THROUGH THE LENS: DelFest 2023 Connects Bluegrass’ Rich Past With Its Vibrant Future
Molly Tuttle - DelFest 2023 - Photo by Rob Laughter
Over Memorial Day weekend, bluegrass fans from all over descended on the Cumberland, Maryland, for the 15th edition of DelFest. Named for and presided over by the legend himself, Del McCoury, DelFest has cast a wider net than just “straight ahead bluegrass,” featuring a mix of folk, Americana, soul, and gospel styles, signaling the genre’s openness to evolution and diversity.
This week’s column takes us there courtesy of Rob Laughter. While Rob’s photos have been featured before, this is his first fest report. Rob was on hand with his family and was taking photos for the fest, so readers will get a unique perspective on the event, including some photos from an aerial drone. Also attending DelFest was my longtime pal Chris Morris, who also shares some pics. Chris was once head of street teams for McCoury and is currently part of DelFest’s social media marketing team.
DelFest 2023 by Rob Laughter
After an eight-hour drive from our North Carolina home, I rolled through the DelFest gates with my wife and three kids, and a camper in tow. As we climbed out of the van and into the fest’s welcoming atmosphere, we were eager to experience what the weekend had in store. And what an experience it was.
DelFest’s unique setting at the Allegany County Fairgrounds gives it a distinct natural beauty and charm. Nestled along the North Branch Potomac River and beneath the cliffs of West Virginia’s Knobley Mountain (on the other side of the river) the festival site itself is a compelling part of the event’s ambiance. Music echoing off the rocky cliffs and the rumble and evocative whistle of frequent passing trains on the nearby railroad subtly contributed to the festival’s soundtrack. As dusk descended, a portrait of bluegrass legend Del McCoury and the DelFest motto, “Del Yeah!”, were projected onto the cliff’s face.
The future of bluegrass is exemplified by the festival’s hosts, the McCoury family. Del first played with the father of the bluegrass, Bill Monroe, and over the years has played with musicians outside the genre, such as Steve Earle and Keller Williams. Sons Ronnie and Rob took up the mantle, playing in The Del McCoury Band and later creating their own group, The Travelin’ McCourys. Today, grandsons Heaven and Jacob make regular appearances with the band.
Collaboration, a core aspect of the bluegrass spirit, shined through the various artist interactions at DelFest. This not only adds to the dynamic performances that are a hallmark of the festival but also contributes to the growth and progression of the genre as a whole. Instead of checking in, playing their set, and leaving, artists seem to linger awhile, sitting in on each other’s performances, resulting in one-of-a-kind experiences for them and for fans.
On Sunday evening, for example, Junior Sisk and Peter Rowan joined The Del McCoury Band to perform timeless bluegrass classics. Earlier in the weekend, Cris Jacobs and Lindsay Lou honored Tina Turner, who passed on the Wednesday before the festival began, with a poignant tribute, acknowledging her immense impact on the music world.
Performances, from mid-morning until late into the night, are divided across two open-air stages, the Grandstand and the Potomac, and the intimate indoor Music Hall. The lineup blends familiar favorites like The Del McCoury Band and Sierra Hull with local talent such as Justin Trawick and Caleb Stine, weaving a vibrant sonic tapestry that reflects the rich diversity of roots music.
Emerging artists such as Sierra Ferrell and A.J. Lee, representative of the new, reinvigorated wave of bluegrass music, were featured. Ferrell, who captivated audiences on the Grandstand Stage on Saturday afternoon, is rapidly gaining popularity, and added her own unique flavor to the weekend. Lee is another rising artist, leading the band Blue Summit with a fresh and inspiring perspective on bluegrass.
The late-night jams in the Music Hall featured electrifying performances from headlining acts such as The Infamous Stringdusters, the high-energy California Honeydrops, and The Travelin’ McCourys.
Beyond the music, DelFest has a number of ways to make lasting memories. A river float that provided a leisurely 30-minute excursion down the Potomac as music reverberated off Knobley Mountain was a highlight for our family. Bristling with activities from tie-dyeing sessions, gardening workshops, and children’s yoga, the kids area kept younger attendees engaged and entertained. Another attraction was the Maryland West Virginia Model Railroad Association’s model railroad museum, which features a scale model of the fairgrounds and a miniature replica of the DelFest stage.
Finally, I had the unique opportunity to capture the magic of DelFest through another lens, The Riverside Sessions. The filmed Sessions capture intimate performances by artists in informal, often serendipitous performances. Festivalgoers who stumbled across our filming location were delighted to see some of their favorite musicians performing in a stripped-down environment that put their raw talent on display. Those videos will become available within the coming weeks and can be found here. In the meantime, that link contains sets from previous years.
Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slideshow.