Del McCoury packed in his faithful throngs of fans last weekend in Cumberland, Maryland, for the annual exuberant gathering of Delfest last weekend. There is no gourmet promenade of acclaimed chefs to compete with the Outside Lands Festival, or the notoriety of Bonnaroo and its mammoth roster of performers (by the way, on which Del McCoury is included this year). Year after year followers and entire clans of families make the pilgrimage to the named destination, and Del McCoury and his boys greet nearly all of their “Delheads” by first names, priming palates for a musical feast.

This year, the crowds at the Allegheny County Fairgrounds didn’t just experience the joy and familial kinship from Del McCoury and his family band, but a bevy of bluegrass and musical icons gathered for the “Bluegrass Congress,” presided over by the bluegrass legend, and bringing a lineup of stellar artists on strings seldom seen together on one stage.

Called to order

Del McCoury will turn 80 on his next February birthday, but to feel his energy and vibrancy onstage is to defy any chronological definition of age. This was the 11th official gathering of Delfest, and Del McCoury's inspiration for the “Bluegrass Congress” came to fruition in 2017, inspired by George Washington and his travels to Maryland in early years, which gave him respite and sustenance in every sense.

The dignitaries on hand this year included Ricky Skaggs, David Grisman, Sam Bush, Bryan Sutton, Jerry Douglas, and Stuart Duncan. In these times when what goes on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can be enough to put anyone's day in distress, hearing this distinguished contingent of artists letting their fingers fly and voices soar on Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers’ “White House Blues” is a sonic balm for the soul.

Each of the distinguished musical body took a turn between verses, demonstrating eloquently that there are indeed rock stars in bluegrass. Dapper as ever in his characteristic suit and tie and immaculately coiffed hair, Del McCoury doesn’t miss a beat in the barrage of lyrics. Just to hear the wizardry of Jerry Douglas on dobro is dazzling, and Bryan Sutton takes off on his first guitar break.

Ricky Skaggs still brings a Master’s touch with his long locks, before Sam Bush delivers power licks on mandolin. Weather demanded paper and plastic sheeting onstage, but nothing diminishes the fact that everyone watching feels the presence of bluegrass royalty.

Still defining standards

Fifty years is not all that much when one has had the life in music that Del McCoury has lived, still thriving through his almost eight decades. The esteemed musician sees no problem in waiting 50 years to release his follow-up to “Del McCoury Sings Bluegrass,” and just before this year's Delfest and “Bluegrass Congress,” he released “Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass” on May 25. In a musical era when the latest “great” artists have the staying power of a summer fruit fly, Del McCoury manages to stay authentically himself and still keep his music relevant.

Ever keeping his disarming humor and demeanor, he broadens bluegrass appeal by adding electric guitar touches on Shawn Camp’s “Hot Wired,” and putting a piano on the Jerry Lee Lewis standard, “To Make Love Sweeter for You.” Both these instruments are banned as heresy in mainstream bluegrass circles, but McCoury knows that the Americana movement has opened the genre to youth in remarkable ways, and that “everybody don't like the very same thing,” as only the musician can say. With every album, he intends to bring “a variety of sounds and moods” for multigenerational appeal.

McCoury made some of those new sounds and musical inroads with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, brought unfinished Woody Guthrie works to full completion in collaboration with “Del and Woody,” and went outlaw country with Steve Earle.

It joins an eclectic group of performers this year, such as Mavis Staples, Gillian Welch and Chris Isaak, Trombone Shorty, and Irma Thomas, along with concert and festival stops later in the year. “You can play anywhere you want,” Del stresses, likely more a reference that his status and longevity give him top billing anywhere.

Del McCoury made room for inclusion and diversity in roots music on his first 1968 “Sings” album, and he still does today.