7th annual Bluegrass Festival returns to the Woodlands Nature Preserve with some of the biggest names in the business

from Staff Reports

There has been a noticeable leap in star power for the seventh annual Charleston Bluegrass Festival held Friday, March 20 and Saturday, March 21 at The Woodlands Nature Preserve, located at  4279 Ashley River Road. This is the third year the festival has been held in West Ashley and like previous years, there are campaign opportunities. However, the biggest change this year is the amount of big name bluegrass acts that have been added to the bill, including Greensky Bluegrass, the Yonder Mountain String Band, the Sam Bush Band, Town Mountain, Ghost Light, the Larry Keel Experience, and the Del McCoury Band.

Even among this impressive list of the genre’s finest artists, 81-year-old Del McCoury stands alone. From the nascent sound of bluegrass that charmed hardscrabble hillbilly honkytonks, rural schoolhouse stages, and the crowning glory of the Grand Ole Opry to the present-day culture-buzz of viral videos and digital streams, McCoury is the living link. Audiences where he plays often number in the tens of thousands.

Emerging from humble beginnings in York County, PA. 81 years ago, McCoury was not the likeliest of candidates for legendary status. As a teen, he was captivated by the banjo playing of one of its masters, Earl Scruggs, and decided he’d be a banjo picker, too. The Baltimore/Washington, D.C. bar scene of the early 1960s was lively and rough. McCoury caught a break. More than a break, really. It was an opportunity of a lifetime; joining Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in early 1963. Considered the Father of Bluegrass, Monroe transformed McCoury, moving him from the banjo to guitar, anointing him lead singer, and providing him with a priceless trove of bluegrass tutelage direct from the source.

Countless hours of recording sessions and miles of tireless touring dotted the decades. Del carried on, and carried with him the hallowed traditions of the form and its dedicated following. The passing years became certificates of authenticity. So, in the sea of grunge and R&B that dominated the music scene of the mid-’90s, it was special, perhaps even startling, to see.

Now helming the Del McCoury Band, with sons Ronnie and Rob, the ensemble did and continues to represent in a larger, growing musical community a peerless torchbearer for the entire sweep and scope of bluegrass history. Those many years, not to mention a good-natured willingness to stay alert to the latest sounds and opportunities around him, earned McCoury a whole new generation of fans, including some in unlikely places.

“I’m just doing what’s natural,” says McCoury. “When young musicians ask me what they should do I always tell them, ‘You do whatever’s inside of you. Do what you do best.’”

No surprise that contemporary, bluegrass-bred stars sang his praises; marquee names like Vince Gill and Alison Krauss (who first met McCoury at a bluegrass festival when she subbed for his missing fiddler). Yet, here too was rocker Steve Earle recording and touring with the group. Here was jam band legend Phish jamming onstage with the boys. Here was the band on TV, or headlining rock clubs and college campuses; the can’t-miss appearances at country and jazz festivals.

“We don’t have a setlist,” says McCoury. “We try and work in the new songs, but a lot of times it’s just requests from the audience. It’s more interesting for the band, for me, and for the audience because nobody knows what’s coming next.”

Almost unimaginable, McCoury’s sixth decades in a half-century of bluegrass bliss brings new triumphs, new collaborations, and new music. With but a single change in membership in 27 years The Del McCoury Band shows unprecedented stability as well as garners the respect and admiration of the industry for its unmistakable work: nine IBMA Entertainer of the Year trophies; in 2003, McCoury was awarded membership in the cast of the legendary Grand Ole Opry; the band’s first Best Bluegrass Album Grammy award, in 2005, followed by a second Grammy win in 2014, (not to mention double-digit nominations).

“I know [having the same band] helped with my success. It keeps your sound constant,” says McCoury. “We really enjoy what we’re doing.”

While this is their first time at the Charleston Bluegrass Festsival, the Del McCoury Band has played the wildly popular Bonnaroo Music Festival and curated and expanded McCoury’s annual namesake festival DelFest. One of the premier string-band events in the country, the multi-day, multi-stage DelFest showcases the new lions of the genre such as Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters, and Old Crow Medicine Show, and legends like Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, and Bobby Osborne, plus a diversity of artists like Phish frontman Trey Anastasio and blues-rock veterans Gov’t Mule to Americana darlings The Wood Brothers and Rhiannon Giddens.

And, when Sony Music came calling, post-Hurricane Katrina, proposing a collaboration with New Orleans’ revered Preservation Hall Jazz Band, McCoury answered. If there was ever a collection of recordings confirming McCoury’s wide-ranging impact and spirit of musical camaraderie, it would be American Legacies. A wonderfully fulfilling cross-section of traditional bluegrass and the Dixieland pomp of New Orleans, the album typified the Del McCoury Band’s evolution from bluegrass vanguard to an American treasure.

“All music is related. Bill Monroe went to New Orleans and listened to jazz players. Earl Scruggs — some of the tunes he recorded were from New Orleans. It all fits together if you’re willing to be open-minded,” says McCoury. “What I like in a record is variety of moods, of tempos. I consider myself traditional at heart, but I don’t have any boundaries. I’m just a guy that likes to sing and play music. Whatever strikes me to do I’ll do it. Without wrecking things.”

The 7th annual Charleston Bluegrass Festival will be held March 20-21 at The Woodlands Nature Preserve, located at  4279 Ashley River Road. For more information and for tickets, visit www.charlestonbluegrassfestival.com.

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