville, but the move gave his sons a leg up.

“It’s funny because so many people knew my dad in the early days are still in Nashville,” says Ronnie. “And people tell me all that time that he doesn’t seem to age. He is just the same as he was back then, full of energy and strength.”

And, of course the friendships McCoury developed through the years with Skaggs and others have fueled DelFest and its family-friendly atmosphere.

“I don’t think we sit down and say ‘This is the strategy.’ We have folks we want to invite, this is the first year for the String Cheese Incident but we have played with them before, and we think he crowd will really like them,” says Ronnie. “I have a lot of faith in people and a certain respect people show and I love the [String Cheese Incident’s] music. They are one of America’s great bands; I really believe that. You can’t say that about many bands. And they wanted to come out.”

As far as Skaggs, one of McCoury’s best selling albums, Del and The Boys released in 2001, was recorded for Skaggs’ record label.

“My dad and Ricky go way back when they played in the early ‘70s. They live in the same part of town and they are friends,” says Ronnie. “And we love Bruce. That’s one thing about DelFest. Everyone who plays is like family.”

A lot of that has to be do with McCoury’s seemingly never-ending energy that finds him all over the festival throughout the event. Even though he said the years have slowed him down – he’s 75 now — he still plays full sets at DelFest and sits in with a host of others. Late at night he’s often driving or riding in a golf cart around the festival grounds each night to ensure that everyone’s safe and happy.

“You know, we realize that a festival can have a bad year and it can ruin it,” said Ronnie. “We have a larger crowd, but we’ve never had any bad incidents. We treat people respectfully and we have found they are very respectful too.”


DelFest returns to Cumberland, Maryland on May 22-25.