The mission of the Northern Indiana Bluegrass Association is simple: to introduce and promote bluegrass music to as many people as possible at as low a cost as possible.
That was the goal when NIBGA was formed in 1976, and that is the goal today. To that end, NIBGA hosts twice-yearly festivals - on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends - at the Noble County 4H Fairgrounds in Kendallville.
This year's Memorial Day festival runs from Thursday, May 24 through Sunday, May 27 and features 12 local and national bluegrass bands, camping, vendors and, of course, lots of campground jamming. Tent and RV camping is available on a first-come basis. Thursday night is free, and a pass for the weekend is $35, which includes camping.
Though the aim of NIBGA is straightforward enough, spreading the word to people who don't already appreciate bluegrass music is not always easy. To the uninitiated, bluegrass may sound like little more than strident twangs from banjos played by backwoods savants (Deliverance) or mere accompaniment to the comic antics of possum eaters (The Beverly Hillbillies).
But according to Joe Steiner, that image could not be further from the truth. Steiner, the vice-president of NIBGA, is the person charged with picking the bands for the festivals.
To Steiner, bluegrass has something to offer music fans of all stripes. Modern bluegrass, Steiner said, has elements not only of the English, Scottish and Irish music from which it sprang, but bits of jazz, blues and folk that give it a complexity beyond common commercialized treatment.
"There is the improvisation side of it, the sharing of musical ideas, and the creativity and the flexibility of the musician interpreting things," he said. "One of our big objectives today is helping people to understand that this music is good in a lot of different ways."
While the form bluegrass music takes varies from traditional to gospel to rock-influenced jamgrass, the linking element is the instrumentation. Bluegrass is played with acoustic string instruments such as guitar, mandolin, fiddle banjo and upright bass. Vocally, bluegrass is famous for the high, lonesome sound made famous by the acknowledged father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe.
But as Steiner pointed out, the genre thrives on a blend of strict adherence to tradition and free-flowing innovation. Both forms and just about everything in between will be featured at the Memorial Day festival.
At its heart, bluegrass is grass-roots music, Steiner said. It was built from the ground up and away from the homogenizing effects of commercialization.
"Stylistically there are a lot of different takes on the music," he said. "And that's more true today than at any other point in time. We have very traditional bluegrass groups that will be at our festival, and we also have some cutting-edge type groups that are just kind of doing that general thing that qualifies as bluegrass but doesn't really imitate anything that came before.
"Nu Blu would be one that is on the cutting edge," he continued. "They're certainly bluegrass, because of the instrumentation and certain elements of the style. There's a certain drive in their playing that makes it bluegrass, but they're on the cutting edge in terms of how they interpret the things they do, the musicality of it, even the material they do. The blues are a big part of bluegrass music. Always have been. But Nu Blu [take] that blues element to a whole new level. They incorporate jazz and other genres too."
From the traditionalist camp come the Po' Ramblin' Boys. Steiner described the Tennessee Smokey Mountain-based quartet as a band dedicated to playing bluegrass the way the old timers played it. And by old-timers, Steiner means Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs (performers of the "Ballad of Jed Clampett" theme song for the aforementioned The Beverly Hillbillies) and The Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe.
"They do a fantastic job on that style," Steiner said. "They put a new twist on it. They are actually a bunch of young fellas, and they can't help but impart their own personality on it. But when you hear it, the first thing you think of is Flatt & Scruggs, maybe be polished a little bit. They are young, and they learned it from a different place than Flatt & Scruggs, but it has that unadorned drive, those exact same elements that Flatt & Scruggs had."
Along with the old and the new, the festival will feature a band known for playing a style that predates bluegrass. The Freight Hoppers, hailing from the mountains of western North Carolina, play old-timey music, the music that Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs sourced while they were inventing bluegrass. Steiner said the Freight Hoppers have taken the music forward by looking to the past.
"They are nothing but a no-holds-barred, hard-driving old-timey fiddle band that you would have heard in the mountains in the 1920s and 30s," he said. "They are reminiscent of groups like Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers and Clayton McMichen and the Georgia Wildcats."
While the main stage will feature Nu Blu, Po' Ramblin' Boys and the Freight Hoppers, along with bands such as the Clay Hess Band, Dyer Switch, Blue Holler Band and Suzuki Fiddlers, much of the hard-driving picking will take place in the campground. That's where friends and strangers alike gather to show off their stuff, learn new tunes and keep the grass-roots aspect of the music alive.
"More than any other style of music, bluegrass really represents a balance of not only entertaining an audience and putting on a show, but also sharing your music with other musicians, with your style and musical ideas," Steiner said. "The jamming at the campground is really a lot about that. And somewhat from a showmanship perspective wanting to outdo the other musicians or impress them just for fun."
Steiner added that although the bands on stage are a good way to learn about bluegrass and all of its variations, some people enjoy wandering the campground and the amateur pickers just as much. Plus the campground is a good place to introduce children to the music without having to stay in one place,
"It's a good place to bring a family," he said. "We're attracting more and more families with children. It's a good influence on them and a chance to discover a whole new musical world."