In the days leading up to the Festival of the Bluegrass, Roy and AnnaMarie Cornett start feeling rejuvenated.
Although a year's worth of planning and producing for Lexington's benchmark outdoor music event often leaves the husband-and-wife team understandably spent, the arrival of campers — which began last weekend — and the mounting audience excitement ignites a strong second wind. The same goes for the other 80-plus members of the "extended" Cornett family who help stage the festival.
"Usually, by this point every year, we're just tired," AnnaMarie says. "But talking to these people that are coming out camping is the burst we need to help us remember, 'Yeah, that's why we do this.'
"It is for this experience thousands of people look forward to every year. It's easy to remember that. But to actually experience it and see it is a whole other thing."
This year, though, the mood has unavoidably shifted. The 42nd Festival of the Bluegrass marks the first time the event will carry on without its co-founder and figurehead, Jean Cornett, Roy's grandmother, who died in February. Jean and husband Bob Cornett began a transition of leadership nearly a decade ago, with full stewardship going to Roy and AnnaMarie in 2012. But Jean's presence continues to be felt profoundly at the event, and especially by the rest of the Cornett family.
"It's hard," Roy admits. "I was having a conversation with my uncle Robert just a few days ago. We were talking about some planning for the festival and the things we're going to do in honor of her. He said, 'I've been doing this festival for 42 years, and this is the one I'm looking forward to the least.' I'm sure he's not the only one who feels that way.
"I mean, it will always be her bluegrass festival. Forty-two years from now, it will still be her bluegrass festival. She's not really gone, because her fingerprints are all over every aspect of it. It's just that it's all taken on a different role now."
The festival has introduced several new-generation artists in its performance lineups in recent years, but several mainstay acts — including the Seldom Scene, Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out, Lonesome River Band (which performed Thursday night) and Dry Branch Fire Squad — have returned for decades.
"Roy's grandma was a role model, a mentor and an advocate for a lot of these musicians," AnnaMarie says. "There were periods when they were going through growing pains of celebrity status and having to figure out their roles in the bluegrass world. She was a very important person in their lives."
"When I was going through a very tough time in my career, she called me and offered her, and the family's, support and advice," Moore said in a Facebook post in February. "She assured me that if there was anything she could do, all I had to do was pick up the phone. Money can't buy a warm, fuzzy blanket that makes you feel that good."
Accepting the level of responsibility the festival calls for represented an enormous challenge, but it has been a way of life for Roy. He is part of a generation of Cornetts who have never known a summer without it.
"About eight or nine years ago, when we started to make this transition, my grandmother looked at me and said, 'You don't want to do this. You don't. You have no idea how much work is involved with it.' And she was correct. But at the same time, there is a generation that started with me that has never in their entire lives not known the Festival of the Bluegrass. The importance it plays in who we are and how we connect is very intertwined.
"This is just what we do. To be a Cornett and be a part of the Festival of the Bluegrass is kind of one and the same."