North Cascades Bluegrass Festival

It’s all in the name


What: North Cascades Bluegrass Festival

When: Sat., Aug. 31 -1

Where: Deming Log Show Grounds, 3295 Cedarville Road

Cost: $18-$60


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t pay that much attention when the Hovander Homestead Bluegrass Festival changed its name. It’s not uncommon for newish events—this will be the festival’s fourth year—to see all manner of modifications both large and small during their formative years. So when I heard that the Hovander Homestead Bluegrass Festival had become the North Cascades Bluegrass Festival, I figured the switch had something to do with adopting a less local and more regional outlook and outward appearance.

As is so often the case, I was wrong.

The reason the festival, which happens Aug. 31-Sept. 1 of Labor Day weekend, isn’t named for Ferndale’s favorite park is because it no longer takes place there.

Live and learn.

Instead, the festival hit the road and landed at the Deming Log Show Grounds, where the amenities are better and the infrastructure is more suited to two days of performances, workshop, camaraderie, collaboration and revelry. Seeing as the site is not only home to the log show for which it is named, but is also the longtime host of the Subdued Stringband Jamboree, the fit is a natural one.

But the move necessitated a name change, and drawing inspiration from the peaks that surround us, organizers opted for the North Cascades Bluegrass Festival.

With that pressing business taken care of, they could turn their attention to the festival itself. And while the name has changed, all of the things that have drawn performers and fans since its inception have remained the same.

Although the festival is ostensibly about the music, it does have an ulterior motive, namely to raise funds for and awareness about the Whatcom Parks and Recreation Foundation. As its name suggests, the nonprofit’s mission is to support, help maintain and expand the parks, trails and other public spaces that comprise Whatcom County’s 7,000 or so miles of designated parkland. They do this by empowering people—regular citizens like you and me—to think of themselves as stewards of the public’s wild spaces rather than just end users. The Foundation is able to use its nonprofit status as an umbrella for other groups to organize under, giving folks who need or want it access to funding and financial tools generally not available to private citizens. In other words, if you have a brainstorm about how to improve your favorite swath of parkland or trail system but lack the knowledge or experience to implement your idea, the Whatcom Parks and Recreation Foundation can be your bridge and your guide—at the very least, they can point you in the right direction and help you get started.

However, the Foundation doesn’t just exist to make the dreams of others come true. Their working on a dream of their own—and it’s a big one: the completion of the Nooksack Loop Trail, 45 miles of non-motorized trails linking Bellingham, Ferndale, Lynden, and Everson by way of following the route of the Nooksack River as well as old railroad corridors. It’s an ambitious endeavor, and given that the Hovander River Walk was the first segment of the trail to be completed and dedicated in 2014, it only made sense to site the music festival created to serve as a Foundation fundraiser there.

That was then and this is now, and after three years of filling Hovander park with the foot-stompin’ sounds of bluegrass, it’s time for the Deming Log Show Grounds to take a turn.

Officially, the North Cascades Bluegrass Festival runs from Sat., Aug. 31 through Sun., Sept. 1, but in reality, things start cooking Friday afternoon with an instrument swap. As its name suggests, this is the time for folks to bring in their unused (but still usable) or neglected instruments to sell, barter or otherwise creatively dispose of. The festival will provide the space to do so, but all pricing, negotiations, deal-making and, most importantly, money collecting is to be done on a private basis between buyer and seller. Even so, this seems like an excellent means by which a person can divest themselves of those sad, rarely played instruments whose only purpose is to gather dust and inflict guilt in favor of a new-to-them music-making device that could become a favorite. Following the instrument swap will be an open mic where those who have swapped, sold or bought can try out their wares in front of an encouraging audience.

After that, the 2019 North Cascades Bluegrass Festival kicks off for real.

Each day features two stages, the main stage and a smaller stage sponsored by Access Living. Unlike many festivals, the bulk of the main stage performers will play both days in different time slots, so if you miss someone on Saturday, odds are better than good that you can catch them Sunday. Among those gracing the main stage twice will be headliners Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen and the Missy Raines Trio. Joining them are Brograss, Farmstrong (the band, not the Skagit brewery), Colebrook Road, and Modern Tradition. On Saturday, you’ll also have the chance to see the North Cascade Bluegrass Boys, while on Sunday, the Warren G. Hardings will perform their lone set of the festival.

Music begins at 10am on the Access Living stage, and Saturday’s roster is comprised of the Prozac Mtn Boys, Northbound, and Heron and Crow. Sunday morning will start with the Yankee Drivers, who will be followed by Mostly Merle and the High Mountain String Band.

Another difference between this bluegrass festivals and others of its ilk is that its entertainers don’t just sing and strum for their suppers, they also teach workshops. Music-minded attendees can learn dynamic banjo setup and backup from Mike Munford, Frank Solivan will teach mandolin techniques, award-winning bassist Missy Raines will let people in on the tricks of her standup bass trade, Jeremy Middleton will school people in the Nashville number system and how to tap into new ideas, Colebrook Road will translate rock ’n’ roll songs into bluegrass, Mark Rast will give advice on banjo basics and clawhammer banjo, Michael Kilby will unlock the secrets of the dobro, Maddie Denton will explain what makes the fiddle such a good vehicle for improvisation, Robbie Kane will help you dial in your guitar tone—the list goes on.

By the time you’ve packed up (the Deming Log Show Grounds has ample space for overnight camping and pets are indeed allowed in the camping areas) and made your way back to Bellingham, you may not even remember the festival once had a different home. Although the festival did not find a permanent spot at Hovander Park, the work the Whatcom Parks and Recreation Foundation has done there can be enjoyed forever.

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