Roy Cornett knows the question is coming. He gets it every year when final preparations for the Festival of the Bluegrass wind down and the music starts to soar out of the campground at the Kentucky Horse Park.
“What’s new?” Meaning, of course, people are always curious whether anything different is planned, something other than or in addition to the traditional string sounds it has presented over 43 summers, 10 of which have unfolded since Roy and his wife, AnnaMarie, took over the organizational reins from Roy’s grandparents, festival founders Bob and Jean Cornett.
“When Anna and I first started taking over the festival from Grandma and Granddad, I was very consciously aware that what they built worked, and worked really well,” Roy said. “I wasn’t going to be arrogant enough to say, ‘Well, I can make improvements and make this thing a whole lot better’ before I understood what it was that actually worked. So for the first couple of years, I made a very concerted effort to not make any major changes, because I didn’t want to screw up, inadvertently, what we had been working on.”
So in terms of music, this year’s festival will feature acts that have been staples for years: The Seldom Scene, The Lonesome River Band, and Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out. There will also be bands that have become new favorites in recent years, such as Town Mountain and The Wooks. And, yes, there will be first-timers, including Band of Ruhks and Hammertowne.
But the general organization, structure and execution of the event hasn’t changed much since Roy and AnnaMarie Cornett began attending it as ordinary patrons.
“We have a different perspective than Grandma and Granddad because we camped out there,” AnnaMarie said. “For almost 20 years of Roy’s life and my first however-many festivals, we were in our campsite, so we know the kind of experience our campers have and how we can enhance that.”
“I camped out at the festival with my friends for the first time when I was 12 years old,” Roy said. “I was out there in the middle of all the primitive camping from when I was 12 until I was probably 30. Then it got to where we started running it. I just couldn’t camp anymore after that. I needed to come home and sleep in my own bed.”
The only serious change the festival experienced was an inevitable changing of the guard. When Jean, who died in February 2015, and Bob reached their 70s, there was concern throughout the Cornett clan about who would carry on the event — or, more to the point, would anyone tend to it at all?
Granddad always had a saying. ‘The day the Festival of the Bluegrass starts making money is the day we need to end it.’ That’s just not what it’s about.
Roy Cornett, festival co-director
“They had no interest in selling out,” AnnaMarie said. “They had no interest in the festival continuing under the banner of a large corporation. That would go against everything the Festival of the Bluegrass stood for.
“Granddad always had a saying,” Roy said. “‘The day the Festival of the Bluegrass starts making money is the day we need to end it.’ That’s just not what it’s about. But they had been putting this on by themselves. They were doing everything. Somebody had to step up and start taking some of the weight off their shoulders.”
Enter the grandchildren, who remain as devoted to the festival as the generations before them. In the end, there have been a few modest changes to this year’s program. The Seldom Scene opted to do one long evening set on Saturday instead of the traditional afternoon/evening combination, so mandolinist/vocalist Lou Reid can attend the high school graduation of his valedictorian daughter that afternoon. There also have been updates to the festival camping organization and performance scheduling (60-minute sets instead of the previous 45 to allow more time for stage transitions between acts). But the Cornetts now view the festival as such a steadfast tradition that it would probably continue regardless of their input.
“I’m convinced it would,” AnnaMarie said. “I thoroughly believe it would if we said, ‘You know what? This is it. We’re done. This is the last year. We’re not doing the Festival of the Bluegrass anymore.’ If you went out to the Kentucky Horse Park the next year on the second weekend of June, there would still be thousands of people there camping and playing music. They’re going to be there whether we put this on or not. So the least we can do to hold up our end of the bargain.”
If you go
Festival of the Bluegrass
When: June 8-11
Where: Kentucky Horse Park Campground, 4089 Ironworks Parkway
Tickets: $10 (June 11 only), $20 (June 8 only), $50 (June 9 only), $55 (June 10 only); $100-$115 (entire festival)
Main stage schedule
6:30 p.m.: Camp Kids
7:30 p.m.: Custom Made Bluegrass
9 p.m.: Flatt Lonesome
10:30 p.m.: Lonesome River Band
1 and 8 p.m.: Sideline
2 and 7 p.m.: Hammertowne
3 and 10 p.m.: Newtown
4 and 9 p.m.: Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper
5 p.m.: Cumberland Gap Connection
6 and 11 p.m.: Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out
Noon: Open stage
1 and 10:30 p.m.: The Wooks
2 and 6 p.m.: Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers
3 and 11 p.m.: Town Mountain
4 and 7 p.m.: The Grascals
5 and 8 p.m.: Band of Ruhks
9 p.m.: Seldom Scene
10 a.m.: True Life Travelers
11:15 a.m.: Dry Branch Fire Squad