Thus Spake Zuska

How I Spent My Memorial Day Weekend

Because sometimes I need to take a breather, here’s this post about fun stuff.
i-3b7009329d85112850d5611d9682c5f1-muddy feet.jpg
(with apologies to Carl Sandburg…)

Delfest jams on little mud feet.
It dances looking
over mountain and meadow
on singing multitudes
and then moves on.

I can’t believe I have to wait a whole nother year for Delfest 2011.

What is Delfest, you ask?

The third annual eponymous bluegrass festival founded by bluegrass legend Del McCoury was held this year, as in the previous two years, at the Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland, MD. But it’s more than “just” bluegrass, and more than just a music festival. It’s a gathering of a tribe, a thoughtful approach, and a giving back to the local community in which the festival is embedded. Money was raised for local charities and food banks, and festival goers helped build walls for a Habitat for Humanity house. The festival campgrounds included a “family-friendly” camp area, and bathroom accommodations for those with disabilities. In general, it was a festival location that would have been reasonably easy for someone using a wheelchair to attend, with a little assistance from someone else. There was a grandstand overlooking the music meadow and even after the meadow turned to mud, one could have watched the show from the grandstand – or listened to the music broadcast very locally on an FM station.

The emcee dude who mentioned something from the stage about how this was a bit like Woodstock was both right and wrong, I think. Incredible music, and enough mud for all a good bit of the time. But I am pretty sure we had a more regular supply of food and water, easier access to high quality bath and shower facilities, and a helluva lot better organization. The food and drink vending was so amazing – I’ll just mention Bearly Edibles quesadillas (using many local and organic ingredients, an excellent vegetarian choice, and minimal trash production) and the Buzzthru smoothies (dairy and non-dairy) and fab coffee drinks (organic, fair trade), for starters – not to mention the high quality merchandise vendors. It was practically the Ritz-Carlton of festivals.

Conversation overheard while waiting in line at BuzzThru early Sunday morning:

Tired, yet blissed out Festival Goer #1: I can’t stand thinking about going back to real life after all this.

T,YBOFG#2: (thoughtful glance) This isn’t real life? (pause) All the rest of that stuff is just a bad dream.

What Bluegrass Is

So much great music, and so many funny and lovely and thoughtful lyrics are echoing in my mind, but the one lyric that puts a stamp on the festival, for me, was sung (appropriately enough, by Del McCoury himself. I think the song is “Sweet Appalachia”, but I’m not sure. What he sang, after pointing to the mountains that ringed the music meadow, in a beautiful bit of string music, went something like this: “Some folks call me hillbilly…[but] Appalachian is my name.”

You might think you know what bluegrass is. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. But do you know what it’s become and where it’s going next? A (partial) list of some bands you should be listening to, if you want to know:

Railroad Earth. Yonder Mountain String Band. Cornmeal. Uncle Earl. Greensky Bluegrass. Steep Canyon Rangers. Mountain Heart.

Not a one of those is like the others. They each have as distinctive a sound from one another, within the genre of bluegrass, as do the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, within the genre of rock. If you want to see someone do a major mind-blowing ten or fifteen minute jam, I’d pick Railroad Earth, Yonder Mountain, or Cornmeal before I’d go see the Stones, though. Plus, the tix are cheaper and none of their band members are on artificial life support.

Question: five white dudes, variously sporting long hair and ball caps, wielding a fiddle, banjo, upright bass, guitar, and dobro – can they produce a rocking, kickass jam cover of When Doves Cry? Answer: Yes, if the five white dudes are Greensky Bluegrass at the Saturday workshop session. What a cruel tease, though, when they playfully announced that Del McCoury was about to join them on stage to sing while they played Stairway to Heaven. Possibly the greatest Delfest musical moment that never was. Ha!

If the Andrews Sisters, Dolly Parton, and Del McCoury had all gotten together in a Big Love sort of way, they might have produced Uncle Earl. I’ve seen bluegrass bands fronted by women (Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, both of whom have magnificent pipes) and I’ve seen a few bands with one or two women (Cornmeal’s Allie Kral can fiddle anyone else into the dust, and will fiddle your mind straight out to the Milky Way; the Biscuit Burners feature Mary Lucey and Odessa Jorgensen whose playing and harmonizing, especially on “Off to the Sea”, is topnotch). But Uncle Earl is the first time I’ve seen an all-woman bluegrass band and it takes my breath away, to see women running the whole show, and running it so well and fine and fun and true.

A word of advice to the d00ds, though: try to remember that Uncle Earl is comprised of musicians and not fiddle players-cum-fuck fantasies. Do you send marriage proposals to members of Yonder Mountain String Band? Do you introduce the Steep Canyon Rangers by way of saying what lovely man meat is packaged so fine into those tidy suits? Then maybe just lay off the hogwash for the members of Uncle Earl’s kickass bluegrass band, stop talking about how they bring a bouquet of flowers whenever they step on stage and stick to the praise of their musicianship, and if you must write your fanboy lustmail, please don’t stamp and mail.

“Remember: sleep deprivation is an integral part of the Delfest experience.”

We went to one late night show – Railroad Earth, Friday night. This started at 1:45 a.m. and ended around 4 a.m. May not have been too bad of a problem if we had not had to get up the next day for the Steep Canyon Rangers at 10 a.m. It’s even worse than it sounds, because as you may or may not know, Delfest is an open taping festival, and I am in a co-dependent relationship with a taper. That means we had to arrive at the stage at least one hour prior to the start of the SCR show in order to obtain a prime spot for the micstand and allow enough time for a “relaxed” setup of the recording rig. “Relaxed” is a relative term. There is actually no “relaxed” in recording. Of that I may speak more in a later post.

The Bluegrass Audience

Who listens to bluegrass at Delfest?

A. Your friend’s grandparents
B. That dude with the faux dreadlocks
C. Millennial youngsters with tattoos and piercings
D. Young married couples with small children
E. Middle-aged backpacker women with graying braids and Tevas
F. Deadheads, old and young
G. Ten-year-old Appalachian boys who clog dance barefoot in the mud
H. North American Tapers Society, East Coast Section
I. Retired couple from Seattle
J. A lotta lotta white people, a few brown folks
K. All of the above

A Clean(ish), Well-Vended Place

Trash management at the festival was handled by a company called Clean Vibes. Liberally available trash can sites helped keep the festival grounds clean, and each site provided at least one can marked “recycling” for cans and bottles, another marked “landfill” for other trash. “Landfill” was a nice reminder that your trash doesn’t really go “away”, it has to go somewhere, so be thoughtful about how much you generate. Each campsite was issued two bags on entry to the campgrounds – one for recyclables, one for landfill trash. At the end of the festival, the two bags could be deposited near trash can sites for pickup. (Lest I mislead you, I myself did not camp. I am too decrepit and migraine-prone to endure four days of sun, rain, and mud without some retreat to indoors.) A cell phone recycling tent, provided by Rock the Earth, was available on the grounds as well. I don’t know how many people actually recycled their cell phones at the festival but it is to be hoped that the opportunity to do so helped make them aware that this is an option for the future.

Despite all this, at the end of each night’s run of acts on the main stage, the music meadow was littered with trash. People, if you carry it with you onto the meadow, carry it over to a trash or recycling can. It’s that simple. It’s not like they were hard to find. Nevertheless, an amazing corps of volunteers set out immediately at show’s end to sweep the meadow – and it is a very, very large meadow – which was generally spotlessly clean to greet the next morning’s early show stalwarts.

Women of Delfest, I salute you. I don’t know if you are sitters, squatters, or hoverers, but you do not seem to pee on the toilet seats. Or if you do, you clean as you go. It’s a different world outside the real life festival. At the first rest stop, the very first stall I entered had urine all over half the toilet seat. Women of the bad dream world, please learn from the Delfest reality. Take better aim or deal with your scattershot.

Speaking of that which is generally not spoken of: a four day festival complete with muddy slop, and not once did I enter a bathroom stall that lacked for toilet paper, or find a sink set up that wanted for handsoap or paper towels. There may always have been some mud on the floors but the frequency with which those floors had to have been cleaned off was simply astonishing. And this was a volunteer operation. Women of Delfest, I hope you were slipping some cash in that tipbox every now and again.

Festival vendors were, it appeared, carefully chosen and as mentioned, of very high quality. My favorites were the following.

  • Blues Forkman – 100% recycled silverware art, including bracelets custom fit to your wrist and incredibly detailed renditions of banjo players, guitarists, a full drum kit, etc. If I were in the market for a wedding band today, I’d be getting it from Blues Forkman.

  • Elk Run Mining Co. – offered locally-mined stone jewelry. I am still pining for the loveliest highly polished bit of bloodstone set in sterling silver you’ve ever seen. The level of craft involved man it worth twice the price but alas, even the asking price was not within my reach.
  • The Dancing Skirt – upcycled silk/sari skirts and clothing. Exquisite fabric, and unbelievably reasonable prices. If I’d been a little less muddy and sweaty I’d have walked away with at least one, despite my likely having no occasion whatsoever where I could wear it.

A whole row of vendors in the music meadow was given over to non-profits.

Hail no! Del yeah!

Last year’s thunderstorm/hailstorm/maelstrom is now the stuff of memory, legend, and for those who lived through it, mild-to-moderate PTSD. A sudden storm that came on with little or no warning, it blew away vendor booths and wiped the music meadow clean of everything but the mainstage, leaving heaps of tangled chairs and easy-up tents. People were struck by lightning. People were lashed by hail for 45 minutes. People were traumatized. And somehow the crew there emerged and put the pieces back together and got the show back on the next day. Out of the experience emerged, along with the PTSD, the “Hail no! Del yeah!” motto, which could be found on t-shirts this year, and “Del yeah!” got worked into many a band’s performance. When this year’s thunderstorm started approaching on Friday afternoon, people were understandably anxious. Happily, the threatened hail did not materialize, at least at the festival site, and all we got were rain, a delay in the show, squishy muddy toes, a few slides and falls in the mud here and there, and the distinct olfactory sensation of spending the rest of the festival in something like a cow pasture. Del yeah!

I really hope this festival does not outgrow its site, which is perfect.
Do not come to this festival. It is crowded and muddy and you don’t like bluegrass. It could hail on you. This is not the festival you are looking for. Just go to archive.org and download some music.

Comments

  1. #1 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    June 6, 2010

    Z: Thank you for this! I’m a huge bluegrass fan – but living in NYC, it’s hard to keep in touch with what’s happening in the BG scene. I just went and spent way too much money ordering CDs!

  2. #2 Zuska
    June 6, 2010

    Ah, I was hoping you would enjoy this post! And I hope you will enjoy the music, too!

  3. #3 davep
    June 6, 2010

    “What is Delfest, you ask?”

    Nope (knew about it).

    It’s only a year ’till the next one. You can make it!

  4. #4 lucy
    June 6, 2010

    I don’t think I have commented on this blog before, but its great!
    My Alma mater is Frostburg State, and I grew up in Garrett County, MD. I have since moved far away, and I realized this is the first time I have missed Delfest in a very long time.
    Only an hour from from Cumberland, in Oakland, MD, they host the annual state fiddle, banjo, and mandolin competition and its always a great show. Its also in October, if you want a refresher before next Spring!

  5. #5 DuWayne
    June 6, 2010

    I really hope this festival does not outgrow its site, which is perfect.
    Do not come to this festival. It is crowded and muddy and you don’t like bluegrass. It could hail on you. This is not the festival you are looking for.

    If I had the time (and ability to deal with crowds – something that unfortunately distresses me) I could go to Wheatland, MI’s folk and bluegrass festival. Not quite on a par with Delfest in regards to social consciousness, as the kids who were originally taken in slings and strollers become adults that is becoming more important – and it is almost entirely volunteer driven. I don’t recall whether there is a position or two that actually provide a salary, but IIRC, the musicians are the only ones who actually get paid.

    I sometimes wish I could handle the crowds and go to this sort of thing. I love helping out behind the scenes, both to prepare before and restore things after. But too many people makes me pathologically uncomfortable (ie. I start to sweat, even if it is cold and if I don’t get away quickly enough, panic sets in). That said, the folks who make these things happen are generally a lot of fun and with Wheatland in particular, if you are working the day before they open you get to hang out with and jam with some of the musicians.

    I can definitely understand the joy that bluegrass and folk festivals tend to foster (especially if you survive an experience like the storm from hell). A lot of my friends in the Lansing area grew up going to Wheatland and it’s an awesome community of people.

  6. #6 Zuska
    June 6, 2010

    I should make clear that I did not experience last year’s Hailfest – I was with mom – but Mr. Z did. Out in the meadow, all 45 minutes of hail, wrapped in a tarp. My comments above are based on his stories and what I heard others say at this year’s Delfest, and what Del McCoury wrote in the festival program, which was quite beautiful and touching.

  7. #7 Peggy Layne
    June 7, 2010

    Sounds wonderful! You should come to FloydFest. It’s not all bluegrass – casts a much wider net of world music – but has a good bluegrass representation (I’ve seen Mountain Heart and Railroad Earth there) and is very well run.

  8. #8 Dusty
    June 7, 2010

    OMG, Del McCoury has a festival all his own? Be still my beating heart…

  9. #9 tinfoil hattie
    June 7, 2010

    DELFEST! Del Yes!

    We were (minor, teeny-tiny) sponsors of DelFest this year, and DAMN was it great. We were caught in HailFest last year, and had to leave on Saturday night – all our tents, clothing, sleeping bags were soaked, and most tent polse snapped – but still, we could barely wait for this year!

    We used to sponsor the Midnight Jam at Merlefest, but about the time it became “Merlefest Presented by Lowe’s” is when DelFest was born, so we happily switched our allegiance.

    As for FloydFest, it too is an amazing festival, and quite different. One flaw: there’s no place/no time availble to go at FloydFest for some quiet “downtime.” Music goes on all night. That’s okay, as long as you’re in the mood for it and you know that going in. Also, no “real” toilets. Again, forewarned is forearmed.

    Oooh, Memorial Day 2011! DelFest! I can’t wait!

  10. #10 Rock The Earth
    June 10, 2010

    Thanks in large part to the wonderful support of the High Sierra production team that presents DelFest, Rock the Earth’s volunteer crew collected well over 250 cell phones for recycling at this year’s festival. In exchange, all donors received a DelFest sticker and 50 free music downloads courtesy of eMusic.com, while more than a dozen festivarians took home prizes ranging from autographed CDs and DelFest posters to baseball hats and DVD box sets. Thanks to all who made this effort such a tremendous success!

    Rock the Earth will be conducting cell phone drives at concerts and festivals across the country during 2010, so be sure to refer to our web site for more information on how you can donate a phone and possibly pick up some cool merchandise in return. We also expect to be conducting another drive at DelFest IV in 2011, so keep an eye out for more details early next year.

    Cheers!

  11. #11 Brian
    June 12, 2010

    Thanks for the article, this was my first year at Del Fest. My friend and I came for just Friday, for the day’s concert only, and we had a blast. Never have I been to such a relaxed, free going atmosphere at a concert. We’re both music nuts ranging from and to everything and anything and this was our first bluegrass concert.

    Also, I think you may have left a few words out of your closing paragraph, I think I know the point you’re trying to make though. It just may seem confusing to most people.