Behind The Fest: Ronnie McCoury & Others Shed Light On DelFest

This past Memorial Day Weekend, thousands gathered at the Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland, for the 14th Annual DelFest.

Pioneered by the legendary Del McCoury – who is a ripe 83 years young – and his sons Ronnie and Robbie McCoury of The Travelin’ McCourys, the festival is an all-ages hootenanny that proves to be one of the premier bluegrass/roots/Americana festivals in the country.

Headliners included Tyler Childers, Robert Earl Keen, Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, Bela Fleck, and many others, including, of course, The McCourys. Three stages ran strong throughout, including the Grandstand Stage, The Potomac Stage, and The Music Hall, which saw late night performances from roughly 11 PM to 3 AM. 

Jackie Greene soundchecks on The Grandstand Stage.

Festival goers were greeted with a large blowup Del doll upon first crossing the train tracks and entering the beating heart of the festival, and the awe-inspiring mountainscape in the distance that separates Maryland from West Virginia was a sight that never got old.

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It was clear from the get go that this was very much a family affair, both on stage and off. From infants to the elderly and everything in between, DelFest catered to the masses, and the family-fun atmosphere drew heavy.

The joyful energy was infectious and electric throughout, and it was difficult to find a face without a smile. Considering the state of the world and the country the past few years, DelFest felt like a sweet if not fleeting escape from it all. Just for a little while, festival goers could bask in top tier music, friendly faces, delicious food, relaxation, and bountiful beverages. (and likely some psychedelics etc. too)

The backdrop of all of this was most serene, and a true sight to behold. I got to talk to Ronnie McCoury, who shed some light on how they landed on hosting the festival there in Cumberland at the Fairgrounds.

The Travelin’ McCourys – Photo by J Strausser Visuals

“We wanted to do a festival, and we wanted to do one on the East Coast. My dad came here, and after looking at this whole place – the facilities, the all-purpose building that we use – he said, ‘I don’t think we need to look any farther.’ One and done. Dad jumped on it.”

The McCourys are also steeped in community involvement as well, such as hosting Del Academy, which teaches music to kids.

“Everybody in the band teaches on their instrument, and now we’ve grown to three mandolin teachers, three guitar teachers, and just a lot of students,” McCoury said. “Over a hundred this year. The more we get, the more teachers we get.” The Academy runs the week before the festival.

However, it wasn’t necessarily a walk in the park to get the whole DelFest operation off the ground.

“In the beginning, we had some problems with politics. And that’s also how DelFest Army came about. [We came] to their town, and they’re thinking, ‘Okay you’re here, but are you just taking and not giving?’ They had a festival nearby at Rocky Gap Park – massive country festival – and it eventually had problems. Law enforcement was needed. So a lot of them thought, ‘Well this will be the same thing.’ Politicians then bickered back and forth. That’s when the DelFest Army stepped in, and said ‘We want this here, we’re 100% behind you.’ Part of the way they could help was to vote. That fixes a lot of problems.”

The Del McCoury Band with sons Ronnie and Robbie

“We’ve since given over a half million back to the community,” he says. “We try to help as much as we can.”

As far as favorite memories of DelFest over the years, McCoury was deep in thought. “There’s a bunch, man. I’m a mandolin player, so when I’m on stage with all my heroes – Sam Bush, David Grisman- and Vince Gill was here that time playing mandolin. Those are special moments. I just think the greatest thing is to have my dad walk out there on stage and have people just love it.”

“He’s very genuine. He asks for requests – and that’s basically how he likes to do shows now. He wants to sing what the people yell out. And sometimes he’ll say, ‘That’s a great song but I don’t remember it,’” Ronnie told us while chuckling.

He went on to talk in-depth about his Grateful Dead influence and the time he sold two banjos to Jerry Garcia in the late 80s, which we’ll be writing about for a post on our Patreon page. 

Ronnie and Jerry – and Del

Before talking to Ronnie, we also got the chance to chat with Alexia Locklear, Director of Ambiance for the festival. 

Not many people think of all of the intricacies that go into physically putting together a festival, and through meeting a gentleman named Eric Himko who worked on festival infrastructure (who also assisted in distributing the complimentary DelFest bleacher seats), we met Locklear, the pioneer behind the set up in all 16 backstage and green room spaces. 

The Southern California native previously worked with DelFest in the hospitality department prior to a referral from a mentor when an opening was available to take over her current role. She’s since been providing the DelFest backstage ambiance for the past six years. 

“My concept is to really elevate and showcase not only the history of bluegrass, but also the history of this region,” she told us. “We’re in the Appalachian Mountains, and there’s a lot of rich history.”

Backstage table decor

When Locklear was 14, her mother took her to Coachella, her first music festival. “I just fell in love. It was a whole new world, and just so different. From then on I just hit the ground running. I started volunteering and participating in local events, art festivals, and creative events, and worked my way up,” she told us.

The 15-year music production and event veteran considers herself a Jill of all trades, and it was a gig at Camp Bisco that brought her to the East Coast, and subsequently kept her there, to where she now calls Asheville, North Carolina, home.

For DelFest, Locklear scoured through antique stores for any items that fit the vibe (old records, rusted milk jugs and frying pans etc.) along with the property itself, finding tons of old railroad spikes to use as well. This along with plant arrangements, hanging lights, and the implementing of the tents and furniture itself.

Mandolin made with piano innards, embroidery hoops, and twine.

Perhaps most impressive was the mandolin made largely in part by the guts of a piano along with embroidery hoops and twine. 

Setting up highly detailed and rigorous decor is not all Locklear does to enhance festivals.

While working medical at events, Locklear got to talking with a friend about particular services that were lacking in terms of taking care of festival goers who find themselves in bad situations, to which she and a partner started their non-profit, Harmonia.

“We provide sanctuary spaces and harm-reduction services at music events. We act as mediators between security teams, police, and medical teams and festival goers. Our goal is to avoid transports to hospitals or jails due to circumstances that happen when you’re in a new environment and are over-stimulated or under the influence of substances.” 

More backstage decor

“Our goal and mission is really self-care. We’re trying to give and teach people tools to be able to take care of themselves. Because if you’re able to take care of yourself, you’re more likely to take care of a stranger or a friend.” Their goal is that their service can become obsolete due to people simply getting along and taking care of one another, as compassionate human beings. 

With all of the detail and structures that go into the work, Locklear ended up having seven others on her setup team throughout the week leading up to the festival. Locklear was most psyched to see Railroad Earth, The Travelin’ McCourys, and Sierra Hull.

Blue room

I also talked to Julie, a volunteer on site who’d been working the festival since its second year, and also an original member of the Del Army. “DelFest is just a wonderful gathering of all kinds of people, and an appreciation of the music. It’s almost like coming to a great big family reunion for The McCourys. I love it.”

She went on to discuss the hurdles the festival faced and the emergence of the Del Army, as Ronnie touched on. “We basically fought to keep it because we know how important it is to the local community,” she said.

Julie reiterated the story of Del falling in love with the scenery and location, not bothering to see any other spots to host the festival.

With so much turmoil and bad news infiltrating our lives on a daily basis, places like DelFest make you happy to be alive. In the Del bubble, life is good. Cherished memories are made as are new friends, and events like these are reasons for optimism in human kind.

The intricacies and inner workings of festivals run deep, and I think I can say on behalf of all DelFest attendees, we are damn thankful for everybody who makes it happen. And most notably, The Godfather himself- Del McCoury. 

The Great Wall

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