Editor’s note: This review was written by Matthew Bashioum, freelance journalist and longtime Saving Country Music reader/commentator.
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Sunday night (5-29), Tyler Childers returned to the main stage at DelFest. But unlike 2019 where he played a simple, daytime backing set, this time Childers was the headliner backed by the festival’s namesake backing band, The Travelin’ McCourys, for a spirited bluegrass jamboree.
Since the pandemic, Childers has retreated to these Appalachia to reconnect with himself, his faith, his family and his community. Sunday was a homecoming of sorts for Childers, who, like most young men going through an experimental and rebellious phase, eventually returns home for his upbringing, and is wiser to learn from his mistakes.
The long-haired stoner Childers disappeared from the 2019 set, which didn’t shy away from singing about recreational drug use and looking for good times. He was a slim, fit, restrained, younger-looking Childers who often turned into a preacher of fire and brimstone – “Gather your sheep, it’s the end of the world” / “Old times screaming and screaming, climb and say on the mountain.Childers’ role as the undisputed blue-collar voice of Appalachia has only been enhanced by the style of music that defines this region: bluegrass.
The set got off to an awkward and uneven start and Childers would later admit to being bitten by a hornet in his left ear (and its ensuing swelling) and receiving poison oak on his arms earlier in the week. But after Del McCoury joined him and the boys for a jaw-dropping rendition of “Old Country Church,” it all went down well.
To the dismay of some in the crowd, Childers leaned heavily into the offbeat gospel theme in a bluegrass style. Ignore the calls for “Feathered Indians” (“I’m not playing that one tonight, so you can stop yelling at it”) and the occasional “play some bluegrass” from diehards who thought Childers’ rendition of that style was a little loose, he and the McCourys produced the gospel in the form of new songs “Luke Chapter 2 Verses 8-10” (the children’s first Christmas song), “Greatest Story” and “Triune God”.
The set also included bluegrass versions of songs from the Childers catalog: ‘House Fire’, ‘Honky Tonk Flame’ and ‘Bottles & Bibles’. For die-hard Childers fans, the highlight of the night was when he went acoustic and performed great versions of “Lady May”, “Follow You to Virgie” and the Appalachian Anthem, “Nose on the Grindstone”. The latter sent a feverish chorus raging along the banks of the Potomac River and up the mountains and through West Virginia and the Appalachian Range.
A surprise highlight of the set was a wonderful song Childers gave to his pals The Wooks, “‘Seng”- “Berries on the mountain side, ‘seng, ‘seng, ‘seng.”
I don’t know if anyone really needed a bluegrass version of Charlie Daniels Trudey (maybe this song as the closest nocturnal in years has just run its course in general), but that’s how Childers and the 4-day festival run ended.
See the full list of Tyler Childers sets below.
As with other performers of the day, Molly Tuttle did not sit “Side Saddle” for any of the male-dominated acts on the grandstand stage. She and her band, Golden Highway, more than held their own, backed up by surprise sit-in guest Jerry Douglas. She played it close (and perfectly) to her new release twisted treeexcept for a catchy rendition of Townes’ “White Freight Liner Blues” to close his set.
If you want to be reassured that bluegrass music has been in good hands over the generations, look no further than the Crying Uncle Bluegrass Band. Four young men from the Bay Area of California (two are still in high school, one graduated last week and will go to UCLA, and one is in college attending Cal Poly as an engineer). Four brilliant men who obviously studied the history of bluegrass and perfected their craft. This is not an experiment or interpretation of bluegrass or a trendy genre; they played straight Flatt and Scruggs proud. If these kids don’t become rocket scientists, they will be a force in the genre.
DelFest was amazing. Best running festival I’ve been to (and we went in the cold on the last day). We went all day without seeing a fight, a drunk or a policeman – unbelievable. There is a strong hippie factor and they embrace and preach the code. Moreover, DelFest is a very family affair. Impressionable children of all ages roam the grounds and some have hopefully caught the music bug over the four days.
Hopefully, if we ever face another pandemic, we’ve learned enough from this one to prevent the music from being shut down again. When the music was stopped, how many children missed their chance to fall in love with music? For the health of the music industry and the sanity of all of us, I hope we’ve found a safer way to deal with pandemics that doesn’t shut down music again.
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Tyler Childers and the Travelin’ McCourys setlist
1. House fire
3. The Greatest Story Ever Told
4. Old Country Church with Del McCoury
5. Bottles and Bibles
6. Telephone calls and e-mails
7. Luke chapter 2 verses 8-10
9. Flame Honk Tonk
10. Triune God
11. Nose on the grindstone (acoustic)
12. Lady May (acoustic)
13. Follow You to Virgie (Acoustic)
14. Rust in the Rain
Photos below by Brian Turnwald.