Pickers gather in Greenbank for bluegrass in the rhodie gardens

Ed Newkirk

The late great mandolin picker Bill Monroe probably would have loved Whidbey Island.

It’s easy to picture him with his band, The Blue Grass Boys, with their superior playing, harmonious multi-part singing and overall down-home, good-time, rootsy feel, pickin’ away in some beautiful clearing in the island woods.

It is quite likely that the memorable strains of the father of bluegrass and his band will be conjured up in the spirit of good fun and good music when pickers from near and far meet for the Whidbey Island Old Time Bluegrass Picker’s Festival at one of the island’s own natural treasures.

An open mic will start at 10 a.m. and performances will be from noon until 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13 at the Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens in Greenbank.

The Picker’s Festival is an important benefit for the upkeep of the rhododendron gardens, which rely on contributions from the community throughout the year.

But, to the folks who organize the event, its important, too, for the community spirit this type of festival creates.

The Picker’s Festival invites everyone to bring their instruments and join the musicians on and off the stage in the true spirit of mountain music and the customs of an authentic bluegrass festival.

“It goes beyond seeing people play onstage to actually playing music,” said gardens director and musician Kristi O’Donnell.

“We are hoping there are enough pickers this year, so that when people arrive, there is music everywhere,” she added.

“It is a tradition of bluegrass festivals that people arrive, set up camp and start playing music and learning tunes from others so that the music can carry on,” O’Donnell said.

And if you are just there to listen, not to worry, there will also be a line-up of bluegrass bands who will perform throughout the day, so audiences are needed, too.

The afternoon concerts feature both old-timey bluegrass and “newgrass” sounds from the Pacific Northwest and Whidbey Island, including Chickweed, Down the Road, Swords into Plowshares, The Rural Characters and Deadwood Revival.

“I’d like to encourage people to bring their instruments and jump in with folks playing, or ask questions and learn a little more,” O’Donnell said.

Last year was the first year the gardens held the event and O’Donnell said it was a memorable time for her, especially since a beloved friend and joyful fiddler named Michael Nutt was there.

Nutt, who was well-known on the South End as an accomplished musician and all-around inspirational person, died earlier this year.

“He had on his western-style shirt and his cowboy boots. He told me, ‘Kristi, these boots are older than you!’ It was so great and he was so looking forward to this year’s festival,” O’Donnell said.

“I tell this story as a reminder to everybody that we never know what hand fate will deal us, so let’s play music, support music and keep these wonderful traditions alive. Don’t be shy. Just pick up that instrument and get out here and play with us.”

O’Donnell’s attitude of people playing together and passing along tunes is right when it comes to how the genre evolved out of country music in the 1920s.

Also known as “mountain music,” it was the music of the rural mountain clans and eventually made its way into cities like Nashville, Tenn. where the greatest country musicians would establish themselves at a live radio show called the Grand Ole Opry.

By the early 1930s, Monroe’s virtuosity on the mandolin was so far above what had been seen on the instrument in country music, that he single-handedly set the bar for what kind of picking would establish bluegrass as its own genre of music.

Monroe’s first bluegrass band was named after his home state of Kentucky, and were regulars on the Grand Ole Opry show. The Blue Grass Boys would go on to establish two more of the greatest pickers who ever lived, guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo player Earl Scruggs.

Bluegrass music combines elements of gospel, work songs, folk music, country and blues music, and often incorporates various combinations of vocal harmonies.

The classic bluegrass lineup consists of fiddle, banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar and bass. Flatt and Scruggs added the dobro in the 1950s. These days, newgrass bands include drums and occasionally electric guitar, as well.

The Whidbey Island Old Time Bluegrass Picker’s Festival is a great place to introduce the uninitiated to this happy, foot-stomping style of music.

“We’re really hoping that people see what bluegrass is all about,” O’Donnell said.

“You can always tell when the music is in that magic place when the kids are running around, dancing and rolling in the grass,” she said.

The festival welcomes families to bring a blanket, lawn chairs and a picnic for all-day fun. Light refreshments will also be available at the gardens.

The Greenbank Store offers a variety of deli items, or go to the Whidbey Pies Café for a carry-out of homemade soup, salad, sandwiches and Jan Gunn’s famous pies.

Admission is $10 per person. Children younger than 16 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Tickets are available at the main gate.

The rhododendron gardens are at 3531 Meerkerk Lane off Highway 525 in Greenbank. No dogs allowed.