Music News & Reviews

40th edition of Festival of the Bluegrass opens for 'monster year'

23 String Band — fiddler Scott Moore, guitarist Chris Shouse, bassist T. Martin Stam, mandolin player Dave Howard and banjo player Curtis Wilson —  performed Friday at the Festival of the Bluegrass at the Kentucky Horse Park.
23 String Band — fiddler Scott Moore, guitarist Chris Shouse, bassist T. Martin Stam, mandolin player Dave Howard and banjo player Curtis Wilson — performed Friday at the Festival of the Bluegrass at the Kentucky Horse Park. Lexington Herald-Leader

Sam Karr remembers coming to the first Festival of the Bluegrass and getting lost. Once he and his friend were found, a parent stuck towels on their heads so they could be easily located.

Friday afternoon, a small legion of Ragheads, wearing white towel headbands, were seated at the right of the Festival of the Bluegrass stage taking in sets by Dale Ann Bradley, IIIrd Time Out and other bluegrass music greats.

They were at the 40th edition of the festival that by all accounts wasn't necessarily a rousing success the first time around. But it went well enough that the Cornett family did it again and again, and it has now established itself as an essential destination for bluegrass fans. This year, the festival is being shown on statewide TV on KET and streamed globally on mobile devices through the Herald-Leader's app and on and its mobile apps.

That's a lot of digital technology for music with roots deep in the Appalachian mountains.

And that was doing nothing to deter people from coming out to the event at the Kentucky Horse Park through Sunday morning.

"This could be a monster year," said festival director Roy Cornett, grandson of festival founders Bob and Jean Cornett.

A monster year, he said, would be 8,000 or more filling the sloping field in the Kentucky Horse Park with mobile stage with lights, state of the art sound and pastel banners in the back — a far cry from the wagon and tarp the festival was presented on in its first year.

Observing the crowd at Friday night's Dailey & Vincent show, the festival patriarch said he never dreamed his creation would grow as big as it has, but he was delighted with the way it has grown.

"This is about more than music; it's about community," Bob Cornett said. "It's about what goes on on the front porches of mountains and reaching back to the legacy of bluegrass.

"There are all these communities around this festival, and you see the children? It's beautiful."

Roy Cornett said that one of the things driving attendance this year was the Best of Bluegrass festival in Lexington during the past week that helped raise interest in the event.

"I wouldn't underestimate the power of a rejuvenated economy," said AnnaMarie Cornett, Roy's wife, who handles public relations and vendors for the festival.

But for many, it was the relationships they built over the years, even establishing little villages within the campground such as the Ragheads or Booty Bay, whose space next to the main stage area is marked by a banner that said, "Hide your rum and daughters."

"We're from all over," said Nick Smith, "mayor" of Booty Bay who pointed out residents from Kansas, Virginia and Indiana. "It's the people. This is quintessential Kentucky, being in this beautiful rolling landscape living in absolute squalor. It's wonderful."

Jesse and Kim Wright, residents of the festival's Wooville community, said they love the atmosphere where their kids can play, and they don't have to constantly worry about them.

"Everyone's watching out for each other's kids," Jessee said, watching his boys Aidan and Lucas play with giant bubble wands.

Some campers opt for "primitive camping" meaning no electricity or running water, while others go for the home-away-from-home RV experience. And some never darken the actual festival gate, while others are right down front dancing.

"It's the truest, purest thing I know," said Debbie Vaughn of Indianapolis, who has been to all 40 festivals. "And the talent is impeccable."

As IIIrd Tyme Out was finishing its set, she was dancing with Dave Tull, who goes by Dancin' Dave and sports that distinctive towel headband.

"These people," he said motioning to his fellow Ragheads, "they're all family."

And every year, the first weekend in June, they have a big reunion.


40th Annual Festival of the Bluegrass

When: Through June 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


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.

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