the patriarch of the festival

Bob Cornett at the Festival of the Bluegrass in 2013. (Herald-Leader file photo.)

Even though he effectively retired from overseeing the Festival of the Bluegrass some years ago, Bob Cornett never disappeared. In recent summers, he would quietly roam the grounds, greet longtime patrons and chat with musicians that have made the event a performance priority during the summer touring months. With a manner cordial and reserved, he didn’t draw attention to himself. To those that knew him and understood the kind of festival he established, along with its lasting cultural importance to Central Kentucky, he was royalty and was respected as such. But when Cornett came within view, no sense of ceremony was required or expected. It was more like a neighbor calling.

“There’s Bob.” Those were the words you heard trickle within the audience throughout the festival. There was no small sense of comfort in hearing them, too. With wife and festival co-founder Jean Cornett having died in 2015, Bob was the last prominent link to the event’s beginnings when another bluegrass generation reigned in Central Kentucky.

With Cornett’s passing yesterday at the age of 89, Lexington lost one of string music’s most honored torchbearers. If Bill Monroe was the rightly dubbed Father of Bluegrass, then the Cornetts were monarchs of the music in our corner of the bluegrass world. No one has done more for giving bluegrass such a prominent, lasting performance platform. More importantly, no one has stressed the need for using that platform, traditional in design as it was, to transcend generations. Anyone who remotely knew Bob Cornett will acknowledge that among his primary passions relating to the festival were the offstage camp sessions that allowed young, eager musicians the opportunity to experience his own passion and devotion for bluegrass.

Sad as Cornett’s passing is, he leaves behind something more than a mere legacy. The Festival of the Bluegrass continues to thrive under the direction of succeeding generations of the Cornett family. At least from an outsider’s perspective, there is no need to ask the usual panic question, “How will it continue without him?” The answer is it will do fine. Bob and Jean Cornett instilled in their children and grandchildren a very visible will and need to carry on with the event. They long ago took the management reins so that the founders, in their final years, could enjoy their well-earned emeritus roles and attend essentially as patrons – patrons, mind you, with a homespun, yet unavoidably royal aura.



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