A very cordial letter arrived a few weeks ago from Jean Cornett. Along with husband Bob Cornett, she has been the guiding force of Festival of the Bluegrass throughout its 35 year history.
It offered a reflection that sometimes gets lost in the event’s annual parade of world class string music, its blooming bluegrass music camp and even the numerous accolades the festival continues to collect – the most recent being Event of the Year honors at last fall’s International Bluegrass Music Association awards.
Jean’s remarks dealt with family – not just the extended clan that stages the festival every year, but the families of fans that have essentially grown up with the anticipation and, over time, expectation that acts like The Seldom Scene, IIIrd Tyme Out, Lonesome River Band (and, if you want to go back a few years, Bill Monroe, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, Jim & Jessie, John Hartford, Jerry Douglas and scores more) will again strike up the strings in the early days of summer.
“The Festival is a great source of pleasure for us,” she wrote. “Every year – many times every year – we have old friends come over and introduce a new member of their family. And that new member often is a grandchild that is beginning to learn bluegrass much as the grandparent learned bluegrass at the Festival thirty-odd years ago. This makes us proud.”
As well it should. This year, the festival’s sense of family and tradition continues with a lineup of familiar acts and new faces. A few of the regulars are missing, most notably Doyle Lawson and Blue Highway. But in their place are comparatively younger packs like The Grascals, currently the IBMA’s Entertainer of the Year, that are firmly establishing a new generational voice for bluegrass.
Here’s the rundown of the Festival’s most prominent acts:
+ Seldom Scene: Want to get an idea of just how beloved Seldom Scene has been to Lexington audiences over the years? Then make a count of how many voices call out for Wait a Minute, a bit of high lonesome heartbreak recorded by the band around the time the first Festival of the Bluegrass commenced. Fans will need to be patient this weekend, though. Seldom Scene will be making room for material from SCENEchronized, its first album of new music in seven years. It boasts songs by John Fogerty, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Steve Earle along with a new version of Don’t Bother With White Satin, a tune by founding Scene member John Duffey. The latter was initially cut by the band in 1973. Pictured above, the current Seldom Scene lineup is (from left): Dudley Connell, Ben Eldridge, Ronnie Simpkins, Fred Travers and Lou Reid.
+ J.D. Crowe and the New South: Admittedly, filling local fans in on the music of Grammy winning Lexington/Nicholasville banjo ace J.D. Crowe is like discussing University of Kentucky basketball with sports enthusiasts and expecting it to seem like news. Both are traditions that are, within their respective circles, very closely followed. But there really is news within the Crowe camp this year. It began in January with two new New South members: bassist/vocalist John Bowman (formerly of Alison Krauss and Union Station) and fiddler Steve Thomas (who has worked with The Osborne Brothers).
+ Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out: Among all others at the Festival of the Bluegrass, this is the band boasting the biggest change. At last year’s festival, IIIrd Tyme Out was still welcoming back mandolinist Wayne Benson, a longtime member who rejoined after a three year stay with The John Cowan Band. But the bomb dropped at the end of 2007 when bassist, vocalist and co-founder Ray Benson left to tour full time with bluegrass gospel vocalist/fiancé Anita Fisher (the two were scheduled to perform at the Festival last night). That now puts guitarist/vocalist Russell Moore, who performed with Benson at the Festival in Doyle Lawson’s Quicksilver band long before IIIrd Tyme Out was even formed, at the helm.
+ Dry Branch Fire Squad: Year after year, this is the band to beat. Sparked by the wily but very worldly humor of singer/mandolinist Ron Thomason, Dry Branch is also among the Festival’s most versed traditional acts. The band’s instrumental firepower is unpretentious but seriously imposing, its harmonies are soulfully rustic and at the end of the day you’ll be laughing yourself silly over the most scholarly redneck humor imaginable. But here’s the big tip: leave time for Dry Branch’s Sunday morning gospel set, which the band played last year on one of the Festival’s smaller side stages. It was the most intimate and engaging performance that weekend.
The 35th Festival of the Bluegrass continues through Sunday morning at the Kentucky Horse Park. Tickets are $10 (Sunday only) and $35 (each day, today and Saturday). Call (859) 846-4995. For a complete schedule, go to www.festivalofthebluegrass.com.