Spirit in the Bluegrass celebrates 50 years in Kentucky

Authentic Unlimited at Spirit in the Bluegrass 2024 – photo courtesy of the festival

June 6-8 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first Festival of the Bluegrass at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. The original festival began in 1974 at Walnut Hall Farms as a vision of Bob and Jean Cornett, and featured J. D. Crowe, Ralph Stanley, and Bill Monroe. Over the years, the festival moved to Masterson Station Park before ultimately returning to its home at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Festival of the Bluegrass ran for forty-six straight years with the Cornett family at the helm until it hit a three year hiatus at the beginning of the pandemic. Though the future of the Festival of the Bluegrass may have looked dark for a brief stent, it returned in 2023 with brand new owners and a brand new name. Sammy Karr, who attended that very first festival in 1974 when he was ten years old, teamed up with Rick Greene, the promoter of the Sam Jam Bluegrass Festival in Piketon, Ohio, to resurrect this timeless, well-loved  event.

“This was a festival that could just not go away. It means so much to so many people, we believed there was a responsibility to continue a festival in this important place,” Karr said. “There have been a lot of traditional festivals that have struggled or gone under in recent years. It was important to us that this one not be added to the list.”

Since its return, Spirit in the Bluegrass has done quite the opposite. The newfound connection with Sam Jam has brought about new growth for both festivals with Sam Jam fans coming down for Spirit of the Bluegrass, and Kentucky audiences heading up to Ohio for the sister festival.

“We have a model from SamJam that has worked for us, both in terms of creating environments that are pleasing to fans and artists, but that also creates a financial architecture that can lead to longevity. The first thing was to stabilize this festival financially, and we’ve done that, Rick Greene said. This year’s lineup at Spirit of the Bluegrass is sure to have all fans in question a buzzin’, and excited to attend both festivals in the future. 

The festival kicked off on Thursday with performances from Hancock and Shouse, Williamson Branch, Rounders Station, and Mashhrass. The highlight of Thursday’s lineup was a tribute to the legendary J. D. Crowe, who played at the first Festival of the Bluegrass with his band The New South, and was practically a Lexington local himself hailing from just down the road in Clay City. The Red Slipper Lounge Tribute band led by Matt Phelps nodded to J. D.’s Kentucky Mountain Boys whose home base was the Red Slipper Lounge at the Holiday in right there in Lexington.

“It’s been important to us from the beginning to pay homage to the history of the Festival of the Bluegrass, while also putting our stamp on it. That’s why a tribute to J. D. Crowe made sense, that’s why the Seldom Scene makes sense, and we hope people understand our respect for what’s been done here is boundless,” said Greene. 

The Seldom Scene’s set paying tribute to their Live at the Cellar Door album took place Saturday, along with fiery performances from Appalachian Road Show, Drivin’ 23, the Amanda Cook Band, and a reunion of the original edition of Sideline featuring Steve Dilling, Kyle Windbeck, Skip Cherryholmes, Troy Boone, Bailey Coe, and Daniel Greeson that lit the crowd up with undeniable levels of energy and excitement. 

Friday’s lineup featured Tidalwave Road, Authentic Unlimited, the Tim Shelton Syndicate with special guest Ronnie Bowman, Dailey & Vincent, and the Goodwin Brothers. The most heartfelt and genuine part of Friday’s schedule was undeniably the Terry Baucom tribute led by Authentic Unlimited. They performed songs from several bands Bauc was a member of, including Boone Creek, IIIrd Tyme Out, Lou Reid, Terry Baucom & Carolina, and focused especially on his work with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. Jamie Dailey even came up to do a couple songs with Authentic Unlimited during the set. 

“This had the feel like the old Lexington shows,” Karr said. “The crowds were electric, the campground was filled with jam sessions, and the bands fed off all the positive energy that was here. From the time we started the festival, this is what we wanted.”

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About the Author

Ellie Smith

Ellie Smith is a recent high school graduate from Wilkes, NC, for whom writing and bluegrass are two top passions. She loves to write research and biographical papers about bluegrass artists, broadcasters, and the history of the music. She is headed to ETSU where she will major in bluegrass production, and minor in creative writing. She has been accepted into the honors college for writing.