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Labor Day bluegrass fest being held in Kendallville

Old-time, newgrass represented during Labor Day weekend

Debutants will close out the first two nights of the Tri-State Bluegrass Music Festival.

Published August 24, 2022

To most, bluegrass music is bluegrass music. 

However, to enthusiasts like Joe Steiner, there are a lot of nuances.

“It runs the whole gamut,” the member of the Northern Indiana Bluegrass Association said. “It depends on how strict you want to make your definition. It runs everything from the old-timey to the modern stuff that draws its influence from modern sounds and even pulls elements from rock music, popular music, and even jazz music.”

Many bands on that spectrum will be taking part in the NIBGA’s Tri-State Bluegrass Music Festival over Labor Day Weekend at Noble County Fairgrounds in Kendallville.

Something for all tastes

Whether you buy a three-day pass with a camping option, or go day-by-day, the fun begins Thursday, Sept. 1, when the shows will be free, kicking off with Blue Holler at 6:25 p.m., followed by Medicinal Bluegrass and Calabogie Road, and ending with Fort Wayne’s own Debutants at 9:10 p.m. 

And on the spectrum of bluegrass, Debutants might be on the far end, dubbed “newgrass.”

“They are certainly on the fringes,” Steiner said of Debutants. “I love it all, and we always try to field a pretty wide variety of music. 

“There are a lot of folks who only like the straight-ahead stuff, but we try to have something out there for everybody. I think the audience is growing more around the fringes. There are more people that come to the festival now that enjoy people like Debutants, and are looking for something different than that straight-ahead bluegrass sound.”

Debutants frontman and mandolinst Lynn Nicholson is well aware some bluegrass fans may bat an eye at his group, but that’s OK.

“To some people, we’re as bluegrass as bluegrass can be,” he said. “To others, we’re nothing like it, not worthy of even being called bluegrass. It’s all relative. It’s all music. It’s all for the love of a good time. Call it what you want to call it, it’s all good fun.”

Debutants close out Friday night’s festivities, too, although it will cost you $20 to get in that day.

Things pick up on Saturday when Tony Hale & Blackwater, Beracah Valley, New Augusta Bluegrass, Jim & Lynna Woolsey, Kevin Prater Band, and The Wayfarers each play two sets, one beginning at 11:25 a.m., then again at 5:50 p.m. following a supper break. The schedule follows suit on Sunday, with Kevin Prater Band closing out the annual festival.

“I’d say we have two headliners,” Steiner said. “We do this as a community service, so the ticket prices are pretty low, so we can’t afford too many headliners. This year, I would say there are two, and one I would say is Kevin Prater Band out of Kentucky and the others at The Wayfarers out of southern Ohio.”

One of those headliners, Kevin Prater, is familiar with the festival, having played a number of times over the years.

“Ain’t no question about it, it’s the people,” he said about his draw to the festival. “We love the audience there very much.”

This will be Debutants second time at the festival, having played last year, too, but members have attended some in the past and enjoyed the vibe and jammed with other musicians in the parking lot, which is common.

“There’s definitely a real cool blend of all ages and all walks of life,” Nicholson said of the Tri-State Music Festival. “It’s a real cool thing to take part in.”

Promoting genre

No matter how you define it, bluegrass’s popularity has been working its way north, showcased by NIBGA putting on two festivals a year, the other being over Memorial Day weekend.

“One of our primary things is to give musicians a place to come together and jam and put on shows for people to enjoy,” Steiner said of the association, which was formed in 1976. “In addition, we provided scholarships for children and adults to pursue a career or have an interest in bluegrass.

“Our festival has sort of become a destination for a lot of people, and certainly it’s promoted bluegrass music in the area,” he said.

And that means all kinds of bluegrass.

“They do a good job of curating a pretty diverse blend of bands there, and I think we’re kind of one of the bands that’s like the new guard, that is doing something different,” Nicholson said.

Making progress

While Steiner says he enjoys all different kinds of bluegrass, it’s evident he leans more toward the old-school sound.

“Kevin Prater has a sort of straight-ahead, hard-driving bluegrass sound,” he said. “Now, The Wayfarers are more on the fringes of bluegrass music. They’re influenced by old-timey music, which predates bluegrass. They are also influenced by the more modern sounds, too.”

Prater says many have described his band as “straight-head bluegrass,” but admits sometimes they veer into different territories.

“It’s changed somewhat, the music has,” said the man from Eastern Kentucky. “I think there’s a progressive side to it, and there’s a traditional side to it. There’s some people that kind of ride the fence, too. I think we’re one of those bands in a way. We’re considered a traditional bluegrass band, yet we write a lot of our own compositions, then we take a lot of old stuff from vintage country and early days of rock. We take it and recreate it, make bluegrass out of it. There’s some change, but it’s still bluegrass.”

That’s the mindset Nicholson takes as well, saying that change is essential, otherwise it “goes stale.”

“We’re definitely rooted in the traditional a little bit, especially with our instrumentation,” he said. “Some people, when they see a banjo or a mandolin, they’re gonna call it bluegrass no matter what you’re playing. We like to keep one foot in the traditional things but have the other one in the more modern styles or other things that catch our ears. We’re not afraid to cover something old time or something modern.”

And if you get the chance to stop by the festival, you might get a chance to jam with the musicians, and maybe get a shot to try a different style.

“We get out and mingle with crowd and fans,” Prater said. “We love to do that. We love to jam with the other people when we get a chance.” 

Getting his start as a drummer and saying his indoctrination into bluegrass originated in the jam band scene, Nicholson guarantees that if someone unfamiliar to the genre attends the festival, they’ll come away different.

“No matter what way you get there, you’re gonna love it when you find it,” he said. “There’s a quote that says, ‘Everyone loves bluegrass music. Some people just don’t know it yet,’ and I think there’s a lot of truth to that, because there’s just something so authentic that resonates with you.”

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