DARRINGTON — After the disaster, the music, like the Stillaguamish River, kept rolling.
That isn’t to say things remained entirely the same at the Darrington Bluegrass Festival, now in its 38th year.
Somber notes at times clouded the up-tempo dobro guitars and vocal harmonies on Sunday, the final day of the festival. They were reminders of the mudslide that struck a few miles down the highway in March, claiming 43 lives. Attendance also appeared to be down, despite a state marketing campaign to boost Stilly Valley tourism.
“I think the rain hurt our day crowd yesterday, but our camping is full, about as full as you can get,” said Diana Morgan, one of the event organizers.
The event has drawn as many as 7,000 people when weather is nice, Morgan said.
The festival lineup featured more than a dozen acts from Friday through Sunday, including headliners Joe Mullins &the Radio Ramblers.
Camping started the previous weekend. Motorhomes and fifth wheels Sunday sported license plates from Montana, California, British Columbia and Idaho. Groups of musicians sat in small circles for acoustic jams.
On the main stage that afternoon, the Birdsview Bluegrass Band from Skagit County ended their set with a tune that captured the recent tribulations in the Stillaguamish Valley.
The band’s bassist, 63-year-old Donny Coggins, wrote “Oso Strong and Pray” to honor the lives lost in the mudslide and those who rushed to help:
“When that hill rolled down through the valley,
“It was a dark and cloudy day,
“The Lord took their souls to heaven,
“We’ll be Oso strong and pray.”
The group has played the song at benefits for slide survivors, Coggins said. They’ve also raised money to finish the concert hall at the Darrington Bluegrass Music Park, the 40-acre grounds where organizers put on the annual festival.
“Everything we’ve made off of it we donated,” he said.
Festival organizers had been hoping for record turnout this year, to help the area rebound from the disaster.
Though final tallies weren’t yet in, Ernestine Jones was convinced that the crowds were thinner, though she did see some new faces, a possible result of the advertising campaign. The 82-year-old is in a good position to know; she and her husband, Grover, helped start the festival in 1977 after bluegrass jams outgrew their Darrington home.
“We have quite a few new people that have never been here before,” she said. “Any time that you have new people, it changes a little bit.”
Jones believes some people may not have realized that it’s now relatively easy to reach Darrington, which was left largely isolated immediately after the mudslide. Although the permanent fix to the destroyed section of Highway 530 isn’t scheduled to reopen until October, traffic has been able to travel the road at reduced speed for the past month. Before that, there was alternating one-lane traffic on the highway and a bumpy Seattle City Light utility access road.
“A lot of people thought the roads weren’t going to be open until October,” said Jones’ grandson, Trevin Bradley, 32.
The bluegrass festival is one of four Stillaguamish Valley events the state has highlighted this summer through a $150,000 advertising campaign.
Others included the Timberbowl Rodeo in June and the Arlington Fly-In earlier this month. There’s also Darrington’s Summer Meltdown, a festival featuring rock, funk and electronic music, Aug. 8-11.
The advertising campaign’s centerpiece is a 30-second TV commercial with images of camping, bicycling, hiking, rafting and climbing.
The Fly-In also saw smaller crowds this year, said Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert, whose day job is directing the air show.
“It’s below last year’s walk-in attendance,” Tolbert said.
They did, however, see more people fly to the event from all over Washington and other states, she said.
Weather may have been a factor keeping crowds away during the sweltering July 10-12 weekend, she said.
Typically, the event draws more than 30,000 people. Final attendance figures weren’t available last week.
To learn about more events in the Stillaguamish Valley: www.visitstillyvalley.com.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org.