A Decade Along The Potomac: Del McCoury, Ernie Anastasio, Billy Strings & More Reflect On 10 Years Of DelFest
Words by: Carly Shields
For the past decade, Memorial Day Weekend in Cumberland, Maryland is certain to mean one thing: DelFest. In its 10th year at the same beautiful, cliffside Allegany County Fairgrounds, the festival celebrates the community of music lovers that has welcomed Del McCoury and his musical family with open arms.
People come from up the block and around the world to hear music by some of their favorite players and pick alongside the Potomac River with their festival friends. Beyond the fans, DelFest is special because the artists love being there just as much. They often follow Del’s lead and sit-in with as many friends as possible, and can often be seen roaming the crowd and soaking in the magic.
I had the chance to speak with six key members of the DelFest community and reflect on what the event means to them, including the patriarch himself, Del McCoury, who has been in the spotlight since he started playing with Bill Monroe in 1963 at age 24. His iconic voice and guitar playing sprouted an entire family of players, like his banjo playing son Rob McCoury who I also spoke with about DelFest. I heard from Carey Harmon of DelFest regulars Railroad Earth and prodigy mandolin player Sierra Hull, as well as a relatively new face on the mountain known for his impressive banjo and guitar playing, Billy Strings.
For the fan perspective, I spoke to a man who’s been to nearly every DelFest, including all of the years his talented guitarist son Trey has played the event (with a return trip to see Trey Anastasio Band planned this month), Ernie Anastasio.
Del McCoury Band
JamBase: Can you tell us a little bit about how DelFest got started?
Del McCoury: Well, I always knew from the first time I played a festival I wanted to have my own but I didn’t want the headache of it! And so I kept it in mind over the years and when I got my manager in the ’90s he said, “Did you ever think of having a festival?” and I said, “Yeah, but I wouldn’t know how,” and he offered to help, so now 10 years later, we have this great thing going! And he was right, I didn’t have much to do with the booking, I have more a responsibility to travel to Cumberland to work with the community and meet with community leaders, because we really didn’t want to just have the festival and leave, we wanted to give back, so I go out there a few times a year and pitch in, hang out, talk to folks.
Rob McCoury: I thought having a festival was great idea. We literally play hundreds so why not have our own?
JamBase: How many DelFests have you been to?
Carey Harmon: I think RRE has been at nine of the 10 DelFests, which is a big honor.
Ernie Anastasio: We’ve only missed two, we were there for the inaugural one and just about every other, it’s one of our favorite events every year, me and my wife Geneva.
Billy Strings: This will only be my second DelFest, so yeah I guess I’m kind of a newbie, but hopefully after this year I’ll be a DelFest regular. A lot of the bands that are on the lineup year after year are all good friends of mine, so I felt right at home even at my first DelFest.
JamBase: What are some of your favorite things from the past 10 years?
Del McCoury: Oh well, I always enjoy it so much, sometimes those happy memories fade into each other. But I always enjoy coming up and singing with the people we book, especially when I get up with some kids I don’t know all that well and they wanna sing one of my songs.
Carey Harmon: Year one was special because it set the tone with Del, Sammy Bush, David Grisman, Bela [Fleck], and the stand out set to me was Vince Gill, maybe because we don’t get to see him as much and he’s such a great musician. 2014 had Kentucky Thunder with Bruce Hornsby, which was really special to see. Del’s sets remain the high point of the day though, even better when he sits-in with us at 2 a.m. Of course there was the “Delnado” year when the storm came after Sam Bush. The most consistent joy about the festival is seeing friends and starting the festival season off right. Sets the bar pretty high.
Rob McCoury: One of my favorite memories is seeing the huge ovation for my dad every time he takes the stage at DelFest.
Ernie Anastasio: Del McCoury is an absolute icon in American music, not even just bluegrass. I mean, we consume a lot of music – bluegrass fests, rock fests – and one of the things that’s true about bluegrass festivals is that they stick close to home, they’re more pure, not a very wide array of different types of musicians. In the case of DelFest, it’s a very family friendly environment, a festival that includes a diverse lineup so it exposes the bluegrass audience to some rock ‘n’ roll and contemporary music. For people who come to see the rock music, they get a chance to see some truly iconic American music and no one in my view does that better than Del. He’s a highly, highly regarded musician, songwriter, vocalist, he’s won so many awards – so we go because it’s such a pleasure to see him and his band perform at a very warm, friendly environment.
Sierra Hull: One of my favorite things about DelFest is the beautiful location and the community of folks that seem to come year after year. It’s like a little family gathering.
JamBase: How have you seen DelFest grow over the years?
Carey Harmon: The atmosphere of the past 10 years is natural. No other way to put it, and all because of the McCourys. You don’t always have a legend, and a family like this, to build a festival around, and it makes it a completely different experience. Because Del is the bridge to so many musicians and audiences, it can – and does – go anywhere. We’re happy to have made this the home its been for us and for our fans. It just fits.
Billy Strings: I heard all the rage about how awesome DelFest was a couple years before I got to play. I also saw some amazing footage of the late-nights on YouTube, particularly Jeff Austin and The Travelin’ McCourys playing Danny Barnes’ “Pretty Daughter,” and I just thought to myself, “We have to play there!”
Ernie Anastasio: You know, it’s tough to get traction in the festival business today and in the past decade, festivals have grown. You look at ACL, Coachella, Lollapalooza, it takes three to four years to get your feet on the ground as a festival and you can count on people showing up and we’ve noticed DelFest built their brand in a steady, deliberate way. They were able to get some big names to show up early on, musicians who came because they hold Del himself in such high regard, but they hit year five or six, everyone came to understand they were going to be a regular player in the festival scene drawing tens of thousands of people to a beautiful site. There’s really nothing of comparable size in that region, close to Del’s hometown, it fills a niche at the perfect time of year.
JamBase: What’s your favorite thing about the festival?
Sierra Hull: I’ve been a Del McCoury fan since I was a little girl. I’ve been so influenced by The Del McCoury Band albums and watching them perform live. There isn’t much better than seeing that band play live. So not only is it a joy to get to share the stage with them from time to time, but they are truly some of most genuinely sweet people I know.
Rob McCoury: There are for sure a lot of people we’re all gotten to be friends with through the festival. The Lee Boys, The Davisson Brothers, Warren Haynes, the list goes on.
Ernie Anastasio: I love discovering the new bands there- we found The California Honeydrops, who are amazing, I just love their energy. The Brothers Comatose, so many others. The folks at High Sierra do a great job of bringing some artists over from California.
JamBase: What are you most excited about for this year?
Billy Strings: I’m excited to see all the bands and hopefully sit-in with a bunch of them being that I am one of the Artists-At-Large. But I’m always really stoked to see Del and the boys. They’re the quintessential bluegrass band of today. I’m stoked to see Trey [Anastasio] and his band, Hot Rize, The Infamous Stringdusters, Marty Stuart, basically every band on the lineup!
Del McCoury: My friend Marty Stuart, he’s a good friend of mine, good entertainer. He came into the Opry with Lester Flatt as a kid, just a little guy. And Lester took him under his wing, he played the mando with him and sang, and later on had his own recording career and he still does country but he also has a TV show, all kinds of acts on there, all the Opry acts on there. I’ve done the show several times, sometimes with my band, sometimes a gospel number with just the two of us. And we got Trey back, and the way I got acquainted with Trey a way long time ago, when Phish recorded a song I did and that year they called my manager and asked me and my band to play the festival in Oswego and we went up there and Trey asked me what we could do together and he suggested “Blue & Lonesome,” and we did that together and from that I realized he was educated on bluegrass, and [Jon] Fishman told me how he learned to play drums to my music, even though there weren’t any drums to drum with!
Ernie Anastasio: Hot Rize with Tim O’Brien, Marty Stuart, The Infamous Stringdusters, Railroad Earth – you know I just think the 10th anniversary will be special. One of the greatest gifts a musician like Del can give other musicians is to school them indirectly in their trade by collaborating and performing together, so I’m always looking forward to that.
DelFest 10 will take place May 25 – 28 at the Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland featuring the Del McCoury Band, Trey Anastasio Band, Gov’t Mule, Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, Hot Rize and many others. Tickets and more details are available via the festival’s website.