The Festival of the Bluegrass has been an early summer ritual at the Kentucky Horse Park campgrounds for decades. But, this weekend fans of fiddles, banjos, mandolins, guitars, and upright basses will gather without the festival’s founder, Bob Cornett. Cornett died in April at the age of 89.
The founder’s idea for preserving bluegrass excitement can be witnessed this weekend in Lexington.
Kids gathered up under fabric canopies to hone their fiddling skills this week. More than 70 children, ages eight to 18, participated in the annual Kentucky Bluegrass Music Camp. Ian Hurd, 15, of Richmond is in his sixth year performing at the festival. He plays mandolin.
“Why do you like the Mandolin? Asked Stu Johnson
“It’s complicated and it sounds good, simple answer,” replied Hurd.
Hurd said instructors and staff at the camp are caring, truly enjoy music, and love participants. “They treat us well here. Like they feed us. Have games for us. And if you can hear in the background they teach us how to play some music," he said.
Another Richmond camper is Maddie McKinney, who says she’s now been part of the festival lineup for three years. She said her family has always played music. The camp setting suits her well.
“I like that you can just play music and have fun and no one judges you. You’re learning new things while playing music and stuff,” explained McKinney.
It’s a swan song of sorts for Beckie Hatton of Paris. She’s leaving the administrator post for the camp, which began in 2002. Hatton, who’s steeped in Bluegrass, playing most all the instruments, remembers founder Bob Cornett coming up with the idea for the camp.
“These children that will start out as beginners, then move on to intermediate and then they’ll move on to advanced and then they’re going to get too old to come to the camp. They’ll come back to the camp and teach, and that’s what’s happened. They’re coming back around again," she said, "and now the ones that were students a long time ago are now instructors.”
Vigil Bowlin, from Laurel County teaches at the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music in Hyden. But, this week, he’s served as instructor for fiddlers. He senses an uptick in bluegrass music, just not quite to the level when a popular movie, Oh Brother Where Art Thou hit the scene almost 20 years ago. “It’s not like it was after the Oh Brother movie came out, I don’t think. But, it’s right on the edge. And I don’t what the sparks going to be but next time there’s a spark, it’s going to blow up again I think. These things run in cycles,” said Bowlin.
Bowlin says he was raised in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, where bluegrass music is part of the Kentucky heritage.
Not everyone at the horse park has a long standing connection with bluegrass music. Julie Williams of Morehead had two children, 10 year old Andrew and 15 year old Morgan benefitting from instruction. She says her daughter’s interest in the banjo was not bluegrass related.
“Actually a band that we listen to called Mumford and Sons. It’s kind of a mainstream band, but they use the banjo in their music and she thought it was a neat instrument and starting learning from there,” Williams said.
Just a few feet away from the covered groups of camp musicians, music was occurring inside a trailer. Bailey Humphrey, 17, said she was attracted to the sound of the upright bass about eight years ago. Her eventual instructor Zach Yates told her if she could learn the notes of the strings he would teach Humphrey how to play. The Sadieville teenager said she came back with the right answer and he’s been her teacher ever since. Having an older brother who is an electric bass player was a big help.
“He would play the electric bass and I fell in love with in it. So, for one year for Christmas, they rigged up a toy bass and made it where I could plug it into an amp and actually play. So, I’ve been playing the bass since then, but the upright bass since I was like seven or eight,” said Humphrey.
Humphrey plays six other instruments including the flute, clarinet, and piano.
Her instructor Zach Yates is one of those one-time campers who has remained a part of the festival, now serving as education coordinator. The Shelbyville resident says he felt a strong urge to pass on what he’s gained from the experience year.
“When I was a kid someone helped me play. They taught me how to play and they help me at jams. They gave me tips on what to do and what not to do and how to do things better rather than doing it a certain way. And I just want to be that person for the kids,” Yates noted.
The 4-day bluegrass music event in Lexington traditionally opens with a performance by participants in the music camp. It’s a kickoff event for what can be the start of a lifelong love for the festival.
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