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Phillip Steinmetz and his Sunny Tennesseans

It may sound confusing, but Phillip Steinmetz’s great-uncle was Grandpa.

Grandpa Jones, that is, the beloved banjo-playing Country Music Hall of Fame member who earned widespread recognition as one of the cast members of the Hee Haw television series.

Now Steinmetz, fronting his band the Sunny Tennesseans, sings his great uncle's songs and plays the banjo in the same rollicking style in appearances on stage across the nation.

“You could call our show old-timey,” Steinmetz says, explaining his many influences. “My show takes you back 50, 60 years ago to an Opry show where you would have somebody like String Bean, and then you'd have the Carter Family come on. And then Sam and Kirk McGee would come on, and then Grandpa Jones would come on. It's a variety show. Our foundation is old-time mountain music, and that’s how we fit into a festival.”

Steinmetz grew up in rural Florida, and the opportunities to be around his famous great uncle and his wife, Ramona Jones, were special.

“If he had a show near us, he'd come stay with us. And he and Ramona always played music while they were there. When I was little, he played ‘Froggy Went a Courtin'’ for me. And I asked him, ‘Would you teach me to play?’”

Grandpa sent Steinmetz a banjo in the mail and, on his next visit, showed him the right-hand clawhammer motion and told him to practice that. “Grandpa wouldn’t show me anything up on the neck. He said the next time we come, we'll teach you some songs. And he said, ‘Sit there in class and thump on your knee under the desk, you know, thump, thump, thump, thump.’ And I can remember doing that just like it was yesterday.

“But the next time they came down, my cousin Mark (Grandpa Jones’s late son) took me out into their tour bus, and he taught me my first two songs: ‘Boil them Cabbage Down’ and ‘Cripple Creek.’ I learned both songs in two days.”

Though Steinmetz learned to play the banjo when he was about ten, Grandpa Jones was in his twenties and already on the music circuit before he took up the instrument. “There's a lot of different ways to play clawhammer,” Steinmetz explains. “Grandpa would drop his thumb down and hit any other string he wanted, mainly the second string. This method came from Cousin Emmy--Cynthia May Harper. She was from Bowling Green, Kentucky. That's who he learned from back in the mid-40s when they were both on the radio in Wheeling, West Virginia.”

Growing up in the country, Steinmetz didn’t have anyone to play music with, but he listened to his father’s record collection and came to love and emulate the music of old-time artists such as Sam and Kirk McGee, The Carter Family and Uncle Dave Macon.

In addition to introducing him to traditional music, his father also introduced him to performing.

“As soon as I learned how to play around 10 or 11 years old, Dad got me on at the Central Florida Fair. In between acts, they'd get me up there to play for 15 minutes. I wore a big Stetson hat, and I sat on a stool, and I just put my head down and played as fast as I could. I had a set list of about six songs. I figured if I play 'em fast, I'll get through 'em sooner, and I can get off of here. So that was my first experience with being on stage. And I hated it.”

Fast forward several decades. Performing has grown on him. Now he’s on stage with The Sunny Tennesseans--the band he named for the introduction Grand Ole Opry host George Hay always gave Steinmetz’s favorite act: “And now Sam and Kirk McGee, the boys from Sunny Tennessee: Let her go, boys!”

“I didn't count on it being probably the longest name in bluegrass: ‘Phillip Steinmetz and his Sunny Tennesseans.’ If you put that on the back of a festival t-shirt, it really stands out.”

The band also stands out because their old-time music is different from what other festival bands are playing.

“Some sound like Bill Monroe, some sound like Jim and Jesse, and some sound like Ralph Carter. It's the same style. And no matter how good and how talented, the audience's ear gets burned out on that. And then here we come, and it's so different that it's kind of like a breath of fresh air that lets you reset yourself. We try to entertain people. I tell a lot of the old stories that Grandpa used to tell. He was an entertainer. He didn't just get up there and play one song after another. He would make you laugh.

“I got to play with Grandpa on stage twice when I was 19 and 20. Both times Grandpa would come up in the middle of the second song I was playing, grab his band, and then we started picking together.”

In 2005 Steinmetz became a three-time Old Time Banjo National champion. Also, being named national champion in 2000 and performing as part of the Grand Ole Opry’s 75th-anniversary celebration are special memories for him.

“Grandpa had passed away in 1998, and to play there just a couple of years later was bittersweet,” Steinmetz remembers. “I wished he had still been there. But that was a highlight that I'll never forget. To help celebrate the Opry’s birthday is just something that not a lot of people can say they've done.”

The Tri-State Bluegrass Festival in Kendallville, Indiana, runs Aug. 31 through Sept. 3. Also appearing along with Phillip Steinmetz and his Sunny Tennesseans are Cabbage Road Bluegrass, Lincoln Highway, Bluegrass Pythagoras, The Edgar Loudermilk Band, Sammy Adkins and Sandy Hook Mountain Boys, Tony and Blackwater, and Nu-Blu.

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