A Decade of Del – DelFest 2017

Remember when a decade seemed like a long time? I certainly do. I remember being a second-grader back in 1973 and realizing that I had another ten years of school before high school graduation. TEN YEARS! It seemed like forever to my seven year old self. And from my perspective then, it was. That’s the way of things when you are young, I think. Rooms are bigger. Time moves differently.

But it changes as we grow older, doesn’t it? Suddenly the years can sneak up on you, and before you know it, another decade has passed. Hopefully you are able to look back and feel satisfaction at what you’ve done, achieved — or perhaps survived — in the previous ten years.

In my own case the past decade has been my first as a parent, albeit one who came to the gig later in life. My son is eleven now and he’s still at the stage where ten years seems like forever to him, just as it did to me. He and I share many things. We appreciate the pure love that comes from animals, we’ve learned lessons about life from Harry Potter, and we gravitate to ‘constants’ in life that we can count on. These days, it seems like life offers far too few things one may truly count on.

As older parents, my husband and I chart a far more different course than the more traditionally aged parents in our son’s social life. I’ve often worried that I wasn’t providing the kind of childhood that my son observes in other households where the mom wears LulaRoe, and talks about the latest episode of The Bachelor. In our home, we are plotting the next music festival we want to attend, or a show we want to watch on live broadcasts. Mention that to most of the parents in my son’s social circle and you are met with the sound of crickets. I recall humming the Sesame Street tune, ‘One of these things is not like the other,’ as I departed from a function during my son’s 3rd grade school year. But at the same time I was jokingly humming that tune, I was second-guessing myself, wondering if I should just suck it up and go with the flow for his sake? If we weren’t doing the same things as the rest of the families in our neighborhood, then what where we actually ‘giving’ to our son to hold onto and take with him into useful adulthood?

Yeah, I know, I’m neurotic. But I challenge you to find very many parents who aren’t, whether they admit it freely or not. But I came to realize that I was just giving my son different things to connect with and lean on, as the ‘constants’ in his own life. And I chilled out and continued to be my weirdest chick in the room, self. One of the constants in our son’s life has and will continue to be our annual trek to Cumberland, Maryland for a Memorial Day weekend of music with Del McCoury.

Despite everything, it feels unbelievable that this festival has just celebrated its tenth birthday. Like a ten year old child, the first decade of this festival has been awash in growth and improvement year after year. From the early years at their location where the tradition of rain begat fields of mud and trapped vehicles, the junior year extreme weather that decimated much of the campground and music meadow, led ultimately to the planned execution of well-considered site improvements like drainage, and gravel, and cell phone connectivity. Something about the festival was always just a little bit better, each year.

Mt. McCoury at DelFest 2017 - photo © Gina Elliott Photography

This year is no exception, with the addition of the illuminated face of Del himself gracing the rock face of the mountainside that hugs the music meadow. I came to call it ‘Mt. McCoury’ each night, as I gazed upon it after the sun came down. The idea was pure genius by the good folks of Mountain Fog Productions, and executed rather simply, the way a great bluegrass song typically is.

But like any ‘constant’ in one’s life, just enough of it remains the same to make the experience feel like a family reunion. Many of the same vendors come year after year, and you are glad of it because their services are so well executed. Some constants about the stage and the entertainment remain annually as well. Main Stage Emcee, Joe Craven, is well known for his command of language and firm placement of tongue in cheek with artist introductions. And let’s not forget his eye opening fashion sense. He really should be encouraged to archive those prose-filled introductions along with the best of the photography of the various years and create a book for the festival. I know I’d buy it.

But this event isn’t an annual rehash of the same artists. Indeed this festival has been well curated year after year. The 2017 lineup did have some old friends returning, most namely with Phish frontman Trey Anastasio bringing his solo band T.A.B. back to the music meadow for a second time in the history of this festival. Several other artists also returned for the 10th anniversary, including Sierra Hull, Dierks Bentley, Steep Canyon Rangers, Cabinet, Leftover Salmon, The Gibson Brothers, Sara Watkins, Dre’s Gospel Collective. I apologize if I’ve left out other return artists. It has after all, been a decade.

The 2017 headliners as always are a great mix of the best of bluegrass, the best of jamband or jam rock acts. Trey Anastasio Band practically ripped the floorboards of the stage off, with their ferocious sets on Friday night. Saturday’s finale with The Traveling McCourys and Dierks Bentley was similarly strong. Govt. Mule’s Sunday set, less than 36 hours after the announcement of the death of Greg Allman, offered a particularly important moment of catharsis for many in the crowd.

But year after year I look to the Potomac Stage for my annual surprise artist that I simply must know more about. And this year, I got two. Cris Jacobs, originally from Baltimore’s musical stalwart, The Bridge, was my first surprise of the Potomac Stage. However, I’d been given an enthusiastic heads up not to miss him, by one of his former neighbors as I stood in line for breakfast at my hotel that morning.

Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Co-Founder and CEO, Phil Chorney, happened to be eating breakfast at the same time as me. We struck up a conversation about the coming day’s lineup. He was quick to highlight and encourage me to see Cris Jacobs, telling me that the performer, “embraced elements of rock, country, folk and blues to form his sound which is a very accessible form of music with spectacular musicianship and expert songwriting.” But he added a more personal observation about Cris as his neighbor, “Living next door to Cris it was a pleasure to listen to him write and practice every day. It’s a really special experience to see a master of their craft work every day to become the best at what they do. Funny enough, Cris and his music has a been a massive part of my life. My wife and I got engaged at his show with his former band The Bridge in Amsterdam. The Bridge played our wedding. And funny enough my wife went into labor at one of his shows.”

During the same breakfast, I chatted with a family attending their first ever DelFest. The Rich Family: Amy, Steven, and 10 year old sons Winston and Solomon were seated next to my little family. Hailing from Rockport, Massachusetts, they were excited to get breakfast complete and head back to the festival. Amy said, “I have wanted to attend DelFest since the 1st year but with brand new twin babies, it wasn’t in the cards. Last year we decided that we weren’t going to let anything hold us back, so we bought tix in January. It was the best decision we’ve made in a long time.”

They were most excited about Broomstick. “Those young talented kids were so full of life and spirit up there on the stage.” But according to Amy, they loved all of it. “We never made it beyond the 3 stages really. I was so tapped into the music, I didn’t want to miss a beat, (pun intended).”

Like any fellow mom, we talked about how easy it was to take a child, or in her case, a pair of them, to this event. Amy offered, “I loved just how family friendly it was. It was such a relief to let my kids just go, and they were comfortable doing it! It was also so exciting how close you could be at all the stages. There was tons of room to move and shake and just go up and stand still watching. We will definitely come to Del Fest again!”

Billy Strings at DelFest 2017 - photo © Gina Elliott Photography

But for my money, hands down the surprise of the festival was Billy Strings. Folks use the phrase ‘jaw-dropping’ for many situations. Watching Billy Strings perform certainly may be best described this way. I didn’t know much about Billy before his Potomac set began. But midway through the second song, I resolved to learn as much as I could about this mid-twenties performer with a lip snarl like Elvis and flat-picking with such proficiency, I began to wonder if he were a relative of Doc Watson.

The 2016 IBMA Momentum Awards Instrumentalist of the Year for guitar, banjo and mandolin, no less, Strings is electrifying onstage. A visual and aural blur of energy and bluegrass precision. He is set to soon release his first full length LP, and will play support slots for Railroad Earth and The Infamous Stringdusters this summer. I highly encourage you to catch this artist live. You can thank me later.

It rained at DelFest this year, as it typically does. With all the site improvements, true mud pits weren’t as easily found as they have been in earlier incarnations of the festival. Yet my 11 year old managed to find them. Sunday night, as I put my cameras down for the last time and sat in a hammock and listened to the final songs of Govt. Mule’s closing set, I marveled at how comfortable my son, and all the other kids were out there in the wet music meadow. No one played video games, no one seemed to care how dirty they where, including the parents. It was a peaceful yet energetic mass of musical family spending their last few hours in the darkness as a body of one ‘in music.’

I was once again awash in the understanding that I am giving my son something to hold onto in the coming years. I may not wear LulaRoe leggings and watch reality tv the way the ‘regular moms,’ do. And it’s right and proper that I don’t bother trying to do it in order to fit in. The better lesson for my child, and myself, is to walk my own true walk, even if it is a bit muddy sometimes. The past decade as a parent and an annual visitor to DelFest has changed me. It’s changed my son as well. It will be interesting to see who all of us are in the coming ten years. By then, my son will be 21 years old. Maybe we can share a beer by those hammocks then and be serenaded by our honorary musical dad, Del Mc Coury.

We’ll have another gallery of Gina’s photos from DelFest 2017 tomorrow.