Family Traditions: Festival of the Bluegrass

Nearly half a century ago the late Bob (1929-2019) and Jean (1929-2015) Cornett started Festival of the Bluegrass in Lexington, Kentucky.  It has become one of Kentucky’s most heralded bluegrass gatherings and it is championed around the world.  Over the years it has become as much of a bluegrass tradition as the genre itself.  Some of the most recognizable names in bluegrass have performed at Festival of the Bluegrass.  Held annually every year since 1974 (except 2020 due to COVID-19), the event regularly draws thousands of fans from throughout North America as well as Europe, Asia and elsewhere.   International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awarded its “Distinguished Achievement” award to Bob and Jean Cornett in 1998 and in 2007 the event won “Bluegrass Event of the Year.”   

Russell Moore commented, “The state of Kentucky is well-known for having some of the most energetic and excitable fans in bluegrass music, and the Festival of the Bluegrass is considered by many as being at the nucleus of that.” 

Moore’s perspective is broad. He first performed at the festival in 1985 as a member of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and has returned all but three years since, mostly with IIIrd Tyme Out.  Moore continues, “This leads to both the crowd and entertainers giving 110 percent to each other, resulting in some of my most memorable live performances to date. There are several great bluegrass festivals and promoters around the country, and the world, who use the Festival of the Bluegrass as a guide to gauge their festivals.”

Bob and Jen working at a concession stand together

Bob and Jean Corentt  met in the early 1940s while attending nearby Berea College and later married in January 1951.  They were avid music listeners, but not players.  After attending several bluegrass festivals they noticed how many of the events seemed unorganized.  The Seldom Scene’s Dudley Connell described Jean as “intimidating and tough as nails on the surface but one of the sweetest people once you get to know her.”  She began speaking up on the matter and in 1974, the Cornetts produced the first annual Festival of the Bluegrass.  In 1985, they purchased a former county park in Live Oak, Florida and developed the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. The park is now owned by their son James.

In its first year, Festival of the Bluegrass was held at Walnut Hall Farm just north of Lexington, Kentucky and across the street from the Council of State Governments, where Bob worked as a budget director. The inaugural event featured performances by bluegrass legends Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and JD Crowe.   The Cornetts met Crowe years before when the fellow Kentuckian was regularly playing at the Red Slipper Lounge, originally with the Kentucky Mountain Boys, and later as JD Crowe and The New South. 

After the first year, the festival was forced to move to Masterson Station Park six miles away to allow for the construction of the Kentucky Horse Park on the former Walnut Hill property.  Walnut Hill would later become the festival’s home again from 1990 onward.

During its 15 years at Masterson Station, the festival began to foster its signature trait…wild and high-strung campsite pickin’ parties sometimes lasting until early morning. A recent demographic survey done by the festival found that nearly 25 percent of all attendees never even make it up to the main stage during the entire festival week.  This leads one to believe that the main attraction of the event for many is the music around the camp fire rather than under the bright main stage lights. 

Group of people sitting around playing instruments

The campsite picking is something that the festival’s current organizers AnnaMarie Cornett and husband Roy, can’t go without.  After the scheduled music concludes on Saturday night, they have made a habit of walking from one end of the campground to the other to try to take in all the jamming. Often, they run into bands along the way that performed on stage earlier in the day.

“The campsite pickin’ parties are such an organic part of the festival that we aren’t able to manufacture ourselves,” said AnnaMarie. “They embody the positive, loving energy and top-notch musical talent within our festival community that has helped to keep us going strong for nearly a half century. It’s something I’ll never get tired of watching play out and is oftentimes just as enjoyable as the bands we schedule ourselves.”

The off-stage antics quickly drew a devout audience of bluegrass fans to the event.  They not only experienced campside carouses but also on-stage performances from the likes of Ricky Skaggs, Bela Fleck, a teenage Alison Krauss, as well as the Seldom Scene, who have performed at Festival of the Bluegrass every year since 1975. 

“Something that makes the Festival of the Bluegrass stand out from any other event we play at is the enthusiasm of the audience,” said Dudley Connell, who performed the gathering on several occasions with the Johnson Mountain Boys prior to playing there every year from 1996 onward with the Seldom Scene. “They make you feel like a rock ’n’ roll star. There’s always a feeling of excitement in the air, which always makes it a very easy and fun environment to play in.”

Connell continued, “During my first time playing the festival with the Seldom Scene in 1996 all of us with the exception of John Duffey were on stage getting prepped, when suddenly John emerged from a tent to the side and began walking up the stairs to the stage with his mandolin in one hand and a whiskey sour in the other and the crowd erupting in applause. I remember thinking ‘My God. That is exactly how this man deserves to be treated.’”

People dancing outside at a concert in shorts, t-shirts, and no shoes

Roy Cornett, grandson to Bob and Jean, and a current festival co-organizer, was born in 1977.  Masterson Station is where his earliest, most cherished memories of the event hail.  He remembers running around carefree, working the festival’s general store selling t-shirts, cigarettes, and ice and watching RVs storm into the event at the start of each gathering to claim the best campsites at the city park.

“The City [of Lexington] wouldn’t allow people to arrive at the park to set up their campsites before the festival began, so instead campers would line up days in advance on the side of the access road leading into the park in hopes of getting prime real estate for the weekend ahead once we’d drop the rope crossing the street to allow them in,” said Roy.

While the mad dash for camping spots was alleviated with the festival’s move back to the Kentucky Horse Park in 1990, another mad dash has taken its place, this time for chair placement. The phenomenon of attendees storming the main stage field with their fold-up chairs at the start of each festival week has even inspired a song, “The Great Chair Stampede,” written by festival-goer Nelson Hopwood.   Also known as the Mayor of Wooville, Hopwood is one of the festival’s longtime attendees and organizer of informal camping.

Roy points out, “We have a rule that you’re not allowed to set up your chair until the stage is in place.  At the start of festival week when the stage is getting brought in you’ll start hearing phones buzzing all throughout the campground with people relaying the news and getting their chairs ready to run up and claim their spots.”

Longtime attendee Hans Wolters has traveled to the festival from The Netherlands nearly every year since 1989.  According to Wolters the Festival of the Bluegrass was the first American bluegrass festival he ever attended.  He first learned about it when he befriended Tom Howell, a member of the U.S. Army stationed in Germany.  They met at Holland’s Strictly Country Festival in 1985.

“For me it was a dream come true to visit America and experience a real American Bluegrass festival for the first time,” said Wolters. “I had a blast getting to meet and interact with all those musicians who I’d only known from photos on vinyl albums. However, what continues to amaze me the most is how friendly and hospitable Kentuckians, Tennesseans and Virginians are and how passionate they are about bluegrass music.”

Around the same time the festival made its way back to the Horse Park, the festival introduced the Kentucky Bluegrass Music Camp, a three-day music workshop preceding the festival.  This event is for students ages 6-18 and is organized by the festival community, rather than the Cornetts. Currently run by Tina May and Katie Shiner, the camp is the festival community’s contribution to the event.  Bob Cornett’s vision was that of educating the younger generations about bluegrass music and helping to grow a community for them to grow up, perform and thrive in. 

For many the camp has also acted as an olive branch welcoming them into the event, as was the case for central Kentucky musician Kati Penn, who’s attended the festival nearly every year since she was 12.   

Child learning how to play the guitar at camp
Child learns how to play the guitar at the Kentucky Bluegrass Music Camp.

“It’s been very humbling to have been a part of the festival for so many years and to have had the opportunity to play on the same stage that I got to see Alison Krauss and so many other musical heroes of mine perform on while I was growing up,” said Penn.

In the early 1990s, Kati taught at the Kid’s Camp before moving on to later perform on the festival’s main stage herself.  Her first appearance was alongside Pamela Gadd in 1998, and several times since with her former band New Town and others.

While the Kid’s Camp is completely organized by the community and festival volunteers, their contributions to the event reach far wider. Roy credits them, along with staff at the Kentucky Horse Park, for being instrumental in helping to put up and tear down the festival.  They ensure that on-site operations run smoothly so that he and his family can turn their focus to continuing to create the best environment around for bluegrass music. 

The community was a huge part of assuring a smooth transition in festival leadership from the late Bob and Jean to Roy and AnnaMarie, who got her first taste of the “little” event in 2000.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” AnnaMarie joked. “I ended up on the volunteer schedule to work three shifts at the front gate on each day of the event. However, it turned out to be a great experience, and one I still look forward to every year.”

In the mid-2000s, despite being in their 70s, Bob and Jean were still organizing everything themselves.  The leadership transition wrapped up just in time for the hootenanny’s 40th iteration in 2013.  That year the event was live-streamed on Kentucky Educational Television and is often re-aired on PBS affiliate stations across the county. The 2013 event also saw a star-studded performance from the Masters of Bluegrass composed of bluegrass pioneers Del and Jerry McCoury, J.D. Crowe, Bobby Hicks and Bobby Osborne.

According to both Roy and AnnaMarie, their new roles within the festival have helped to shed light on just how much work behind the scenes goes into producing an event the size of Festival of the Bluegrass. It’s truly, a year-round planning and organizing effort. On site at the crack of dawn each day during the festival’s traditional first full weekend in June, the Cornetts work non-stop all day before retreating back to their homes in Lexington to get a brief rest before getting up to do it all again the following day.

A long-held norm at bluegrass festivals called for each scheduled band to perform a 45-minute set in both the afternoon and evening. However, soon after taking over Roy and AnnaMarie scrapped the idea for what many of the bands prefer, one long 90-minute set.  This allows them time to settle in and find their groove. 

What they didn’t realize was just how much fans enjoyed the two-set approach, which afforded them the chance to take part of their day to explore the Horse Park and other destinations around Lexington.

“I had no idea what all went into producing a music festival and everything you have to consider,” said Roy. “When we first started the transition, my grandmother told me ‘Roy, you don’t want this. You don’t realize how much work it is.’ and she was right, I didn’t! But, as I told her, this is what I’ve known my entire life. I don’t know what else to do and don’t want anything else to do that first weekend in June.”

“Even when we get home after a long day at the festival, we can still hear a banjo sound echoing from inside of our air compressor,” added AnnaMarie.

Wide photo of the entire stage at a concert

Despite the hefty responsibility of producing the Festival of the Bluegrass, Roy and AnnaMarie couldn’t imagine the event not being a part of their lives. According to Roy the event also acts as a de-facto Cornett family reunion, making the 2020 cancellation due to COVID-19 all the more difficult. The family hopped on a Zoom call together this past June during what would have been festival weekend to catch up and look back together on their favorite memories from the previous 46 years of the event.

“It was heartbreaking not being able to gather with our friends and family this past June,” said Roy, who is optimistic for the event’s return in 2021. “Our family doesn’t get together for Christmas or Easter like most families. Our unique family tradition has always been the Festival of the Bluegrass.”  

Additionally, Roy speculates that if the two hadn’t taken over operations from his grandparents, they likely would have ended the event. Fortunately, the event, and the Cornetts, have kept pushing forward in their grandparents’ absence with the intent of carrying it on with their immediate family and larger bluegrass family’s favorite tradition for years to come. 

“I’ve always said that we would end the Festival of the Bluegrass before letting it become anything that Bob and Jean wouldn’t be proud of,” said Roy Cornett. “This isn’t a business for us. We do this because of the tradition, for our family and for the families of those who’ve attended the festival and made it a part of their lives since it’s start in 1974.”

“Well, it is a ‘family thing’ for sure,” said Russell Moore. “Bob and Jean had a vision and worked very hard to grow the festival into one of the most recognized and talked about bluegrass events around. All of their family that has had anything to do with it through the years have kept the same level of professionalism and class in presenting the festival because, I truly feel, that’s what they were taught and that’s the way Bob and Jean wanted it. The tradition continues today with Roy and AnnaMarie Cornett at the helm and I think they’re doing a wonderful job. As the saying goes, ‘they come from good stock.’” 

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