The Northeast Indiana Bluegrass Association Tri-State Bluegrass Music Festival will show its music roots this weekend at the Noble County 4-H Fairgrounds for its 37th year.
Joe Steiner, vice president of the association, says an open mind and a low-back lawn chair are the only requirements for a Labor Day weekend of music and tradition.
Our goal is putting on a festival that attracts a good audience, he says. Our second goal is to give a bluegrass community a place to come and learn about bluegrass music.
The Tri-State Bluegrass Festival begins today with main stage performances by Rock Island Plow, Nitro Hill, Blue Mafia, Donnie Voiles & Echo Valley and Sons of Bluegrass. For the second year, the festival will feature the Bluegrass Underground or B.U.G. performance with the Jug Huffers after the main stage closes for the evening.
Steiner says that the interest in bluegrass ebbs and flows, but recently there has been an increase in audiences slightly different from previous bluegrass festivals.
The audience is open to a broader definition that is closely related to blues, he says. That’s not to say we’re not continuing with strictly bluegrass bands. Bluegrass is still very important because it sets the whole stage. It serves as the foundation for everything else.
The festival has scheduled 12 performances to play throughout the weekend. Headliners include the Indiana bluegrass bands Echo Valley, which has been traveling the Midwest for more than 20 years, and Art Stevenson and High Water, which have been on the Midwest festival circuit since 1993. The roster also features North Carolina band Grass Street, which has a background in bluegrass, country, jazz, rock and R&B.
Steiner says first-time festival-goers are usually surprised by the caliber of performances.
A lot of times, the style of the music is not what they expected. When they see real bluegrass, the style is much more polished then they think it’s going to be, he says.
Steiner says what happens often is that audiences have limited exposure to skilled bluegrass musicians, so what they hear doesn’t usually represent what performers at the festival have spent decades perfecting. While there is an element of grit, it is intentional in its approach.
There is a raw element, there’s an edge to it – but it’s not a rough edge. It has sort of a lonesome feeling, a lot of the musical structures have a sense of not being resolved, and the music seems like it wants to be resolved. It has a sort of dissonance, Steiner says. We have groups that run the whole range – from the very hard-driven groups with a lot of the edge that leave you waiting to hear that resolve to bands that are more polished; the vocals are real smooth, very deep and very tight.
What is unique about the festival is that the audience is just as likely to break out in a performance. Steiner says jam sessions with musicians happen often at the campgrounds. After the B.U.G. event with Jug Huffers this evening, the audience is invited to play with the band. The Jug Huffers will have additional jugs, washboards and kazoos available. On Saturday morning, Art Stevenson and High Water will lead workshops for musicians who want to learn more about performing bluegrass music.
There will also be a band scramble early Saturday afternoon. Participants are randomly grouped together to form a band, who will then have an hour to create a performance for a $250 cash prize.
I think it gets back to the feeling of community. People know that they can try out their chops, Steiner says. Regardless of their aspirations, they want to try it out themselves and find out why the music they perform does what it does. It’s not important to be perfect the first time. Even the most polished performers improvise on the fly. They just may know more than the beginners.
Steiner says he would like participants to experience a community that embraces the different styles of bluegrass and leave them with a good feeling about the genre and the people who perform at the highest caliber.
The appeal to the music is the fact that it is derived from personal experiences, he says. Bluegrass is sort of the true folk music, especially now with the overall taste broadening a little bit. They’re not trying to duplicate notes or phrases. They are trying to get across their feelings in their own music.