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Del McCoury is still going strong — and so is his festival

DelFest, in Cumberland, Md., returns after a two-year pandemic hiatus

Del McCoury, right, and his namesake band. (Brady Cooling)
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When Del McCoury was a preteen, his older brother played him a record that featured Earl Scruggs on the banjo. Particularly fascinated by Scruggs’s inventive three-finger roll technique, McCoury picked up the instrument at age 11 and started a lifelong pursuit of bluegrass music that has never waned.

“All the kids in my high school were listening to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis,” McCoury said during a phone interview from his home in Nashville. “But I had already heard Earl Scruggs, so I was off and running.”

Now 83, McCoury is one of the most popular figures in bluegrass, a veteran musician who still performs regularly at a mix of theaters and festivals. Best known for his powerful singing voice, he’s become a link between the genre’s foundational years and the current crop of fleet-fingered acoustic acts.

His influence and legacy are celebrated at DelFest, a multi-band festival started in 2008 that takes place at the Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, Md. After two years of pandemic-related cancellations, the event returns over Memorial Day weekend, with performances on multiple stages happening May 26-29.

In addition to three sets from McCoury’s band, the festival highlights string aces from bluegrass’s evolving eras. Sam Bush, Béla Fleck and District-area favorites the Seldom Scene, all part of the genre’s high-energy progressive turn in the 1970s and ’80s, are on this year’s bill, along with young upstarts Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway.

Throughout his career, McCoury has also collaborated with a wide range of artists outside of the string world, including Steve Earle, Phish and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, so when he was approached about hosting the first DelFest, he and fellow organizers decided to diversify the lineup. “Instead of just having a bluegrass festival, we decided we wanted to have all different kinds of music going on different stages at once,” McCoury said.

On the opening day of this year’s event, the main stage will be headlined by Robert Earl Keen, a long-standing Texas troubadour who announced he’s retiring from touring at the end of the summer. Later in the weekend, the California Honeydrops will play an eclectic mix of soul and funk, a few hours after a performance from earthy folk outfit Watchhouse. One of DelFest’s most anticipated sets is a first-time collaboration featuring arena-filling Americana singer-songwriter Tyler Childers and the Travelin’ McCourys, a family offshoot band led by McCoury’s sons, Ronnie and Rob.

“Because of the connections my dad has made through the years, we knew we wanted to keep the music broad at this festival,” said Ronnie McCoury, a mandolinist who’s also been playing in his father’s band since 1981. “Tyler is only doing a few shows this year, but he really likes bluegrass and wanted to do this. It’s probably something that will only happen one time.”

During the festival, Del McCoury likes to be a gracious host. He often rides around the grounds in a golf cart, stopping to talk to fans. He also makes time to sing at least one song with most acts performing on the main stage. “They get me to play something with everybody,” McCoury said. “That’s probably my favorite part.”

Being in Maryland, the festival has full-circle significance in McCoury’s career, which started with humble gigs as a banjo player in Baltimore bars and clubs in the late 1950s. His big break came in 1963, when Bill Monroe, regarded as the father of bluegrass, recruited him to be in his band. But Monroe had another banjoist in mind, so McCoury made some necessary changes to take the job. “He wanted me to play guitar and sing, so here I am,” McCoury explained.

Six decades later, with two Grammy Awards and Grand Ole Opry membership to his credit, McCoury is still inspired to record new music. In February, he released “Almost Proud,” a fresh studio album steeped in traditional bluegrass’s hallmark sounds: ascendant harmonies, fast solos, and lyrical themes of heartbreak and hard work.

McCoury assembled the album’s 12 tracks during downtime early in the pandemic, mostly by rummaging through a box of old demo CDs he’d accumulated over many years through solicitations from other artists and songwriters. His voice sounds particularly robust, as he shares reflective sentiments in the title track and delivers a rowdy drown-my-sorrows anthem in “Honky Tonk Nights,” a duet with country staple Vince Gill.

As long as his voice remains strong, McCoury has no plans to stop performing. “I’m still enthused about music,” he said. “If my singing starts to fail, that will get me to retire. But I know down deep I can still do it.”

If you go

DelFest

Allegany County Fairgrounds, 11400 Moss Ave., Cumberland, Md. delfest.com.

Dates: May 26-29.

Price: $25-$85 single-day pass; $170.50-$270.50 multi-day pass.

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