The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.
National holidays in America each have their cultural traditions and specific icons like American Flags, Pumpkins, or even Festivus Poles. Typically, family is the center of those traditions. But not necessarily as literal as that of blood family. Family isn’t always blood, it would seem. So those people also gather as family and they too celebrate — with a sense of unspoken acceptance that being amongst only each other manifests. Environments where such harmony may reign are more rare than one might expect, making their true experiences all the more sweet. When someone senses they are in the presence of family, however they define it, their outlook changes, even if only for a weekend.
Such is the way with a a musical family gathering held now for its 7th year in the Allegheny Mountains of Cumberland, Maryland. DelFest has become one of those annual events where the definitions of family and home take many forms. And everyone is welcome, just as they are.
Having attended each and every DelFest, along with my little family, I question my ability to be objective anymore. My 8 year old son who has never known a Memorial Day Weekend that was not filled with the finest bluegrass musicians performing today. DelFest for us, has clearly become a personal family tradition.
As a veteran of this festival I must point to two aspects of DelFest that consistently keep me coming back. Firstly, the annual lineups are always a wonderfully-diverse selection of the best of the currently touring bluegrass, new grass, and whatever else Del’s exquisite taste in music happens to fancy. There is always at least one band at DelFest that I had never seen before, and surprised me at how entertaining I found them. Typically, it’s a performer on the Potomac Stage that affects me, but this year was a little different.
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, performing inside the Music Hall on Friday afternoon, stopped me in my tracks with their tight, fast set. I had never heard of them. Hailing from Wisconsin, their musicianship was as to be expected at DelFest — superior. But what also caught my attention was the obvious connection this band has as a unit. I really enjoy hearing new bands that already sound like well-seasoned musical family units. They were practically speaking in one voice, their connection was so complete. Like Trampled with Turtles — a DelFest standout from years past, I look for this band to make the jump to a larger stage for what I shall hope would be their next visit to the festival.
I feel like I have watched Sierra Hull grow up on stage. In reality, we all have. At a mere 22 years old, she has already amassed accolades for her work in the bluegrass world including multiple IBMA nominations and performances at Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, and The National Prayer Breakfast. She is universally considered the likely woman to be the first to win a future IBMA award in the Mandolin category. This was her second appearance at DelFest, who along with her very able band, performed two sets over the course of the festival. It was fun to hear how much more she has grown as a musician just since her last visit.
Every year DelFest’s lineup has for me the not-to-be-missed performance, typically on the Grandstand Stage. I was most interested in seeing and hearing Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby with Kentucky Thunder on Saturday night. I’ve caught numerous Bruce Hornsby performances where guest would be onstage and frankly, they could not keep up — musically — with him. Respectfully, I cite a tour he did with Jackson Browne about ten or so years ago where I sat — feeling badly for Mr. Browne, who from a piano playing standpoint — was being decimated by Bruce’s speed of play and precision. Clearly Mr. Browne’s forte has always first been songwriting, not piano playing. But I shall hope the spirit of my thoughts are not elusive.
Ricky Skaggs is obviously a musical equal, and it sounded that way on the Grandstand at DelFest on Saturday night. Each played with an easy swing, clearly aware of what the other was doing and weaving in and out of each others musical statements like fish swimming in a pond.
Sunday night headliners, String Cheese Incident, seem to have spent much of the weekend storing their energy to release for the final night’s sets of music.
But I mentioned two primary reasons Del Fest that has kept me coming back year after year. We came when our child was very young and attending festivals wasn’t as easy and felt welcomed. We attended through the muddy years and the tornadoes that destroyed every tent we owned. There is a YouTube video of that famous storm, actually, where my son’s shark-shaped sun shade tent is seen rotating in the air across the Music Meadow into parts unknown forever. There was never a doubt we would return.
It feels like our Memorial Day family reunion, now. And I suspect mine isn’t the only family, however you want to define it, that feels this way. The McCoury family, Del included, are so directly involved in the running of this event, one can’t help but feel as though we were in their back yard, so to speak. Ronnie and Rob McCoury wrote specifically of their father’s dedication to DelFest’s success — in the event schedule’s introduction. They added that their father had done everything from hauling gear to Baltimore to helping to fold the very tee shirts sold in the merch tent. “Dad is used to working and wants to be involved,” the McCoury sons, wrote.
Indeed their dad is used to working and has done so for decades, much to the delight of millions. Del McCoury is a man whose career began as gigs wedged between long work weeks in the woods followed by long nights playing music to support his family to that of a bluegrass icon and multi-genre music fan himself, always willing to play with musicians of any genre. Celebrating 75 years making the earth just a little bit better, Del McCoury plays the consummate Southern weekend host at DelFest. Often seen around festival grounds riding shotgun on a golf-cart, Del always has a smile for anyone who asks. I have personally watched the man hold face to face conversations with folks as diverse as Baptist preacher and a dread-locked teenager, delivering the same, easy-going universally respectful Del McCoury, every time. He remains an example to me onstage and off, as any patriarch might, be the family musical or traditional.
There is something special going on each Memorial Day Weekend at DelFest. I’m not sure I can pinpoint precisely what it is, but I know it’s there. And if I’m lucky, I’ll never miss a year…