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Big Moments & Memorable Collaborations Mark 2024 DelFest

Del McCoury Band (photo: Kevin Smith)

Editors Note: This article was written by Saving Country Music contributor Kevin Smith. All photography by Kevin Smith.

DelFest 2024 took place this past weekend on May 23rd to May 26th. Held at the Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland each year, the festival has become one of the top bluegrass festivals and is on a short list of must-do destinations for fans of acoustic music.

Carefully curated like MerleFest and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, it features an eclectic lineup each year. It’s not unusual to find legends and veterans of the traditional bluegrass scene, the jamgrass scene, and younger up-and-coming acts often sharing in jam sessions deep into the night for thousands of enthusiastic fans.  

For the uninitiated, Del McCoury is perhaps the genre’s leading elder statesmen. At 85 years old, McCoury is something of a preservationist and living legend, keeping the traditional style of bluegrass alive and active. Drawing upon his years spent in the service of Bill Monroe as a member of The Bluegrass Boys, to his days with his own band The Dixie Pals, to the current line-up of The Del McCoury Band, he remains one of the finest practitioners of a glorious American art form that has become a world-wide phenomenon.

With his white, immaculately quaffed hair always in place, a familiar grin, and a stunning high tenor vocal with a distinct southern drawl, Del has become not only the musical symbol of the festival, but a visual one, and is always a crowd favorite whenever he’s onstage or seen driving around the festival grounds.

McCoury’s band is made up of his two sons Rob and Ronnie on banjo and mandolin, Alan Bartram on upright bass, and Jason Carter on fiddle. It is singularly the most awarded band in the history of the International Bluegrass Music Association. Undoubtedly, these guys are among the best pickers on the planet, and that’s no exaggeration.

Though the band is primarily rooted in the traditional Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs style, over the years they have been willing to take chances and collaborate with numerous artists decidedly out of the mainstream grass scene including Steve Earle, The Chieftains, Phish, Leftover Salmon, Richard Thompson, Tyler Childers, and others. In fact, Del has developed friendships with many in the jamgrass scene, and one of the main hallmarks of DelFest is the inclusion of numerous jam bands each year.

This year’s lineup included Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass and Leftover Salmon. Del’s interest in these artists and his willingness to collaborate with them personally and professionally has fostered much goodwill between the two camps. Looking at the fans who congregate at DelFest, you find everyone from traditionally-minded country folks and family groups, to jam band devotees, musicians of numerous genres, and a healthy balance of young and old, all bonded by a common love of music.

It’s a phenomenon not unlike what Willie Nelson accomplished in the early ’70s in Austin, drawing cowboys, bikers, hippies and ordinary folks all under one big tent, despite the cultural differences they may have. It’s been said that once you’ve experienced DelFest, you are family.  

At DelFest there are three stages: the big Grandstand stage, a secondary smaller stage, and an indoor event hall stage. During the heat of the day, many DelFest folks cool off by floating down the gorgeous Potomac river on inner tubes. Surrounded by towering rock cliffs and tree covered mountains, the river is an incredible way to relax and one can easily float away an afternoon while hearing the music in the background.

Later in the afternoons and evenings, of course the main stage becomes the center of the action with a large standing area in front of the stage and an even larger sitting area in the vast lawn space. There are also late night sessions inside the event hall after midnight for an additional ticket price. Sunday night, Old Crow Medicine Show and The Travelin’ McCourys hosted one such jam.

Main stage highlights in no particular order include:  

Marty Stuart and The Fabulous Superlatives:

Del McCoury earned his bluegrass stripes playing in a legacy band, (Bill Monroe). Likewise, Marty Stuart earned his stripes playing for years in the band of Lester Flatts where he learned guitar and mandolin with a great deal of proficiency. Though this particular set wasn’t a bluegrass set from Marty, he nonetheless  dazzled the excited crowd both young and old.

Marty Stuart played usual favorites like “Tear The Wood Pile Down,” “Time Don’t Wait,” “Country Music’s Got a Hold on Me,” and a number of instrumental barn burners that showcased the virtuosity of himself and “Cousin” Kenny Vaughn on twin lead telecasters. Of course, Marty played ‘Clarence,’ which is the Telecaster formerly owned by Roland White who invented and installed the now famed B-bender device, which Marty uses to great effect.

Watch for Marty’s guitar strap button to start bobbing up and down and you know he’s activating it. It gives a stretch to the B-string and allows Marty to emulate a pedal steel sound. No mention of The Fabulous Superlatives is complete without mentioning upright bass player and grandson of the great Earl Scruggs, the Professor of Hillbilly Music himself, Chris Scruggs. He’s what you might call a jack-of-all trades musician and singer and songwriter, and Marty always generously allows him a few songs, and he never disappoints.

Marty Stuart with The Del McCoury Band & Heaven McCoury

A bit later in the day, Stuart was invited onstage by Del McCoury himself to join the McCourys for several songs. You could feel the love and admiration Stuart and The McCourys have for each other. At one point Stuart told Del, “You have the greatest version of ‘High on a Mountain’ that I have ever heard. Period.”  The song is a classic originally done by Ola Belle Reed and is a staple of a Del McCoury set. The two have shared stages many times over the decades. This wasn’t Marty’s first DelFest appearance, and won’t be his last.  

Lukas Nelson backed by The Travelin’ McCourys:

If I had to choose a single favorite set of the festival, it was this one. And I sense many agreed with me. I have seen Lukas Nelson numerous times over the years. I still remember him as a scrappy teenager playing “Texas Flood” on a Stratocaster, flanked by his legendary father at a Farm Aid decades ago. I’ve seen him grow and become the backbone of Willie’s Family Band.

But for me, what stands above that is his ever-growing catalog of brilliantly written original songs. On this night, Lukas eschewed his usual band and instead enlisted The Travelin’ McCourys to back him. The Travelin’ McCourys are essentially The Del McCoury Band minus Del and without the suits. Add to the band Cody Kilby on guitar. 

Ronnie and Rob McCoury and the band have been doing this for a while as a way to tour when Del isn’t touring. Along the way they’ve allowed themselves to stretch their musical legs and experiment with different styles and find new opportunities and new sounds. Lukas brought out his most treasured songs, and essentially performed them with the full blown McCoury treatment of guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle. It was something we haven’t seen or heard before, and the results were stunning.

Take his epic song “Runnin’ Shine” for example. The song is gorgeous, the words which mention moonshining in Appalachia, outrunning revenuers and “trying to stay alive like people do” hit home hard on a night with mountains behind him as he sang, and Jason Carter’s haunting and somber fiddle played the melody.

As if it couldn’t get any better than that, out came “Just Outside of Austin,” another achingly beautiful composition from Lukas. “Turn Off The News and Build A Garden” had the audience from the go and it resonated big time. The set was a triumph for both Lukas and The McCourys. Lukas should do an album with these guys.

Sierra Ferrell 

Sierra Ferrell with Lukas Nelson and Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon

This was the second year in a row that Sierra Ferrell has appeared at DelFest. Its easy to understand why. She’s a crowd favorite. This year was no different. She first popped up in the middle of a Leftover Salmon set along with Lukas Nelson. The two sang a duet of “Seven Spanish Angels” originally by Willie Nelson and Ray Charles, and then a cover of the classic “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music” by Joe Maphis.

Sierra Ferrell lights up any stage she is part of and Leftover Salmon was happy to have her. Ferrell performed her own set with her own backing band on Sunday night as well, including well-known songs like “The Sea,” “Chitlin’ Cookin’ Time in Cheatham County,” “Jeremiah,” “I Can Drive You Crazy,” “Rosemary,” and a handful of others.

The real standout performance and the one that made an impression was “I’ll Come Off The Mountain,” which she sang flawlessly while wearing a dress covered in butterfly images, with the mountains literally to the side of the stage. It may have been a not-so-subtle nod to Dolly Parton.

Ferrell doesn’t play pure bluegrass. It’s more mountain music, folk and country. But whatever it is, it’s pretty moving. In my humble opinion, she is the most original and exciting female performer to come along in over a decade. Unfortunately in the middle of her set, a mother of all storms hit and everyone was required to seek shelter due to lightning.

Del McCoury Band 

Performing no less than three sets over the weekend, Del and his boys made it clear they can entertain as good as anyone, and the crowds loved every minute. They have a new album coming out in mid-June called Songs of Love and Life and if you were at DelFest, one could buy advance copies on vinyl, signed by Del himself.

These days Del is featuring grandson Heaven McCoury on guitar. Heaven is quite the accomplished player both on flatpicking leads and electric guitar. His father is Ronnie McCoury, and it appears that he is making quite a name for himself. This year Del and the band were personally invited to play Eric Clapton’s Guitar Crossroads festival, and they got to play with Clapton himself. Reportedly, Clapton is a fan of Del McCoury, and he was impressed with Heaven McCoury’s playing.

Heaven got to show off his picking chops front and center at Delfest to much applause. Del played numerous fan favorite songs including “All Aboard,” “Nashville Cats,” “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” “Traveling Teardrop Blues,” and several murder ballads including his take on “Blackjack County Chain.” Despite being 85 years old, Del’s voice seems to show no sign of wavering whatsoever.

 Leftover Salmon and Old Crow Medicine Show 

Leftover Salmon may just be my favorite of the jam bands at this point. I’ve seen them all over the years, but for various reasons, they really resonated this time around. Whats not to love about these guys? Vince Herman is a great songwriter and frontman, Drew Emmit kills it on mandolin and electric guitar and fiddle, and they have a real gun in keyboardist, dobro and lap steel player Jay Starling.

Lukas Nelson with Vince Herman

These boys are so versatile, they literally can transition from bluegrass to honky tonk to Cajun and all points in between. Listening to these guys is like wearing the most comfortable pair of shoes imaginable. They have a deep catalog of music to boot. If you haven’t gotten acquainted with them, you are missing out on a great American band. They played a few different sets this year, but the one with Lukas Nelson and Sierra Ferrell was special. You could see the joy in the crowd as they ate up what these guys served.  

Old Crow Medicine show closed it out Sunday night after the storm passed through. Though the returning crowd wasn’t as big as it had been prior to the storm, there were still a significant amount of music fans there to witness the greatness of this legacy band.

These days Old Crow has three original members, and most notably Critter Fuqua is back in the fold. He’s a founding member, and he and Ketch Secor were schoolmates who got into music together. Hearing him once again perform “James River Blues” was a real highlight. It’s a beautifully-written song about the death of the river boats due to the railroads, and the melody is haunting.

Ketch Secor’s fiddling only adds to its allure. But I would be remiss not to mention some of the other members including Cory Younts who is a multi-instrumental threat, and a fantastic entertainer. One moment he’s pounding the piano furiously playing “Great Balls of Fire,” another moment he’s rocking out a guitar and hollering about Appalachian wolfmen.

Their new drummer Dante Pope also plays piano and sings. On this night he stunned with a version of “CC Rider,” which Old Crow had recorded on their self-titled album way back in the beginning. He’s a former member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and has deep roots musically to Chicago.

Ketch Secor may just be the ultimate string band frontman, and if you have ever witnessed the spectacle of a live Old Crow Medicine Show set, you would agree. His fiddling is raw, primal and intense as is his stage presence. But make no mistake, these boys are certified Grand Ole Opry members and they know how to entertain in a huge way.

Of course they played “Wagon Wheel,” and why wouldn’t they? However, one of the standouts of their set was when they all gathered around one mic and played a few traditional songs. It was their way of taking the music back to its humble true, old-timey origins. 

Old Crow invited Ronnie McCoury on stage to jam with them in the closing minutes of their set, singing “I Saw The Light” by Hank Williams. What a killer set from a truly great band, and a perfect ending to DelFest 2024.  Many folks are already planning for next year’s DelFest. Go see it, you will love it! 

Other artists and bands were to be found this year at DelFest, and by no means did I catch them all, its way more music than a mortal could ever take in. Apologies on not providing more photos. That’s another story entirely! 

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Editor’s Note: Kevin Smith and Saving Country Music did not receive a press pass for 2024 DelFest despite requests. Kevin Smith was also told to stop taking photographs by staff because he did not have a pass. Apologies to all the other DelFest 2024 performers not mentioned or pictured.

Del McCoury projection on the side of a cliff at DelFest

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