Camano Island family rooted in bluegrass

The Miller family of Camano Island has been tent camping for the past five days on the grounds of the Darrington Bluegrass Festival.

At some point each day, they got their instruments out and practiced together. Then they fanned out across the park to swim in the Stillaguamish River, picnic with friends and jam with other musicians gathered from throughout the region for the festival, which is open to audiences Friday through Sunday, July 18, 19 and 20.

The headliners at the 38th annual festival are Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers from Xenia, Ohio; Audie Blaylock and Redline from Nashville, Tennessee; and Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road from Raleigh, North Carolina.

But hundreds of musicians are in Darrington this weekend, and some of them won’t even appear on stage; they’re just happy to be there to listen and to play music with other bluegrass fans.

The Miller family, otherwise known as the band Blueberry Hill, is scheduled to perform at 9 p.m. Friday and at 1:15 p.m. Sunday.

Blueberry Hill includes guitarist and singer Kevin Miller (aka Dad) and bassist Sarah Miller (aka Mom), along with “Uncle” Loren Postma, their good friend and mentor from Everett, on dobro. Singer and guitarist/mandolinist Aida Miller, 19, and Forrest Miller, 17, on banjo are among the youngest musicians performing at the festival.

“Really the heart of the festival is those jam sessions in the camping areas,” Kevin Miller said. “Certain ones are magical, where everyone is on the same spiritual plane and you are connecting on the same level.”

Blueberry Hill has performed at Wintergrass, Northwest Folklife Festival, regional fairs and bluegrass festivals in Cashmere, Shelton and George, among others.

But the Millers have strongest connection to Darrington and the festival.

Kevin, a 1980 graduate of Darrington High School, started playing a baritone ukulele at age 5 with his uncle Joe Johnson, a guitarist from Tennessee. Glenn Miller, the big band director, was a distant cousin who played bluegrass on his mandolin before he got into swing music, Kevin said.

“But for a long while, I wanted to be a rock star,” Kevin said. “Or at least somebody like John Denver.”

Kevin met Sarah on a “set-up” date when he was working at the hardware store in Darrington and she was employed with the U.S. Forest Service at the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. They were married and their children were born.

“About that time, I realized I was all about bluegrass,” Kevin said. “And that if I didn’t join in, I was going to miss out on a lot of fun.”

The Millers’ children showed interest in music early on.

Forrest decided on his instrument while attending a bluegrass festival. “Dad, I want to get one of them round things,” said Forrest, telling the story.

“And it didn’t take long until he was playing that banjo,” Kevin said. “I would just tell him where to put in the licks.”

Aida switched from flute, which she started in elementary school, to guitar and mandolin.

The family band had its start with a little combo of Kevin and his kids playing at open microphone events.

Sarah was the last to join the band. They bought her first upright string bass on Craigslist.

“Some people said I would be a bluegrass widow if I didn’t start playing,” Sarah said.

“Yeah, we wanted to keep her in the family,” Kevin said.

The bluegrass community in Snohomish County provided a guiding hand to Blueberry Hill, Kevin said.

Roy Morgan made tapes for Kevin to help him learn the songs. Ernestine Jones pushed him to play at jam sessions during the winter. Bertha Nations Whiteside of the band, the Combinations, passed on her songs.

The founders of the festival, including many who moved to Darrington from North Carolina for the timber harvest, have bluegrass in their blood, Kevin said.

“Their music is real in the sense that they don’t even know where they got it from, as if the music is them,” he said.

Aida, who is fast becoming the lead singer of Blueberry Hill, has attended the festival since she was a babe in arms, dancing with her daddy up near the stage.

“My best memories are those at the festival,” Aida said. “Nobody can top Darrington’s festival. It’s a big deal across the region. Playing in the amphitheater with Whitehorse Mountain in the background is wonderful. It’s as if you are in a different country.”

A 2013 graduate of Stanwood High School, Aida is a student at Skagit Valley College. After earning her associate degree, she plans to transfer to Western Washington University to earn an elementary teaching degree.

“Fourth grade, that’s what I want to teach,” she said. “The kids know what to do and they are still nice and respectful.”

Music will always play a role in her life, said Aida, who is writing her own songs and also has interests in folk music, indie styles, the blues and jazz.

Forrest is in the Running Start program at the Mount Vernon community college, where he hopes to earn a degree in fire science and become a firefighter.

“On the side, I will always play bluegrass,” he said.

When the young people talk, their parents smile broadly.

“We don’t give our kids a chance to get too puffed up, but we are very proud of them,” Sarah said.

When not performing, Sarah and Kevin run a landscaping business and make craft brooms, skagitbroomworks.com, which they sell around the world.

“We try to strike a balance between work, school and playing gigs,” Kevin said. “We want to keep the music fun.”

Practice as a family is part of that balance, but they don’t force the sessions.

Bluegrass great Bill Monroe’s “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” is a Miller family favorite. Monroe visited and performed at the Darrington festival in 1989, just seven years before the “father of bluegrass” died.

The band grabs their instruments to show off the Monroe standard. Each takes a turn with a brief solo.

On the last chord, they smile at each other and start telling stories again.

Even while they talk, the Millers continue to strum their instruments, now so much an extension of themselves.

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

Festival info

Daily tickets to the 38th annual Darrington Bluegrass Festival are $20 for teens and adults on Friday and Sunday, $25 on Saturday. Children are free. More information is at www.darringtonbluegrass.com.

Other bands playing at the festival include Money Creek Mining Co. of Everett, Great Northern Planes from Portland, Kevin Pace and the Early Edition from Spokane, New South Fork from Idaho Falls, Greenbrier Connection from Draper, Utah, Birdsview Bluegrass from Concrete, Faast &Blair from Bow, North Country Bluegrass from Kirkland, Joyful Noise from Sedro-Woolley and The Combinations from Darrington.

The next festival at the music park is Summer Meltdown, Aug. 7-10. More at www.summermeltdownfest.com.

To hear more of Blueberry Hill, listen to a session they did at Everett public radio station KSER (90.7 FM) at tinyurl.com/BlueberryKSER.

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