DARRINGTON — The thrum of banjos and guitars filled the woods once again at the Darrington Bluegrass Music Park on Wednesday.
Friends jammed in small circles, veteran musicians playing alongside those less experienced. It’s a familiar and comforting scene for those who have attended the Darrington Bluegrass Festival through the years.
The festival was cancelled for two years due to COVID-19. It’s back on this weekend, featuring three days of bluegrass in an outdoor amphitheatre near the Stillaguamish River. Organizers expect several thousand to attend.
Bluegrass music traces its roots to Appalachia, and many North Carolinians emigrated to Darrington in the early 1900s for the booming timber industry — bringing with them their green bean recipes, customs and music. Bluegrass performers play acoustic instruments like mandolin, fiddle and upright bass.
The concerts don’t kick off until Friday evening, but guests arrive throughout the week. They pitch tents, fire up barbecue grills and start jam circles.
Ernestine Jones set up her trailer at the park’s front entrance, where she can watch people arrive.
“I never meet a stranger. I go up and talk to them,” she said.
The 90-year-old helped found the festival in 1977. The event grew out of jam sessions in her living room.
Jones, who came to Darrington from North Carolina at 15, has a sharp memory as she recalls the event’s early days.
She remembers the handwritten program she made when the festival was held in a flatbed trailer at the Darrington Rodeo Grounds the first year. Tickets went for $3.50 apiece. After a few successful years, the founders bought the 40-acre forested property next door, now the Bluegrass Music Park, off Highway 530. Jones wrote the $110,000 check to buy it.
She also recalled her husband, Grover, driving a backhoe to remove stumps from the festival grounds. And she can’t forget the cords of firewood she stacked. (If you ask, she will tell you in detail how to stack them properly.)
Grover Jones, also a festival founder, died in 2017.
In recent years, Ernestine Jones ran the T-shirt and souvenir booth. This festival, the 45th annual, is the first where she doesn’t have a job.
“I don’t have a title this year,” she joked.
“I’m very proud of how far it’s come,” she said. “For me, the best thing is the people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made.”
The festival will feature traditional bluegrass music, with some bands embracing a modern flair. During the two-year pause, organizers found time to add new technology: credit card payments, WiFi and a brand-new sound system.
“We have the most powerful, complete sound system we’ve had on these grounds,” said Paul Shuler, president of the Darrington Bluegrass Association and Jones’ younger brother.
Organizers added performances so there’s back-to-back music each day. Shuler promises “eight hours of the best bluegrass music around” on Saturday.
There will be four headliners — Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, Wayne Taylor & Appaloosa, The Chapmans, Zach Top and Modern Tradition — along with several other bands.
And some come just for the jam sessions.
“These people know each other — they go from festival to festival,” Shuler said.
At another campsite, Betty Lampinen and Marilyn Martin sat in a circle with Bertha Nations Whiteside, 92, also a festival founder. Lampinen and Martin asked Nations Whiteside, known as the “Queen of Northwest Bluegrass,” about the talent contest she won playing guitar at 13 and her longtime four-piece band, The Combinations.
Lampinen, of Everett, said she got hooked on playing bluegrass 30 years ago. She is now helping newer musicians.
“There’s a lot of acceptance. Betty’s been a tremendous encouragement to me,” said Martin, a Blaine resident.
Nations Whiteside said she is looking forward to “my friends and the music” over the three-day festival.
Younger musicians are carrying the torch. Aida Miller, 27, attended the festival as a child and started playing music in middle school. She now serves on the bluegrass association’s board.
She said monthly jam sessions are held throughout the year in Darrington.
“Hopefully it will breed a new generation of bluegrass,” she said.
Miller will perform with her family’s band at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, a last-minute addition to the schedule after another performer dropped out.
If you go
Darrington Bluegrass Festival, July 15-17, Darrington Bluegrass Music Park, 42501 Highway 530, west of Darrington. Music starts at 6 p.m. Friday, and about 10 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Admission is $35 for Friday night, $45 for all day Saturday, $35 for Sunday, or $80 for the full weekend. Tickets for youth 13-16 are discounted, and children 12 and under get in free.
Tickets can be purchased at the festival gate or online. For more information and the full schedule, visit darringtonbluegrass.com.