Appaloosa Festival is a family-friendly songfest

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Before performing for Pope Francis at last year's Festival of Families in Philadelphia, Marie Miller said she prayed for a "confirmation" that she was meant to remain a professional singer and musician after five years.

She wasn't entirely serious when she announced that, Miller says in a telephone interview from Nashville, where she's putting the final touches on her new album, "Letterbox." But she got her confirmation, anyway.

She performed "6' 2", " about finding the perfect husband, and the reflective "You're Not Alone," about helping a suffering friend, before a live audience estimated at 750,000 and an online audience of millions. The pope gave her a thumbs-up, and "I'm still enjoying the fruits of that," she says.

Miller is returning to the Appaloosa Festival over Labor Day weekend, Sept. 3 and 4, at the Skyline Ranch Resort near Shenandoah National Park in Front Royal. The roots-music and camping fest with a slight Christian and occasionally Catholic flavor, organized by the Alexandria-based Celtic rock band Scythian, drew 3,000 attendees last year.

It prides itself on being family friendly, especially for those with large families. There's free admission for children under 13, and amenities include music workshops by festival performers, horseback riding and a petting zoo.

"Scythian really sets the tone there," says Catie Parker, who also is returning with her band, Little Hill Trio. "It's a really positive environment and you don't hear profanity."

Other performers on the festival's five stages will include Black Lillies, The Honest Stand, Mipso, Humming House, Billy Strings, Socks in the Frying Pan, Six-String Soldiers, the Accidentals, Lowland Hum and Bumper Jacksons, and a Philadelphia-based bell choir of adults with Down syndrome called The Joybells.

Kevin Heider, a Dayton, Ohio, native who fronts The Honest Stand, says the key to giving his music a wide audience is not to make his mentions of Christian faith explicit, but rather to fold that into lyrics.

The message is there for those who recognize it, but it's never preachy. "I've never put myself in the Christian music category."

An example of that is his rollicking "St. Brigid's Fire," based on one of the prayers of the sixth century Irish saint, who declared, "I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings."

The result is a song "about the joy of heaven in the guise of an Irish drinking song."

Miller, who grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, says, "I think that music, for me, is about everything -family relationships and friendships, that they are ultimately directed to God. Because when you're involved in art, ultimately it's about beauty, which is what God is."

"6' 2"," a Catholic girl's mock prayer for a husband, was used on "Dancing with the Stars" in 2014, and is only occasionally "understood as a joke," Miller says. She's been more delighted to find that it's becoming a standard at weddings and engagement parties. "I've heard so many love stories. It's just great."

"You're Not Alone" was the end result of what she calls her "daily discernment."

"It's just a reminder, too, that (God) is listening. So I think about that a lot."

Parker, who plans to settle in Front Royal permanently after her wedding later this year, says "In my songwriting, I'm using a lot of philosophy and Catholic theology, definitely. I wouldn't say it's fully disguised, but it's in metaphor."

An example of that for her is "Welded New," in which the lyrics reflect on "being sort of in a broken place. But there is someone who's taking you from the abyss and making you new."

Her trio consists of her and two of her cousins. "There's always hopefulness in the songs that we write."

Festival organizers just launched the Appaloosa Blue Ridge Arts Foundation to help young musicians, and 10 percent of the festival's proceeds go to charities. Last year, the Little Sisters of the Poor were among the beneficiaries.

Jensen is a freelance writer.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016