Jean Cornett was one of those life forces you never thought would leave us. Though she had bowed out a few years ago from official duties with the Festival of the Bluegrass, the landmark Lexington music festival she co-founded with husband Bob over four decades ago, her presence was never absent after retirement. She greeted patrons and performers last summer like family, which given the frequency of repeat appearances evident on both sides of the festival stage, seemed perfectly natural. It was truly like she had never left.
But retire? Jean? Maybe in some remote way that could be possible. But separating her spirit from the festival by such a simple and inevitable act was impossible. No single individual, musician or otherwise, did more to foster and further the visibility of bluegrass music in Central Kentucky than Jean Cornett. To take that a step further, no one has presented it (or represented it, for that matter) with more homespun dignity, either.
I had annual conversations with Jean around Festival time for probably 25 years. Sometimes they were quick and to the point phone calls. Sometimes they were afternoon-long talks at her Midway home. There was at least one instance where we stood in the pouring rain a few days before the Festival opened, undeterred by the conditions at hand. She and her family weathered storms, oppressive heat, blackouts, brownouts and pretty much every obstacle nature and man could devise to present a music festival built upon string music tradition and innovation. Mostly, though, it was an event completely familial in design – whether it was with the children and grandchildren that followed her lead in the producing the event, the acts (specifically, the Seldom Scene) that would return year after year or the clans and fans that viewed the Festival as a rite of summer every year.
This is the magnificent gift Jean has given Lexington.
“The Festival is a great source of pleasure for us,” she told me in 2009. “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.”