Lorraine Wilde | 08/05/2019 | Insider Blogs |   

Revel in the North Cascades Bluegrass Festival

Formerly known as the Hovander Homestead Bluegrass Festival, and now in its fourth year, North Cascades Bluegrass Festival will have you stomping your feet over Labor Day weekend, August 31 through September 1, 2019 at Whatcom County’s Deming Log Showgrounds.

I spoke with Festival Co-Founder, Daniel Tepper, to get the inside story on this hopping festival full of local and touring artists and enthusiasts. With food, craft and music vendors, a beer garden, camping, a jam tent, workshops, an instrument swap, open mic and many, many performances, there will be something for everyone at this festival full of the best bluegrass you’ll hear.

Perhaps half of attendees are locals while the other half travel from across the state and from throughout the west.

Photos Courtesy of Rae and Rae Photography.

What is Bluegrass Exactly?

The roots of bluegrass music go back to the early 1600s in the various types of music brought with the people who began migrating to America. Dance music and ballads from Ireland, Scotland and England, as well as African American gospel music and blues all have influenced the genre. Slaves from Africa brought the design idea for the banjo—an instrument that is now integral to the bluegrass sound.

As settlers spread out into the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky and the Virginias, they composed new songs about day-to-day life experiences as immigrants in a new land. The songs reflected rural life on the farm or in the hills and this type of music was called "mountain music" or "country music." 

Bluegrass music developed in the 1940s in the United States Appalachian region. The genre is named from the band, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, which was coined for the Bluegrass State, Kentucky. Monroe’s band was different from other traditional country music bands of the time because of its powerful sound. Its popularity defined the genre, influenced by jazz and blues and made up of traditional acoustic stringed instruments (often banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin). Free improvisation and high-pitched vocal harmonies are core to the sound.

Photos Courtesy of Rae and Rae Photography.

Purpose of the Festival

Owned by the Whatcom Parks and Recreation Foundation, the Festival is run as their annual fundraiser. The Foundation is a nonprofit whose focus is to support parks, trails and recreational opportunities throughout Whatcom County, its cities and communities. So the profit from each festival goes right back in to the community.

Tepper has been President of the Foundation for more than 16 years. His love for and experience with the banjo is how the Foundation began the festival. The Foundation’s signature project is the development of a 45-mile Nooksack Loop Trail that will eventually connect Bellingham, Ferndale, Lynden and Everson. The Foundation leads a group of representatives from local governments, parks departments, citizens groups and private land owners working to transform policy and secure, connect and maintain trail segments that will eventually connect to complete the 45-mile loop. The first segment of this tremendous undertaking, the Hovander River Walk, was dedicated in May 2014. 


David Starr, founder of 5 Starr Jams and his wife Robin of Access Living have also been heavily involved in the planning of the festival since its beginning. Acoustic stringed instrument jams are held on the last Saturday of every month (except Oct. and Feb.) in the Access Living space in Fairhaven. Access Living has been providing supported living services to people who experience developmental disabilities for more than 25 years.

Opening Night Instrument Swap & Open Mic

The festival aptly opens with a no-host instrument swap. Tepper says many festival attendees arrive early, find a new instrument and then spend the rest of the weekend getting to know it and jamming with it in subsequent workshops.

This year the swap will occur in the Log Show Museum building from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. All transactions are between the seller and the buyer and the festival stays out of the transactions so buyers beware. But this community of bluegrass lovers is generally approaching it from their mutual love of the music form.

An open mic session will follow from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday. Many groups that play together regularly will sign up in advance for one of five 25-minute sets.

Photos Courtesy of Rae and Rae Photography.

Main Stage Power

Between 800 and 1,000 people per day show up to hear at least nine touring groups grace the Main Stage, visiting from around the country.


Modern Tradition and Roosevelt Road & Friends Gospel Show are returning from last year. Take a look at the schedule to ensure you get to see your favorites.


Tashi and Kaj Litch of Brograss are no less impressive because they are still in their teens. The duo has been performing throughout the Northwest with Brandi Carlile, Mike McCready, Balsam Range, Darol Anger, Doyle Lawson, Sierra Hull and many others. Their mix of traditional and original bluegrass as a duo with guitar, mandolin, fiddle and voice also perform as part of a quartet with an upright bass and fiddle.

Access Living Showcase

During the day on Saturday and Sunday, the Access Living Showcase will take the Main Stage. Those not attending workshops will hear a variety of Whatcom County and Pacific Northwest musicians including many returning groups including The Prozac Mountain Boys, Mostly Merle, Heron and Crow, Northbound, The High Mountain String Band, and Yankee Drivers.


Plan to come out and hear the craft of local musicians. Many have been playing together for over a decade.  


Welcoming Workshops

The workshops might be the biggest draw of this festival. That’s because all of them are taught by award-winning members of the bands playing at the festival. Here you’ll get to meet, jam with and learn from Bluegrass legends from across the country. More than 17 workshops are offered during five concurrent sessions on Saturday and Sunday mornings, each at an hour- to an hour-and-a-half-long, scheduled back to back.

The cost of attendance is already included in your ticket so admission is free to as many workshops as you can squeeze in. One person could attend six workshops in a single weekend.

There will be many instrument-specific classes and jams including one on mandolin improvisation with Frank Solivan of Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen. Mike Munford, banjo for the same group, was 2013 IBMA Banjo Player of the Year and will also teach a banjo class. The band was named IBMA’s 2016 Instrumental Group of the Year for the second time, with a third nomination in 2017. Their critically-acclaimed album Cold Spell earned a 2015 Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album of the Year.


Missy Raines of the Missy Raines Trio, a large draw for the festival, will teach a bass class. Seven-time winner of the IBMA Bass player of the year award, she has backed greats such as Claire Lynch, Mac Weisman, Kenny Baker, and Peter Rowan.


You can also stop by the jam tent throughout the weekend to meet and play with new friends.

Tickets, Tips & Camping

Tickets come in many shapes and sizes so get them early for the best prices. You must wear a wrist band during the festival. You can buy a one-day or full weekend pass for the festival that includes access to workshops. They offer discounts for teens, and children under 12 attend free.

If you want the full festival experience, you can arrive as early as August 29, camp onsite, and stay as late as September 3. Both dry camping and RV spots are available on a first-come-first-served basis. You can buy your camping passes and reserve your RV spot in advance. A benefit of the move to the Deming Log Showgrounds is that 41 RV hook ups will now be available. There are also a number of other amenities available at the new site that weren’t so at past festivals.

No seating is provided so bring your own lawn chairs and set them up in advance to get the best view of the stage. Dancing will occasionally break out off to the side of the stage.

Kids and dogs are welcome but must be supervised at all times with dogs on leash.

Bring a hat, sunscreen and your favorite hydration method as viewing is out in the open. Layers will keep you warm at night when temperatures drop.

Food vendors will ensure you won’t go hungry. You can shop for swag at craft and music vendors and perhaps find a new instrument to jam with during the festival.

Plan your visit now to take in all that the North Cascades Bluegrass Festival has to offer over Labor Day weekend. You may just find new friends, instruments and your favorite musicians among the other bluegrass lovers at this soulful annual Whatcom County music festival.         

Photos Courtesy of Rae and Rae Photography.

Formerly the Hovander Homestead Bluegrass Festival, North Cascades Bluegrass Festival spans Labor Day weekend, Aug. 31 through Sept. 1, 2019 at Whatcom County’s Deming Log Showgrounds.

        We acknowledge that Whatcom County is located on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples. They cared for the lands that included what we’d call the Puget Sound region, Vancouver Island and British Columbia since time immemorial. This gives us the great obligation and opportunity to learn how to care for our surrounding areas and all the natural and human resources we require to live. We express our deepest respect and gratitude for our indigenous neighbors, the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe, for their enduring care and protection of our shared lands and waterways.
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