There’s going to be plenty of picking and grinning in Kendallville over Labor Day Weekend when the annual Bluegrass Festival begins Thursday, Aug. 31.

Hosted by the Northern Indiana Bluegrass Association, four days of music will fill Noble County Community Fairgrounds. The fun begins with a free Community Night on Thursday, Aug. 31. Entry is $20 on Friday, $30 on Saturday, and $25 on Sunday, although you can get a $45 weekend pass. Or better yet, you can pay $45 to camp at the site. And even better, better yet, you can actually begin camping on Thursday, Aug. 24, for an additional $15 a night with a weekend pass and camping fee.

Old-Time Mountain Music

Tri-State Bluegrass Music Festival

Thursday, Aug. 31 — Free
6:30 p.m. — Calabogie Road Bluegrass
7:25 p.m. — Lincoln Highway
8:20 p.m. — Bluegrass Pythagoras
9:15 p.m. — Edgar Loudermilk Band
Friday, Sept. 1 — $20
6:30 p.m. — Calabogie Road Bluegrass
7:25 p.m. — Lincoln Highway
8:20 p.m. — Bluegrass Pythagoras
9:15 p.m. — Edgar Loudermilk Band
Saturday, Sept. 2 — $30
12:30 p.m./6 p.m. — Sammy Adkins & Sandy Hook Mountain Boys
1:25 p.m./6:55 p.m. —Edgar Loudermilk Band
2:20 p.m./6:55 p.m. — Tony Hale & Blackwater
3:20 p.m./8:45 p.m. — Nu-Blu
4:15 p.m./9:40 p.m. — Phillip Steinmetz & His Sunny Tennesseans
Sunday, Sept. 3 — $25
11:30 a.m. — Gospel Sing
12:50 p.m./5:30 p.m. — Sammy Adkins & Sandy Hook Mountain Boys
1:45 p.m./6:15 p.m. — Tony Hale & Blackwater
2:40 p.m./7:10 p.m. — Nu-Blu
3:35 p.m./4:20 p.m. — Phillip Steinmetz & His Sunny Tennesseans
Noble County Community Fairgrounds
580 N. Fair St., Kendallville
$20-$30 · (419) 721-8015

Among the nine bands at the festival will be headliners Phillip Steinmetz & His Sunny Tennesseans. Hailing from Waverly, Tennessee, a little more than an hour west of Nashville, the band will take to the stage at 4:15 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 2, and 3:35 p.m. and 4:20 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 3.

“Bluegrass is big just about everywhere you go,” Steinmetz said in a phone interview with Whatzup. “It’s not as big to certain regions, but when you play it for them for the first time… . It was good music in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, it’s good music now.”

Although it is a bluegrass festival, Steinmetz points out that he does not technically play that style of music.

“I’m not bluegrass,” he said. “When Grandpa Jones was in his prime, they called it country music. When Bill Monroe came along, he coined the term ‘bluegrass,’ because he’s from the Bluegrass State … Kentucky, of course. Then they started breaking it down into different genres.

“The closest definition I can come to for my music is traditional old-time mountain music.”

Transported back in time

You may remember Grandpa Jones from the popular variety show Hee Haw. Grandpa Jones was a skilled banjo player who was also Steinmetz’s great-uncle who would stop by for holidays and family gatherings.

“Grandpa taught me how to play the banjo when I was 10 or 11,” Steinmetz said. 

From there, Steinmetz began his career of playing in front of people.

“My dad got me up on stage at fairs and festivals pretty quickly,” he said, noting he fetched quite a paycheck for a March of Dimes event.

“I think it was $25,” he said. “That was decent money for a 12-year-old kid back in the 1980s.”

He’s making a bit more now, but to him, getting the word out about old-time mountain music and its pioneers is the real payoff.

“This region of Tennessee has kind of forgotten its bluegrass and old-time mountain roots,” he said. “Back in the day, some of earliest members of the Grand Ole Opry were Sam and Kirk McGee. Their music is largely forgotten about, except by me and a few other people. I’m one of the few that keeps their music alive on stage, along with Uncle Dave Macon.

“If I can get a few people to go back and get on YouTube and look up the original Carter Family or Cousin Emmy, then that makes me feel good that what we did up there made them dig a little deeper to see who these people were.” 

Keeping that memory alive is near and dear to Steinmetz. While giving those pioneers a platform is important to him, the music also holds a special place as a soundtrack to his childhood.

“Me being related to Grandpa Jones, I was around the music my whole life, growing up,” he said. “Grandpa and (his wife) Ramona (Riggins) would play for us at the house here or at their place, and dad would record them on the reel-to-reel recorder.

“Besides Grandpa’s music, dad liked The Carter Family, Sam and Kirk McGee, and Uncle Dave, Stringbean, Wade Mainer, and The Coon Creek Girls,” he added. “I grew up listening to all this music.”

And all these years later, those memories come rushing back when he’s on stage.

“Each of Grandpa’s songs that I sing, it brings me back to when everybody was alive,” Steinmetz said. “All my family is gone now. My wife says it’s reminiscent therapy, and she’s right. I never had a name for it like that. Especially when I’m on stage singing a certain song, I have like a motion picture going across my eyes, like a screen. It can be my grandma on the screen, who was Grandpa’s oldest sister. It could be her talking about the old days in Kentucky, or it could be a vision of Grandpa and Ramona sitting in our living room. Or it could be me and Grandpa out in the woods, he would chop sassafras root to make me sassafras tea.

“It’s something that keeps me close to them.”

Using a Clawhammer

When you see Phillip Steinmetz & His Sunny Tennesseans, even bluegrass fans are going to see something different — clawhammer.

“I play a clawhammer banjo and I pick an old-time two-finger style, and I play the old Sam McGee thumb-picking style, which is very similar to Merle Travis’ style on the guitar,” he said, giving a history lesson in the process. “And I do Mother Maybelle Carter’s scratch, which is a unique style of guitar picking.”

Steinmetz won the Old-Time Banjo National Championship three times, while also winning the Old-Time Banjo Championship for the state Tennessee in 2008, the same year his band was named the state’s Old-Time Band champions. 

“The style of picking I do on the banjo is old, it’s clawhammer style,” Steinmetz said. “It’s what Grandpa kept alive. It’s what Stringbean made famous. Cousin Emmy, who taught Grandpa, she was really good, in my mind, she was the best clawhammer picker that made it.”

And how does that differentiate from other bluegrass bands?

“They play the Scruggs style or the Reno style or the Stanley style, and it’s all the three fingers with the picks,” Steinmetz said. “It’s a totally different style. A totally different sound.”

Regardless of style, you’re sure to enjoy the multitude of bands at the festival.