Finger pickin’ good: Annual fingerstyle guitar competition, festival returned to Brown County Playhouse


For over 10 years, the Indiana State Fingerstyle Guitar Festival has welcomed musicians from all over the world to take their spot on the Brown County Playhouse stage to show off their skills and compete for impressive prizes.

This year’s festival happened the last weekend of July, starting out with a free Friday night party at the Brown County Inn under stars featuring performances by nationally-ranked guitarists including previous competition winners on July 29.

The Fingerstyle Guitar Competition happened the next morning at the Playhouse and the top three winners were announced that afternoon. Musicians competed for prize guitars from Thomas Roeger Guitars, SDC Guitars and Sweetwater Music along with a chance to play on the stage during a concert that night with past competition winners.

But what is fingerstyle guitar?

According to festival founder and co-producer Chuck Wills, it is the technique of playing the guitar by plucking the strings directly with fingertips, fingernails or picks attached to the right hand fingers. The term is often used synonymously with fingerpicking, classical or thumb style. Prominent fingerstyle players include Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Tommy Emmanuel and Andres Segovia.

An evening concert at the Playhouse concluded the two-day event that featured Christie Lenée and the top three competition winners — Mark Cruz, David Graves and Bryce Mullings.

Previous competition winners Kade Puckett, Adam Cantor and Bill Russell also took the stage during the acoustic music-filled evening.

Over 325 people attended the Saturday night concert. Wills said the festival is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic when it comes to audience sizes. In 2018 and 2019 the Saturday night concerts had sell-out audiences.

Wills began thinking about starting a fingerstyle guitar music festival with founder and co-producer Kara Barnard in 2010. The duo of local musicians began making the festival a reality in 2011 — and the rest is music history.

In 2021 the evening concert had a “receptive, but small audience,” Wills said. The 2020 festival — like many other events — adapted to the pandemic by moving to a single livestream provided by Rainwater Studios.

With the post-pandemic world in mind where some are still weary to go out for live music shows and other large gatherings, Wills and Barnard hoped there would be that many in attendance on Saturday night.

“This year the audience was getting closer to our usual numbers, and the crowd was enthusiastic and completely engaged with the players. At the Saturday night concert, you could feel the energy in the room as the crowd cheered for the players on the stage,” Wills said.

The Saturday competition and concert were dedicated in the memory of local artist Doris Embry who Wills described as a “longtime supporter of other artists, musicians and a friend of our event.”

“Doris believed that musicians and their music make the world a better place,” Wills said. She passed away last year.

This festival is one of eight in the world that is accredited by the International Fingerstyle Festival in Winfield, Kansas. The winner of the Indiana State Fingerstyle Guitar Festival receives an entry into the International Festival.

“Kara always felt that Nashville would be a perfect place for an acoustic music competition, given the musical heritage of the area,” Wills said.

Planning for the festival coincided with Brown County Playhouse Management Inc., a nonprofit management group, reopening the Playhouse in 2011. Barnard and Wills then partnered with the Playhouse to host the festival as they both thought the venue would be perfect for acoustic music.

The audience is often made up of visitors from the across the country — and, of course, locals — enjoying acoustic music from guitar players who traveled from all over the world to compete and perform, including China, Japan, Turkey, Canada and Australia. A free livestream is also available, drawing more viewers in from across the globe to watch the weekend festival.

“Since travel has been a little more challenging the past few years, the livestream provided by Bloomington Gramophone has been appreciated by both far-off audience members and the families of the competitors,” Wills said.

Cruz, the winner of this year’s competition, is from Texas. Graves and Bryce are both from Indiana. They joined Lenée on the Playhouse stage Saturday night. She was named the 2017 International Fingerstyle Guitar Champion.

Puckett was the 2013 Indiana champion and is a third-generation guitar player. Cantor won the competition in 2021 and placed second at the International Festival in Kansas the same year.

Russell, an award-winning classical guitarist, was the 2018 Indiana champion. He is the 2009 Gamle Rogers Fingerstyle Champion. He was also a finalist in the international contest in 2018 and 2021.

Planning for next year’s festival is already underway. Next year’s Indiana State Fingerstyle Guitar Festival will happen on July 28 and 29 with a similar schedule of events — Friday night party, Saturday morning competition with an evening concert to conclude the fest. Visit to learn more.

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