From the McCoury family in all its forms to “Chicken Man”, riverside jams and Mother Nature not interrupting anyone’s plans, DelFest thrived in all aspects during its 14th iteration.
Something special brews at DelFest in Cumberland, Maryland. Its 2023 edition, featuring Molly Tuttle, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Sierra Ferrell and an extremely cooperative Mother Nature, produced arguably its best effort yet. The event sported a dry forecast and moderate temperatures for its duration, leaving plenty of room for things to get heated on the stage with some of the best bluegrass pickers and performers around.
In addition to the three stages, campsites, gazebos and riverbanks radiated with song all weekend long, including during an impromptu late night river jam featuring members of The California Honeydrops with Sierra Ferrell, Lindsay Lou, Handmade Moments and others.
But ultimately, it’s Del and the McCoury family that were the stars through it all, as they have been since the inaugural event in 2008. Back then the Del McCoury Band was center stage with sons Robbie (banjo) and Ronnie (mandolin) joining their father, but in recent years that’s extended a generation further to Heaven McCoury. The son of Ronnie now is a fixture, playing occasionally as a second guitarist alongside his grandfather in the Del McCoury Band as well as on lead guitar with his band The Broomestix, who invited Ronnie to sit-in with them on Sunday afternoon.
“I feel how I imagine my dad also does, which is proud of my brother and myself,” says Ronnie McCoury about playing DelFest with Heaven. “To now have my own son playing on the same stage is extremely satisfying.”
Although the music is front and center, some festivarians also feature heavily in DelFest’s allure. Take Jon Kehoe, better known as “Chicken Man”, for example. After first donning a chicken suit during the DelFest Academy preceding the festival over a decade ago, the Milwaukee native has since turned the get-up into a regular schtick, lifting people’s spirits and delivering smiles as a result. The outfit quickly took on a life of its own with strangers stopping him constantly for pictures and hellos, helping to turn the salesman by day into one of DelFest’s most recognizable faces behind only Del McCoury himself.
“I’m the unlikely hero, which can sometimes be hard to comprehend,” says Kehoe. “It’s like when you hear a song that resonates with you even though the person who wrote it had no intention of its meaning extending beyond how they were feeling at the place and time it came together. To have people sharing with me stories of the happiness the suit has brought to them in their times of struggle is really heart-warming and means the world to me.”
From the McCoury family in all its forms to “Chicken Man”, riverside jams and Mother Nature not interrupting anyone’s plans, DelFest thrived in all aspects during its 14th iteration. Magical moments were a constant during the gathering’s four days along the banks of the Potomac, something longtime attendees have come to expect from the event.
This is Holler’s guide to the 10 best things we saw at DelFest 2023.
Always a proverbial ray of sunshine, mandolin phenom Sierra Hull’s star shined bright during an opening day set that included poignant performances of cuts like ‘Boom (Live to Love Again)’, ‘What Do You Say’ and ‘Poison’. However, the show’s most impactful moments came during a jamgrass expedition on a cover of The Grateful Dead’s ‘Black Muddy River’ and a reimagining of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’ that Hull dedicated to her grandmother Janis Faye Delk who passed away earlier in the week. Despite the somber circumstances, Hull fought through the set with a smile, showing not only her own inner strength but the power music has to lift people out from the depths of despair.
Minnesota’s pride and joy Trampled By Turtles delivered a blistering co-headlining set on Thursday night that sent a shockwave of energy throughout the DelFest crowd. Packed into the energetic set were somber psalms like ‘It’s So Hard to Hold On’, ‘Starting Over’, ‘Right Back Where We Started’ and ‘Wait So Long’, spearheaded by Dave Simonett’s sharp vocals.
We had big expectations for Lindsay Lou’s return to DelFest, and the Michigander didn’t disappoint. Working for most of the set as a four-piece, Lou and company navigated phases of a relationship by song from doing anything in the name of love on ‘Criminal Style’ to turmoil with a bluesy rendition of Billy Strings’ co-write ‘Nothing’s Working’ and compassion during a cover of Billy Swan’s 1974 hit ‘I Can Help’. Lou later ended her main stage set with a spark by inviting up Sierra Ferrell to sing-along to Rev. Gary Davis’ hymnal ‘I Belong to the Band’.
It’s not often you’ll hear a Flatt & Scruggs song followed shortly thereafter by a Harry Styles cover, but not every show can match the breadth and musical mastery of the Infamous Stringdusters. During their main stage set the band did everything from plug their latest tribute album with a performance of ‘Will You Be Lonesome Too’ along with welcoming out Sierra Ferrell to join in a cover of Styles’ ‘As It Was’, turning the poppy party tune near unrecognizable. Also thrown into the mix was a cover of ZZ Top’s ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ in addition to Duster originals like ‘Means to an End’ and ‘Rise Sun’.
West Virginia’s wandering mountain queen Sierra Ferrell dazzled during her first of two DelFest sets with a mix of well-known originals, new cuts and charismatic covers that left the crowd in awe. Woven together were songs like ‘At the End of the Rainbow’ and ‘West Virginia Waltz’ (that was slowed down to a snail’s pace and saw the crowd sing along to the final chorus), teases from her sophomore album like ‘Dollar Bill Bar’ and a trio of covers (Flatt & Scruggs’ ‘Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down’, Willie Nelson’s ‘Seven Spanish Angels’ and Charley Pride’s ‘The Snakes Crawl at Night’) that further cemented her as one of the country’s most mesmerizing acts.
It’s hard to match Billy Strings’ blend of traditional and progressive bluegrass with heady jams, but if anyone comes close it's The Dirty Grass Players. The Baltimore-based group packed the DelFest Music Hall during the early afternoon on Saturday and did just that, mixing originals like ‘Shiny Side Up’ with reinvented covers of Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ and New Grass Revival’s ‘This Heart of Mine’ that brought the burgeoning crowd to a fever pitch.
Nobody at DelFest walked more throughout the weekend than St. Paul & The Broken Bones’ Paul Janeway, and that’s only including his pacing back and forth on stage during a blazing Saturday evening set. Despite moving constantly, even dropping to both knees and curling up like a caterpillar at times, the Broken Bones frontman never missed a note on songs like ‘Sanctify’, ‘Flow with It (You Got Me Feeling Like)’ and ‘Grass Is Greener’, getting a work out while wowing the audience in the process.
Next to The Infamous Stringdusters, the weekend’s most fiery bluegrass outfit were The Travelin’ McCourys. Led by Del’s sons Robbie (banjo) and Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), the band put on a clinic for what bluegrass music was and always should be with renditions of ‘Queen of the Nashville Night’ and ‘Freedom Blues’. At the same time, the group also carved out room in the jamgrass space with a trio of Grateful Dead covers (‘Cumberland Blues’, ‘Scarlet Begonias’ and ‘Snow and Rain’), a reimagining of The Band’s iconic ‘The Shape I’m In’ and a homage to the late Gordon Lightfoot with ‘You Are What I Am’, showing their knack for turning any song into a bonafide bluegrass banger.
So many bands get described as genre-bending that the term has since become cliche, but with the 8-piece California Honeydrops that cliche gets turned on its head to instead become truth. Known more for throwing parties rather than concerts, the collective did just that during a late-night performance on Saturday that included sit-ins from Lindsay Lou, AJ Lee and Heaven McCoury. With horns aplenty the group also dove into originals like ‘A Higher Degree’ and the crowd-requested ‘Starr Child’, showing that they truly are a band of the people.
Christening Sunday’s golden hour was Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway. The group took fans on a journey of bluegrass medleys with songs including ‘Nashville Mess Around’, ‘Grass Valley’ and John Hartford’s ‘Up on the Hill Will There Do the Boogie’, the last with Kyle Tuttle on banjo paying homage to Leftover Salmon and Vince Herman, modern day revivalists of the ditty. However, the show’s climax occurred when the quintet honored the Dead and Del with a cover of ‘Dire Wolf’ that segued into Tuttle’s own ‘Over the Line’ in an epic six-minute excursion.
Photos by Marc Shapiro, Jay Strausser, Liz Pappas and Taylor Lewis, courtesy of DelFest.