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Published: 2010/05/24
by Nancy Dunham

Del McCoury’s Eclectic, Electric Fest

Photo by Cory Tressler

When DelFest rolls out its four-day line up over this coming Memorial Day Weekend (May 27-30), attendees can expect to hear a variety of sounds, some of which are grounded in traditional acoustic bluegrass, some of which utilize electric tones. This is precisely the intent of the fest’s founder and namesake, Del McCoury. Sure, Del built his reputation as a player with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, but his love for pushing the boundaries of bluegrass has made him an influence and mentor for bands from Phish to Dierks Bentley who said during a Washington, D.C. concert last week that hearing McCoury had “changed my life.”

With DelFest around the corner, we went to the founder himself to find out what’s ahead for the festival and the legendary player himself.

Q: DelFest has a great line up with a lot of bluegrass bands but also some that aren’t traditionally associated with that format. Bluegrass is very popular right now, of course, but what’s your thought behind the mix?

A: I do think we do have a good line up. Bluegrass is big right now, but all music is so inter-related. I didn’t realize that when I was a kid. I thought bluegrass was the only music in the world worth anything when I was young.

I heard Earl Scruggs when I was young, in about 1950. From that that time on I wouldn’t listen to anything except bluegrass and especially Earl Scruggs. And you know, as I grew older I realized just how all this music fits together. All musicians can play together if they want to.

We just thought if we are going to have a festival we want to get different bands so fans will hear something different. They might become fans of someone they never even heard of if they hear the music at our festival.

Q: I remember you once said Bill Monroe would hear non-traditional bluegrass performances and tell the musicians he didn’t like it.

A: Oh he would. He’d say ‘Do you call that bluegrass?’ And they’d say yes, of course. And he’d say ‘Yeah I don’t like that.’ Bill was pretty opinioned and narrow minded, too. But he listened to jazz in his early years. He told me one time when I was working for him he said ‘I learn from musicians. They don’t know it, but I do.’ He would disguise it but he learned from other people.

When I was working for Bill, there weren’t many venues we could play. This promoter in North Carolina was talking to Bill about having a bluegrass festival and Bill argued with him and said that will never work. Well in 1965 this promoter had the first one just outside of Roanoke and then in 1967 they went to Northern Virginia for a weekend festival. I was one of [the first performers who played the festival] so I owe a lot to him.

That year, Bill Monroe said ‘I want my own bluegrass festival.’ So it took two years for Bill to get it through his head that a bluegrass festival would work.

Q: The festivals had to help the format.

A: It popularized the music so much. We started getting fans from Europe, the Far East, everywhere. There was a time after it grew that it leveled out for a while but it’s kept going.

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