If it’s Labor Day weekend, it must be time for some serious pickin’, with acoustic string instruments, campsites, lawn chairs, and lots and lots of good vibes.
That’s right. It’s time for the Northern Indiana Tri-State Bluegrass Festival.
As always, the end-of-summer festival takes place at the Noble County Fairgrounds in Kendallville, and this year features some of the finest bluegrass bands on tour today.
The festival gets under way Thursday, August 30, and concludes Sunday, September 2.
For the past 42 years, the Northern Indiana Bluegrass Association has been hosting not only the Labor Day festival to end the summer, but also the Memorial Day festival to start it. While there are substantive differences between the bookend events, NIBGA vice president Joe Steiner said that no two are ever alike.
Steiner said each annual event is a sort of community service because of the comparatively low cost — $35 for a weekend pass, including camping. Although each event always brings local and national bluegrass bands to the stage along with plenty of parking lot pickin’, differences lie in the overall feeling the lineup creates.
“One of the bands this time around that will give the festival a certain character is the Hogslop String Band,” Steiner said. “They are a straight old-timey outfit playing the music unabashed in the old-style, hell-broke-loose-in-Georgia type of thing. In a way, they’re kind of like the Freight Hoppers who played the Memorial Day festival, but probably a little more into that old-timey, driving category.”
Famed banjo player Abigail Washburn called the Hogslop String Band “the real deal groovilicious honkin’ old-time string band. Guaranteed old-time awesomeness with these fellas around!” How’s that for an endorsement?
But the old-timey feel doesn’t end with Hogslop. Festival headliner Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass have that style in spades. Paisley and his band have won several International Bluegrass Music Awards, including Paisley’s 2016 win for Male Vocalist of the Year, plus many IBMA nominations.
“They play in that old-timey, hard-driving style,” Steiner said. “They offer no apologies. That’s what they play and they play it really well.”
Steiner said one of the fun things about the festivals is the differing styles of bluegrass that play each year. From straightforward traditional to gospel-tinged to contemporary, fans can expect a little bit of everything.
“If you wanted to talk about Hogslop String Band at the one end, clear at the other end it would be Trinity River Band from Florida,” he said. “They play kind of their own style and a lot of material that is unique to their show.”
Trinity River Band is a family band (bluegrass is a perfect vehicle for musical families, it seems) that is not afraid to explore the edges of modern bluegrass. For instance, they incorporated drums on their most recent release, Unbroken. There is even a hidden track on the CD that has, hold tight, electric guitars.
And if it wasn’t for Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass, Trinity River Band could be the headliner. So could The Grascals. Or Alan Bibey and Grasstown.
“The Grascals, who are pretty well-known, have won the IBMA Entertainer of the Year award multiple times,” Steiner said. “They’re one of the few bluegrass groups that you can go into a Cracker Barrel store and get one of their recordings.”
Alan Bibey and Grasstowne, in addition to the two sets on Saturday and the two sets on Sunday they will play, will also lead a number of workshops on Saturday.
“They’ll be doing a mandolin workshop, a songwriting workshop, and a string bass workshop,” Steiner said. “And then later at 6 p.m. on Saturday, right after the supper break, they’ll be doing a vocal harmony workshop. We’ve always done workshops and they’ve been well-attended.”
For those unfamiliar with bluegrass festivals, supper break allows everyone, musicians and fans alike, to fuel up for the rest of the night without having to miss any of the music. Leave your lawn chair and head back to camp for a couple of hot dogs and a beverage and never miss a tune.
The other tradition with bluegrass festivals is the Sunday morning gospel sing. While they vary from festival to festival, the gospel sing reveals yet another side to bluegrass. Steiner said that while there will be no actual performance on the stage, there will be someone up there leading the service, so to speak.
“It’s not really a performance, no stage show, just a reason for people to get together to worship and sing,” he said. “Someone will be leading and there will be musicians on stage to provide accompaniment.”
Eleven bands will perform at the festival, including Calabogie Road, Finley River Boys, Nightflyer, Out of Mind Bluegrass, Guncreek, and Zellie’s Band, who will kick off the weekend with a free show beginning at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, August 30. The festival draws to a close with Danny Paisley and Southern Grass at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 2.
So if you’re looking for something different to do this Labor Day weekend, rather than head to a lake and shout at friends over the noise of watercraft, why not load up the wagon and head to Kendallville for a slice of good, clean family fun and fantastic music? Seems like a fine labor-free way to spend a few days.