All Over The Map: Bluegrass festival in Toledo echoes with Northwest history

Aug 12, 2022, 9:43 AM | Updated: 12:56 pm
Fred McFalls (right) and Ben Bryson are considered the heart of the bluegrass community that once t...
Fred McFalls (right) and Ben Bryson are considered the heart of the bluegrass community that once thrived in Darrington, WA. McFalls is a legend in Northwest bluegrass circles, and local bluegrass festivals like the one in Toledo, WA owe their existence at least partially to his influence. (Courtesy Voyager Records)
(Courtesy Voyager Records)

In Toledo, Washington, it’s time once again for the Mount Saint Helens Bluegrass Festival.

Toledo is in Lewis County on the way to Washington’s most famous volcano. The town is named for an old steamboat that once plied the Cowlitz River, and it’s near where the “Cowlitz Convention” was held 1851 – when settlers north of the Columbia organized the movement to split off Washington from what was then Oregon Territory.

The Mount Saint Helens Bluegrass Festival is produced by the non-profit Washington Bluegrass Association. It gets underway at noon on Friday, August 12 at Kemp Olson Memorial Park in Toledo, where the audience can camp out overnight. The first Mount Saint Helens Bluegrass Festival was held in 1982, and this is the 37th edition.

The festival’s producer is General Cothren. “General” is not a rank, it’s his given name; he’s from North Carolina, and came to southwest Washington as a kid about 70 years ago, and graduated from Napavine High School.

Cothren took time out a few days ago from fixing his golf cart – which, as everyone knows, is a critical tool for producing an outdoor music festival – to describe what makes bluegrass “bluegrass.”

“It’s just, you know, banjo, mandolin, guitar, a fiddle and a bass and you got good music,” Cothren told KIRO Newsradio. “It’s all acoustic.”

Bluegrass is from the American South. It’s traditional music with roots that go back at least a few centuries, and its influence is still heard in country, folk, blues and rock. Kentucky’s Bill Monroe popularized bluegrass beyond its geographic roots beginning in the late 1930s through radio and then through records.

In the Pacific Northwest, beginning around the same time – because of the Great Depression, World War II and other social and economic factors – a lot of “Tar Heels” (or people from North Carolina, such as General Cothren’s parents) moved west in search of opportunity. Many settled in the Puget Sound area, taking jobs in agriculture, forestry and manufacturing. Along with their personal possessions, those migratory Americans brought bluegrass – and banjos and mandolins – with them, settling in mostly rural areas in Western Washington and making music for fun in their spare time.

Vivian Williams is 84 and is a fiddler. She and her late husband Phil, who played banjo, lived in Seattle for decades. They had met at Reed College in Oregon in the 1950s, got married in 1959, and then moved north. Phil Williams, who passed away in 2017, was also an attorney. He also wrote a history of bluegrass in the Northwest which was posted online several years ago and which remains a priceless resource for understanding how the music spread here.

Vivian Williams told KIRO Newsradio that around 1960, she and her husband started taking part in Tar Heel “hootenannies” to learn and play bluegrass with other amateur players. The two were partially inspired by what Vivian jokingly calls the “Folk Scare,” when people like Pete Seeger and bands like the Kingston Trio and Seattle’s own Brothers Four led a popular revival of folk music in the American recording and broadcast industries.

Williams says that bluegrass was popular in and around the Skagit Valley, and other areas in Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom Counties.

“Darrington was kind of the center of it because there was this couple that lived up there and that’s Fred and Alice McFalls,” Williams said. “And Fred was a good banjo player and a really nice guy, and his wife was a good cook and very, very sweet nice person, and they would just host these gatherings of musicians.”

Fred McFalls, who should be better far known and remembered, is a legend who began playing bluegrass in his native North Carolina. He had moved to Darrington in the early 1950s and worked full-time in the timber industry, but did so much to share his love of music with people like Vivian and Phil Williams. Fred McFalls passed away in 1996; Alice McFalls died in 2014.

Fred and his wife Alice deserve a full-length documentary about the impact they had on bluegrass and the Northwest. Vivian and Phil Williams deserve one, too. Both were accomplished players who once accompanied Bill Monroe when he played a few shows in the Northwest in the 1960s, and Phil was an inveterate recording enthusiast who made tapes of live shows and hootenannies. The couple also founded a record label called Voyager Records to share their love of folk music. Vivian Williams recently donated their entire collection of tapes, including many rare and one-of-a-kind local recordings, to the Smithsonian Institution.

Vivian Williams says that annual summer gatherings of people who had moved to Puget Sound from places like North Carolina and Missouri were commonplace 50 years ago, and they always featured bluegrass and other folk music.

Those events, such as the “Tar Heel Picnic” and “Missouri Picnic” appear to have gone away, but a whole crop of bluegrass festivals began emerging in the 1970s, inspired by and not long after the era of Woodstock and the local Sky River Rock Festival, the Snohomish County concert which predated the more famous Empire State mud and all those hippies in New York by a full year.

Along with Toledo this weekend, Darrington held their bluegrass festival in July, and Bellingham has theirs next month. A full list of Northwest bluegrass festivals is available from the Washington Bluegrass Association.

Tickets to this weekend’s family-friendly Mount Saint Helens Bluegrass Festival in Toledo are affordable, but bring cash, as the event is not set up to take credit cards. Food will be available for purchase from Boss Hogg’s Barbecue in Winlock, nearby home of the giant egg.

General Cothren says the best day of the event for bargain hunters is Sunday, when the music gets underway at 9:30 a.m. and which will feature many of the artists who played on Friday and Saturday.

“We’ve got four bands playing the gospel Sunday,” Cothren said. “It’s all gospel music, and that’s free.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Bluegrass festival in Toledo echoes with Northwest history