DARRINGTON — They brought with them the mountain music of North Carolina.
The “Tarheels” who moved to Darrington during the logging heyday first met for jam sessions in their homes, where they played their favorite old-time tunes and held on to their Appalachian heritage.
Decades later, the music is still heard at the 36th annual Darrington Bluegrass Festival, continuing today and Sunday at an amphitheater that musicians call one of the finest in the country. Along with the bluegrass festival, the amphitheater is filled each summer by Strutzfest and the Summer Meltdown festival.
In 1977, the Darrington Bluegrass and Country Music Makers Association decided to offer a weekend concert on the rodeo grounds just outside town. About 1,000 people showed up to listen to a dozen bands, including local groups the Whitehorse Mountaineers and the Combinations.
After saving up the proceeds from what became an annual music festival, the association in the mid-1980s was able to buy 40 acres next to the rodeo arena.
The Stillaguamish River ran through the property, it had a natural amphitheater and, on top of that, it possessed a stunning view of Whitehorse Mountain. It was perfect, said Ernestine Jones, 80, of Darrington.
“We paid $110,000 in cash for the 40 acres, and that left us with just enough money to put on the festival for the next year,” Jones said. She and her husband, Grover, an upright-bass player, are among the original bluegrass association members.
Since then, the Darrington Bluegrass Festival has attracted thousands of people to its grounds. They sit in the wooded campground of the festival site and play music until the wee hours. They crowd the amphitheater to hear bands from around the country. A few years ago, more than 8,000 people attended.
The top performer in the festival’s 13th year was Bill Monroe, often called the father of the musical genre, and his band, the Bluegrass Boys.
“Of course, we’ve never had a losing year. And we benefit the town, too,” said Duane Smith, 75, volunteer operations manager. “We have people who come from all over the world, Japan, Australia and England. We always do well because it’s all done by our great volunteers from Darrington.”
Along with the music, the big draw is the festival venue, Smith said.
Josh Clauson, in his early 30s, and Toby Strotz, 56, couldn’t agree more. Both men are Arlington High School graduates who love the area where they grew up. Strotz runs Strutzfest — the festival is actually named after his band — and Clauson helped start the Summer Meltdown.
“I am just amazed by the grandeur of the festival grounds,” said Clauson, of the band True Spokes, formerly known as Flowmotion. “It’s magical. You don’t even need a stage or a band. Just being there is an event.”
At first intimidated to ask the bluegrass association if he could rent the festival grounds, Clauson let it be known that he grew up in nearby Oso and Trafton.
“I call the Meltdown young folks the hippies,” Smith said. “But they are good people and they respect and appreciate our music park.”
It wasn’t easy to get people to drive all the way to Darrington for some music, Clauson said.
“But we are already winning just by putting the festival on there,” Clauson said.
Strotz’s wife, Debbie, helps produce Strutzfest. She grew up in Darrington and said the music park also is used for weddings, high school graduations and company picnics.
“The beautiful festival grounds have the very essence of Darrington,” she said. “It’s all about everybody pitching in to do what needs to be done.”
Toby Strotz, who plays drums in his band Strutz, said the amphitheater is his favorite place to play.
“It means so much to me. We’ve had national acts up there, and we have bands that come early to our festival just to hang out,” he said. “If you’ve been there once, it’s sure that you’ll be there at least twice.”
Ernestine Jones and her great-grandson Lane Monteith, 15, are working at the T-shirt booth at the bluegrass festival this weekend.
“When I look around the music park, I see the handiwork of a lot of folks who have passed on,” Jones said. “We try to make improvements every year and make this a place that will keep on going for generations. You have to love something to put that much work into it, and we love bluegrass music.
“It’s not all about the twang of a banjo. It’s about the rhythm and harmony that you find in people, too.”