As temperatures in the Cumberland area soared into the upper 80’s Monday and hit 90 on Tuesday, the DelFest folks were going full tilt at the Allegany County Fairgrounds, getting ready for their upcoming Memorial Day weekend music festival. While the actual live music schedule doesn’t kick in until early Thursday evening, the DelFest Academy is under way, teaching and sharing with musicians of all ages the art of playing bluegrass music.
The academy consists of a friendly, encouraging and intensive three-day learning experience with some of the finest musicians in bluegrass. It offers instruction for guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and bass for all experience levels. The 2013 instructors are Ronnie McCoury and Don Rigsby, mandolin; Rob McCoury, banjo; Jason Carter, fiddle; Alan Bartram, bass; and Ronnie Bowman and Kenny Smith, guitar.
The classes are broken up into several different stations with some of them outside under a tent right beneath the beauty of the surrounding cliffs. It’s a surreal feeling ... a kick off your shoes, sit back and enjoy atmosphere.
How far has the arm of this annual academy experience reached? Banjo player Mark Stevens and his wife Laura (mandolin) have made their way from Australia to Cumberland for the encounter. The two were married in April and decided to make DelFest a big part of their U.S. trip for what Mark calls their “semi-honeymoon.”
Mark said that American-style bluegrass is an underground taste Down Under, but that musicians are starting to catch on. He discovered and researched the DelFest Academy while surfing the Australian internet waves.
It’s good to know Cumberland can be found on the Web half a world away. While elaborating about the beauty of the surrounding area, Steve said, “The people are so nice around here, too. You can really get a sense that this is a great community.”
The last two years, a crew of pickers from Alaska made their way to the academy. This year John Greive and his wife Jaye Lampe have come here from a little Colorado town called Berthoud, about 30 miles north of Boulder. When asked what sticks out to John about the academy and the whole DelFest experience, he said while strumming a few cords on his instrument, “I like the scene, the fairgrounds are nice because people are more spread out whereas at other festivals they pack you in right on top of each other. I also actually happen to like the heat because it’s been a long cool spring back home. If it gets too hot we jump in the (Potomac) river.”
John and many others are staying at some of the hotels in town for a few days, but once the festival starts they have chosen to use the Show Sherpa. If you wish to take in DelFest without the hassle of hauling your RV or camping gear to the fairgrounds you can rent tent space from them where everything is already set up and waiting for you, including the morning coffee.
The academy popularity is catching on as the numbers have grown significantly this year. Academy Cruise director Lisa McCoury, who was absent last year while giving birth to Vassar McCoury (son of Rob and grandson to Del, who the festival is named after), said that upward of eight academy students have come from the local community, with five of them on a DelFest scholarship where their funding is provided by local business sponsorships. The scholarship winners were Bill Bower and Caleb Carter of Cumberland, Walker Magrath of Spring Gap, Brent Dumas of LaVale and Hanna Livingston of Frostburg.
At the end of each day’s private music sessions there is Bluegrass Karaoke, where students sign up to play a song with all the instructors. This is literally something every student will carry with them for a lifetime. It’s rare to play the lead with a Grammy Award-winning act as backup.
The academy folks started pulling in Monday afternoon. Many will be here until the following Memorial Day Monday, sleeping in tents that already stretch from one end of the fairgrounds all the way down to the main entrance. For them this is a chance to relax before the big crowds start pouring in ... to relish hanging out with other bluegrass musicians from far and near while joining jam circles that extend way into the wee morning hours. Nothing could be finer.
The crowd numbers this weekend are expected to top anything DelFest has produced the past five years. Be sure to visit www.DelFest.com to read about parking and other important information.
Todd Helmick is a former Fort Hill High School and Florida State University football player. He is the owner of the college football website NationalChamps.net and his weekly radio show can be heard on Baltimore FOX Sports 1370.