Festival season is officially underway. The Stringdusters just spent two days at the 4th annual DelFest, and we are already on the road to hit two more this weekend. The festival circuit is a migrating community of musicians and fans, a seasonal melting pot of musical scenes, where all kinds of bands, huge and small, share their crowds and their music. Everything is on a bigger scale, and every great festival has a tangible identity in its look, sound and feel. For an artist, hosting a festival can be an amazing way to outline your scene, to tell the world who you are. DelFest is no exception, and the name truly says it all.
Over the past 50 years Del McCoury has cemented his reputation as an American musical legend, with significant work across every part of the traditional-progressive bluegrass continuum. But his legacy is about more than just his catalogue of classics or his overflowing trophy case. Del’s spirit as a person, so joyous and so accessible, is what seems to set him apart. It’s apparent in every performance, and even more so in person. The festival is a clear extension of both McCoury’s exploratory musical mind and his relentless energy/enthusiasm. This year it was all about the man himself. Del was everywhere, and what better way to set the tone.
We rolled in on Thursday evening and Del kicked the whole thing off with about an hour of classic informal McCourys. Requests, B-sides, killer picking, killer singing and just generally amazing vibes from the whole group. We played about two hours later to a packed house of fans seeking refuge from the rain. Del and Ronnie joined us on stage for a version of the classic ‘On My Way Back to the Old Home.’ Before the show we were hanging backstage with Del as he was trying to recall what key the song was in from his Monroe days. He referenced a certain Monroe mandolin slide that gave it away every time, key of A. It was beautiful, a total dream come true. They lit up the stage as the crowd (and our band) plugged right into their energy.
Friday brought more drenching rain but that didn’t stop Del for a second. The evening set with Preservation Hall was one of the coolest things I have ever seen the band do. As Jon Wesiberger aptly states in the new album’s liner notes, “celebrating connections rather than differences can sometimes be a hazardous job,” but McCoury has made a career of it, always striving for cool material and sounds that are outside bluegrass, performed with all the quality, precision and soul that makes the music what it is. I asked Ronnie how such collaborations come about (with the Lee Boys, or the Preservation Hall crew) and the answer was simple: “Dad loves to sing with these guys.” It seems there are no boundaries, no rules governing where these collaborations might lead. It’s all about one simple goal: good music.
After the Preservation Hall/McCourys set was the Old Crow Medicine Show, and Del was right back out on stage, sitting in with the alt-acoustic rockers on ‘Little Maggie.’ The man was on hand hours later (minus the suit) to see Trampled by Turtles, our boys from MN, who are honing in their mind-altering fusion of energy and music. He was definitely getting into some bluegrass speed-metal. Later Del was holding court in the green room, at about 1:30 AM, telling stories about Monroe while getting ready to sit in with Railroad Earth–connecting the old and the new in real time like only he can do. Trampled (@tbtduluth) tweeted that Del was the last man standing in the wee hours. The Dusters had long since left the festival. We are on the road now, but it’s looking like Del will be omnipresent all weekend.
I can clearly remember the first time I saw the Del McCoury Band. It was 1999 at Camp Oswego, an early iteration of the Phish megafestival, on the grounds of an airport in upstate NY. I had just started playing banjo, so Del’s sidestage set was a must see. An unruly crowd of midday festivarians loved everything about it from the first note. While the masses were mostly resting up for the big night ahead, the members of Phish definitely did not miss this show. I remember seeing them huddled in the wings of this small temporary stage, intently observing as Del and Co made easy work of the purest, most authoritative bluegrass around. That has to mean something, and it does. Later that day the McCourys appeared on the biggest of big stages, playing before a sea of around 50,000 fans, securing their place as bluegrass ambassadors to the world. It was the advent of a new era, a new level of popularity for the band that opened the door to A-list collaborations, sold-out clubs and late-night TV. But their musical standards, and their reputation as a band, have never wavered. It’s quality music, moving naturally toward the mainstream.
Since then I have had the pleasure of playing, teaching and hanging with the McCourys at shows and festivals all over the country. Ronnie and Robbie are masters who speak the traditional language in their own original voices, and they will always have a direct link to the first generation of bluegrass, a tag that only grows rarer as time goes by. Meanwhile, their collaborations seem to grow only more diverse–these are important musicians to watch. Alan was our original bass player and remains our good friend, and Jason is as good as any bluegrass fiddler on the scene, with the hardware to prove it. To see them in their element this weekend, along with their big extended family of eclectic musical friends, really said a lot.
The best news of all is that Del is at the top of his game–astounding for a musician whose his first 50 year retrospective (released in 2009) is already on the shelf. His music is more sincere than ever and that is what the fans, fans from all scenes, relate to. It’s not about what it’s called, it’s just about the man’s spirit, and the spirit of his sound. The McCourys (along with the amazing High Sierra folks) are curating a scene that’s representative of their musical legacy: the marriage of tradition and innovation. The best new things always have at the very least an understanding of what came before. But Del actually IS what came before. Along with his band, he continues to write history on weekends like this one, at festivals like DelFest.