Del’s Next Fest
Over the last decade or so, Del McCoury has been busy.
Not that he wasn’t before that—the bluegrass legend has scarcely stopped picking since he started as one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in the early 60s—but the last ten years have been especially good to him. In the late 90s, Phish invited him and his band (including sons Ronnie and Robbie McCoury) onstage during their festival in upstate New York, effectively launching the traditionally bluegrass-only group into the world of jambands and expanding their appeal. Then in 2008, Del began his very own bluegrass festival in Cumberland, MD; today, the appropriately named DelFest is considered by many to be the east coast’s answer to the Telluride bluegrass festival.
And now, Del has his sights set on another festival: Pinnacle, North Carolina’s Jomeokee Festival. We caught up with Del to talk about this new festival as well as his experience onstage with Phish and the nature of bluegrass music itself in an interview.
Del in plain text, to be read in a genuine, soothing folk drawl.
There’s a new festival coming up that you’re headlining called Jomeokee. How did you get involved with it?
Well, I tell you what…the promoter, Bob Robertson, we’re kinda going in business with him. He ran Black Mountain, and I played for him there. So, that’s kinda how we got to know each other, but he got to know my manager better than me. I didn’t get to talk to him all that much, but I will when this festival comes off.
But it’s in Pinnacle, North Carolina, close to Mt. Airy. You know, Andy Griffith and all that. (Laughs) And I used to play a festival there years ago, Lester Flat had a festival and we haven’t played much around that vicinity since then, but it’s good to go back…there’s a lot of great fans in that state, all over.
Well it sure seems like the heartland for the genre, although everyone seems to be embracing bluegrass lately.
They have, they really have. I’ve noticed that myself. Boy, this past year our festival up there (DelFest), it really grew, y’know, since it first started, and it seems a lot of the festivals we play are that way. They’re really growing.
You know, [bluegrass festivals] started back in the sixties, of course. I played actually the first one. Not the first year of it, but the second year of it, there in Fincastle, Virginia in 1965. And then, they really got big, but there was only a couple. Then of course, the market got flooded.
A promoter by the name of Carlton Haney started that. He lived right there in northern North Carolina. He was a promoter. He was actually Conway Twitty’s manager at the time. And he wanted to start a bluegrass festival. I was working for Bill Monroe in 1963, and he tried to get him then to have a bluegrass festival and Bill Monroe said, “nah, that won’t work,” you know. But they had a festival then in ’65 without the help of Bill Monroe, and he hired all the main acts, and in two years he moved it to Berryville, Virginia, which is closer to the big northern cities like DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia and even New York City, because then, when it got up there it got really big. He was drawing from those big cities, you know. So, that was the boom. Then, there got to be so many in the seventies and eighties that it went downhill in a way.
But now, I think they’re coming back big, big and strong. The music is more, well…diverse. Well, back then, there were people that were diehards, and you couldn’t book anything but really hardcore bluegrass bands at the festival, you know?
Absolutely. It seems as if there’s a lot more deviation from strict bluegrass in today’s bluegrass bands, what with groups like Greensky Bluegrass and the like mixing it up like they do.
(Laughs) Yeah, well you know, all music is related, too, I’ve found. In the beginning, I was that way. I thought, “this bluegrass, there’s nothing like it.” I thought it was something of its own that was not related to any other music, but I found out later that those early pioneers like Bill Monroe, he’d go to New Orleans and listen to jazz bands when he was young. He was influenced by that. And then Earl Scruggs, you know, I never thought about it, but “Bugle Call Rag” and all those, they were jazz tunes. And Don Reno recorded things on banjo, but heard that stuff when they were young. They just transformed it to banjo, you know.
To go back to Jomeokee, how did you go about selecting artists for the stage you’re curating at the festival?
I leave a lot of that up to my boys, cause they know a lot about what’s happenin’ in music more so really than I do. So they kinda know who to book. But you know I play with a lot of these guys, too. [Playing on the Del McCoury-curated stage] you got us, of course, and Yonder Mountain String Band, Emmitt Nershi and Larry Keel, and I know all those guys, but there’s some new ones too that I can’t even remember the names [of] now…some of them are rock musicians, and I don’t know those guys too well, but I will by the time it’s over.
Do you find yourself playing the role of promoter at these events and looking for bands that you may want to include in the next Delfest?
Yeah, I do sometimes. All of us do—me, my wife, my boys, my manager…they all keep their eyes and ears open for different things. It’s kind of a band thing that we all go through. And I must confess that the boys, the younger guys, they know a lot more of what’s going on better than I do. When it comes to new bands to book, that kind of thing. So, I leave a lot of that up to them.
You have an interesting contest going at Jomeokee. What is it and how’d it come about?
You know what, I don’t know whose idea it was, but what they do is they get musicians to get in a tape or a video of them playing and then the one that wins the contest, they get to get up and play with us at the festival. Of course, they’ll be probably above amateur status if they win, y’know, cause they’ll be a lot of folks enterin‘…and boy, these kids surprise me today, what they can do? It’s amazing, I’m tellin’ you. Just last night I played with Sierra Hull here, she’s here in Boston with us, and I really never paid much attention to Sierra, but boy, she is really a great musician and just, she’s only like, maybe 20. And here I am 73! She played at our festival, also. But there’s just some of the greatest musicians coming along. And I wondered how thing can be and then I get thinkin’ back to when I was just starting to play, all we had was records or you could see a live performance somewhere but that was hard, you know? You didn’t learn fast. But today, they have all these extra things like the internet. I know my grandsons, they learn so much stuff off that, you know, cause they play music.