Music News & Reviews

Festival of the Bluegrass ends, as always, on a gospel note

Town Mountain's Phil Barker, Jake Hopping, Robert Greer and Jesse Langlais made their Festival of the Bluegrass debut on Saturday. Many groups made gospel numbers part of their performances even before Sunday.
Town Mountain's Phil Barker, Jake Hopping, Robert Greer and Jesse Langlais made their Festival of the Bluegrass debut on Saturday. Many groups made gospel numbers part of their performances even before Sunday. Lexington Herald-Leader

As an exodus of recreational vehicles and campers departed the Kentucky Horse Park on Sunday morning, there was one order of business left for the Festival of the Bluegrass: a little church.

The festival traditionally presents gospel music on Sunday mornings as its closing program. While not a church service — there were no sermons, offerings or altar calls during the 90 minutes of performances by Kentucky Blue and Dry Branch Fire Squad — the gospel sets play that role for some in attendance.

"It's the best kind of music," said Hester Perry, who watched with her husband, Bill Perry, from the seats of their scooters, pulled up to the edge of the festival's Homegrown Stage. If they weren't at the bluegrass festival, they said, they would have been at Sunday services at Hickory Baptist Church back home in Independence.

Members of the bands said the gospel sets are part of the tradition of bluegrass music.

"Bluegrass can be sophisticated and down home at the same time," said Kentucky Blue banjo player Dave Cottrell. "We're in Kentucky, and we're Christian folk. It's part of our culture."

You didn't necessarily have to be at the festival Sunday morning to see that side of bluegrass music.

Through the weekend, numerous bands made gospel songs part of their sets, including Friday night's headliner, Dailey & Vincent. Blue Highway's Saturday night set included dobro player Rob Ickes performing The Old Rugged Cross in tribute to Mike Auldridge, the original dobro player of bluegrass mainstays Seldom Scene, who died last year.

As the gospel music played Sunday, event producers Roy and AnnaMarie Cornett were supervising crews packing up what they viewed as the festival's highly successful 40th edition.

"Every festival has the potential to go wrong," Roy Cornett said, adding this year there was even more potential for miscues with KET presenting live broadcasting and streaming of the event. "But this year was as smooth as its ever been."

AnnaMarie Cornett said she was really pleased that any issues, including a generator failure that interrupted KET's broadcast Friday night, were not apparent to the audience. The only visible hiccup was a brief power failure onstage Friday that Dailey & Vincent played through.

The Cornetts said they were particularly excited by the extra local attention the festival received. The first-ever Best of Bluegrass Festival served as a prelude, with bluegrass performances at various Lexington venues during the week that were broadcast live on WEKU-FM. KET provided a live broadcast of performances at the Horse Park, and the Herald-Leader hosted streaming of the broadcast through its and mobile apps. The stream was seen nationwide and as far away as Turkey and Japan.

"It makes the audience feel really special and cool that something they are part of is being covered and watched by people around the world," AnnaMarie Cornett said.

While the Saturday crowd did not reach the "monster" level Roy Cornett had anticipated Friday, with a lineup that included the Masters of Bluegrass featuring J.D. Crowe and Del McCoury, he concluded that was because more people had decided to make a weekend of it, pumping up attendance Thursday and Friday.

"I always say, I'd rather have that weekend ticket buyer than a lot of one-day admissions because those weekend people are going to be your loyal festival-goer," said Cornett, whose grandparents Bob and Jean Cornett founded the festival in 1974. He said he wouldn't have total attendance figures until later this week.

The gospel performances date to the beginning of the festival, and Kentucky Blue and Dry Branch Fire Squad have been participating in them for decades.

"This brings in the people who really like bluegrass," said Dry Branch Fire Squad frontman Rob Thomason, who said his group has participated most years since 1978. "People realize there's a strong gospel basis for where this music comes from."

Among them were Corey Lee and Matt Brotherton, who watched the performances from the lawn outside the tent with their dog Rugsy.

"We come every year," Brotherton said of the gospel performances. "What could be more affirming about the good of humanity than this?"

Lee, a Campbellsville native, said, "It really reminds me of going to church with my grandparents back home."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader