4th Annual DelFest Bluegrass Band Competition

While the big names in bluegrass are tearing up the main stage at DelFest, a smaller but very important event is taking place on the side stage.

This year’s Bluegrass Band Competition featured 8 bands, (Dirty River, Midnight Drive, Mama Corn, Slim Pickinz, Moon River Ramblers, Colebrook Road, The Boro Boogie Pickers and The Shadow Drifters) the farthest away hailing from Johnson City Tennessee.

Officiated this year by Chuck Dicken (General Manager and Bluegrass DJ of WFWM public radio at Frostburg State) and Jacob Van Buer, one of Del McCoury’s six grandchildren, the competition has been in existence since the first DelFest.

“This is one of the ways the Festival gives back” said Chuck, judging his third competition, “and it’s a great opportunity for the smaller, local bands to get exposure. Competitions like this really are part of the roots of this genre of music.”

“We’ve had a real variety this year,” said Jacob “from traditional bluegrass to jam bands to even Guns and Roses covers.”

The bands are judged on five categories: originality of material, musicianship, vocal performance, stage presence and audience response. Jacob, who plays “just about every instrument” and who has been out on the road with granddad since he was a baby, makes the perfect judge.

“(The lack of) originality has hurt a few of the bands this year” said Jacob. Chuck explained “we’re looking for a band that appreciates the roots of the music but can put their own personal spin on it. We want to see what they can bring to the stage.”

One of this year’s competitors, The Shadow Drifters, brought not only some great original music to the stage but also one heck of a back story. Mandolin player David Mowella explained.. “right after we found out that we’d been accepted into the competition our guitar player, Cory Wharton and our fiddle player, Heather Twigg, were out one night posting DelFest posters around campus (Eastern Tennessee State University, where the band met as students in the bluegrass program) and they were hit by a car while they were crossing the street.”

Both ended up in the ICU with myriad injuries, from a concussion to broken ribs, legs and a shoulder. “The first thing Heather said to me when I saw her in the ICU was ‘Oh my God, how am I gonna play DelFest?’” said bassist John Goad. “We can’t thank the festival enough for all the accommodation they’ve made for us” said Cory pointing towards the ramp that allowed both he and Heather, who played from their wheelchairs, to get on stage.

In spite of the significant modification (the band’s newest member, banjo player Zach Carter, managed to play AND sing into the mic he shared with Heather at wheelchair level) the band played its heart out on a set of tunes they wrote themselves. “Yeah” said Chuck, “they had great originality.”

Competition winners will be announced later today and will open up Sunday’s performance in addition to being invited back to open the main stage at next year’s festival. When asked about what their involvement in DelFest meant John summed it up nicely “It’s just a blessing that we can be here. Last night was the first time we’ve all played together since the accident. At this point, winning the competition would just be icing on the cake.”

Stay tuned for the announcement of this year’s winners!

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About the Author

Diane Farineau

Diane Farineau, her husband, photographer, Milo and their friend, photographer, Chester Simpson, hatched a brilliant plan last year to write a book about music festivals. Somewhere along the way The Festival Project, as it has now become, turned into a website and a blog and an amazing journey into the world of today’s bluegrass and Americana artists and festival scene. When not listening to or writing about music, Diane has a day job as a hospital administrator, is a mom of two musical teenagers, and writes about life’s never ending stream of ironies.