With its 40th opening night at hand, the Festival of the Bluegrass finds itself at a crossroads.
It stands as Central Kentucky's most visible celebration of the traditional string music that has come to define the region. Yet the majority of the event's devout audience attends from outside Kentucky.
"We could definitely do a better job of getting our name out there, especially with a local audience," said event organizer Roy Cornett, grandson of festival founders Bob and Jean Cornett. "But we've never really trumpeted our own horn that much. We do very little advertising. Most annual events rely on their local audience more than we do.
"This is not a knock against Lexington at all. We love Lexington. But I'm constantly amazed at how many people I run into that ask me what I do. Once I explain, they say things like, 'I never even knew that happened here in Lexington.'"
To prove just how tilted demographics had become in favor of out-of-town patrons, a survey was circulated at last year's festival. It was intended to determine how many concertgoers came from Lexington, how many came from surrounding cities and how many came from outside Kentucky altogether.
Cornett was not at all surprised by the results.
"I think 54 percent of our audience was from outside of the state. Less than 20 percent are people from Fayette County. There is no question: The Festival of the Bluegrass is kept afloat by a demographic outside of Lexington."
This summer, with the festival gearing up for a 40th time, there is an all-out blitz to rekindle the kind of local respect for the string music that the rest of the country, and much of the world, regards so highly.
But it's not coming exclusively from the festival's organizers. Taking on the task is a volunteer alliance of local musicians, music venues, artists, government officials and media, combining forces and resources for a weeklong festival that will lead up to, and include, the Festival of the Bluegrass.
Lexington, meet BOB.
BOB about town
BOB stands for Best of Bluegrass, which isn't so much a new festival as a collective effort to devote already established music events including the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio, Red Barn Radio and Thursday Night Live, plus bookings at Natasha's Bistro, Willie's Locally Known and other venues, to bluegrass throughout the coming week.
"The vision is why not have a really world-class bluegrass festival here in the Bluegrass," said Kip Cornett, one of BOB's principal organizers. Despite the name, he is not affiliated with the Cornett family that oversees the Festival of the Bluegrass.
"Obviously, the Festival of the Bluegrass will be the anchor for the week," he said. "Our hope is it will always stay our anchor. But we could eventually see people coming in here on a Saturday night, and, from Sunday through Sunday, stay in and around Central Kentucky and have great bluegrass music at venues all over the city as well as at the Horse Park."
How does the Festival of the Bluegrass feel about having a neighbor like BOB?
"I know my audience is thrilled with everything that's happening in Lexington," Roy Cornett said. "We have lots of campers that will be coming to town and setting up almost a week early. This gives them all kinds of things to do in Lexington throughout that week instead of just sitting out at the Horse Park."
Festivals that play together
It helps that organizers from both festivals have been on the same page in bringing BOB to life. Roy Cornett and Kip Cornett, along with members of the Lexington Area Music Alliance, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government and more, have met regularly over the past year to organize BOB.
The initial inspiration was to have a one-time event to build up to the Festival of the Bluegrass' 40th year, but organizers hope BOB will become an additional annual event.
"I think BOB is a wonderful thing," Roy Cornett said. "It's been an absolutely amazing group of people to work with. When we all got together at the very first meeting, nobody was showing up with the attitude of, 'OK, what can I get out of this?' Everybody was saying, 'This is such a great idea. This is what I can offer.' That's why this has worked so well. There was a very conscious decision that this was a great thing for Lexington and a great thing for bluegrass music. It's also something we want to continue for years down the road. We want to start small, plant the seeds and let this thing grow. I think it really will."
Starting small meant, in short, making BOB an affordable-enough venture to stage yet appealing enough to attract audiences already skittish about taking in the stylistically traditional Festival of the Bluegrass. To that end, it will open the week with two contemporary-minded acts, the hip-hop-inspired Gangstagrass at Natasha's on Monday (the band is known nationally for supplying the theme music for the FX series Justified) and the scholarly jazz-inspired banjo music of Alison Brown at Willie's Locally Known on Tuesday.
"A lot of times, if you can get off to a strong start, word of mouth will really help a great deal," Kip Cornett said. "It gives people something to talk about, write about, etc. Hopefully, what we have going on opening night will carry over and give us momentum through the week.
"I think we have to prove ourselves to some of the other venues in town, too. I'm hoping that they will look up in the middle of BOB week and go, 'Wow. Why didn't we take advantage of this?' This year, honestly, we tried to keep the event mostly downtown. But the long-term vision is for any place with live music that week, from venues as intimate as the Green Lantern to as large as the Kentucky Theatre or the Lyric, to have great bluegrass to present."
IF YOU GO
Best of Bluegrass
Here is the performance schedule for the inaugural Best of Bluegrass Festival taking place before the Festival of the Bluegrass. All events free unless noted. Info: Bluegrasslex.com.
WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour: The Cleverlys, The Moore Brothers Band. 6:45 p.m. Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St. $10. Woodsongs.com.
Gangstagrass. 8 p.m. Natasha's Bistro, 112 Esplanade. Beetnik.com.
Southland Jamboree: Newtown. 7 p.m. Collins Bowling Center, 205 Southland Dr. Southlandjamboree.org.
Alison Brown. 8 p.m. Willie's Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway. $20. Willieslex.com.
Red Barn Radio: Flint Ridge Millers, Appalatin. 7 p.m. ArtsPlace, 161 N. Mill St. $8. Redbarnradio.com.
Dix River Crossing. 7 p.m. Central Library second-floor atrium, 140 E. Main St.
Danny Williams Trio. 8 p.m. Jefferson Davis Inn, 319 Cedar St.
Red Barn Radio After-party with Appalatin, Flint Ridge Millers. 9 p.m. Natasha's Bistro.
Newtown. 9 p.m. Paulie's Toasted Barrel, 517 E. Main St.
Thursday Night Live: Bluegrass Collective. 5:30 p.m. Cheapside Park, Main St. and Cheapside. Downtownlex.com.
Lookin' Mighty Squirrel. 8 p.m. Parlay Social, 257 W. Short St.
IF YOU GO
40th Annual Festival of the Bluegrass
When: June 6-9
Where: Kentucky Horse Park Campground, 4089 Iron Works Pkwy.
Tickets: $10-$45 single-day tickets, $95-$115 weekend passes. Available at (859) 253-0806 or Festivalofthebluegrass.com.
June 6: 7:40 p.m., Grass Stains. 8:30, Coal Town Dixie. 10, Lonesome River Band.
June 7: 1 p.m., Moron Brothers. 1:50 and 6, Bluegrass Collective. 2:40 and 9:20, Dale Ann Bradley. 3:30 and 10:50, IIIrd Tyme Out. 4:20 and 10, 23 String Band. 5:10, Laurel River Line. 7:40, Dailey and Vincent.
June 8: 1 p.m., Kentucky Blue. 1:50 and 7:40, Blue Highway. 2:40 and 8:30, The Boxcars. 3:30 and 9:20, Masters of Bluegrass featuring Del McCoury, J.D. Crowe and Bobby Osborne. 4:20 and 10, Town Mountain. 5:10 and 10:50, Seldom Scene. 6, Dry Branch Fire Squad.
June 9: 10, Kentucky Blue. 10:40, Dry Branch Fire Squad.