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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

17 years running, Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival is all about tradition

Mary Jo Foss, left, Matthew Parrish, 5, Mariah Parrish, 7, Ashley Dreyer, 19, and Henry Valentine Toungate, 4, gather around the microphone to sing and perform Doc Watson's "Mole in the Ground," during the youth camp performance, Sunday, August 12, 2018, at the 17th Annual Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival on the shores of Medical Lake, Wash. The three-day event featured regional and national touring acts, along with breakout guitar, mandolin and banjo workshops. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

The sounds of fiddles and guitars echoed among the tall pines of the Medical Lake Waterfront Park over the weekend during the 17th annual Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival.

The celebration of bluegrass music traces its genesis to a meeting between a group of Medical Lake residents and the Inland Northwest Bluegrass Music Association, two groups with an eye toward an ongoing, annual event.

Kevin Brown, the festival’s music director, was part of that original group. “There really wasn’t a bluegrass festival in this part of the state back then,” he said.

The three-day festival, held on the second weekend of August, took a few years to pick up momentum. Recently, however, it has been able to attract top bluegrass talent, Brown said. “We’ve had some really great names in bluegrass.”

Some people come for a day or two, while others buy a weekend pass and camp on-site at Medical Lake Waterfront Park. “That’s very much part of the tradition,” he said.

This year’s performers included Kenny and Amanda Smith, one of the best-known husband and wife duos in bluegrass. Kenny Smith has won the IMBA Guitarist of the Year award twice and performed with the popular Lonesome River Band for six years.

Also on the schedule were the Danny Barnes Trio, The Barefoot Movement, the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, the Old Growth Quartet, 4$ Shoe, Kevin Pace and The Early Edition, and the Misty Mountain Pony Club.

The festival has also included a tribute to a well-known musician for the last four years, an act that includes music and a biographical narration. This year’s tribute was for guitarist Doc Watson.

A youth camp is held as part of the festival every year. The camp allows young musicians to work with professionals who teach them a few songs; later the students perform the pieces on stage.

Emilie Miller, 15, participated in the youth camp as a student for a few years, but has been an instructor for the last two. Miller, the current Washington State Junior Champion fiddle player, said she’s been playing the guitar, fiddle and ukulele nearly her entire life. “I grew up into it,” she said.

The youth camp always strikes a balance between fun and learning, she said. “It was just really fun,” she said. “You get to learn new tunes. You get to make new friends.”

Now as a youth camp instructor, she likes to help kids learn new things. “I enjoy seeing the kids faces,” she said. “We had a couple of 4-year-olds and they just really liked it and did what they could.”

Miller, who also sings, said if she had to choose she might say the fiddle and guitar are her favorite instruments. “Those just come more naturally to me,” she said.

She also likes to listen to the musicians who come to the festival to perform. “I think it’s really cool,” she said. “You get to meet new bands.”

Vendors and food trucks filled the small park while some people sat on the beach or swam in the lake. A booth selling ice cream sandwiches did a brisk business Sunday despite the cooler weather.

Sally Shamp and her husband, Jim, are longtime members of the Inland Northwest Bluegrass Music Association and have been coming to the festival since it started. On Sunday afternoon, they sat under a tree eating a barbecue lunch from a nearby food truck while their Australian Cattle Dog mix, Indy, sat next to them.

The couple usually attends all three days of the event. “This time I especially wanted to see Kenny and Amanda Smith,” Sally Shamp said. “They are just good.”

They were also enjoying Sunday’s cooler weather. “The only thing not to like is that sometimes it’s too hot,” she said. “Even if it’s hot you have shade and the wind comes off the lake.”