In 1974, when he was 10 years old, Sam Karr attended the very first Festival of the Bluegrass. The event triggered a sense of involvement that would bring him back — year after year and, eventually, decade after decade — to what would become Central Kentucky’s longest running bluegrass gathering.
That was until COVID-19 wiped the festival out in 2020. By then Karr was a successful promoter and organizer, with business partner Rick Greene, of his own bluegrass events, including the five-day SamJam in Piketon, Ohio.
When it became known that COVID-caused derailments had prevented the Cornett family, the independent organizers for the entire history of the Festival of the Bluegrass, from continuing it, Karr and Greene offered a solution.
They’d start a new festival at the same time (the second weekend of June), the same place (the Kentucky Horse Park campground, home to the Festival of the Bluegrass since the early 1980s) and even some of the same performance names (including the veteran band The Seldom Scene.)
The new event, based on the old event, debuts this weekend at the Horse Park as Spirit in the Bluegrass.
“When I went to college I came back for the Festival of the Bluegrass,” Karr said. “When I started working after college, I made that weekend a part of my life. All of our friends and family did, too. To the last year when COVID took it down, we never missed it. It’s been a regular part of my life. That’s how special it is. I’m really invested in this.
“Did I ever think I would be in this position? No, I did not, so it’s gratifying in more ways than one, really, to see it back. I would have been thrilled if anybody brought it back. The fact that I’ve got a hand in it and can take what this meant to me and make it mean that to other people, is beyond gratifying.”
The arrival of Spirit in the Bluegrass means this will be the first mid-June weekend that live bluegrass music will take over the campground area of the Horse Park since 2019. Fans, especially of the former Festival of the Bluegrass, seem ecstatic.
“We knew this festival meant a lot to people,” Greene said. “We just didn’t know how much it meant. I mean, we’ve had people calling us crying, telling us how happy they are that this festival is coming back to the Horse Park. This music is special to the people in this part of the country, to the entire state of Kentucky. It matters. It’s the kind of music that’s off the beaten path from the mainstream. But to the people that follow it and the people that understand and love it, it’s important. And we’re seeing that in spades.
“This festival just couldn’t go away. It’s too important. The fact we’re bringing it back with the reaction we’re seeing is validating. It’s more than just two guys putting on a show. We’d like to make some money. Hopefully we’ll make some money. We hope it’s financially successful. But there is a bigger purpose here. We’ve got a responsibility to put on a good show, to establish a good program and create hopefully the kind of longevity that that the Festival of the Bluegrass enjoyed for decades.”
There are similarities between Spirit of the Bluegrass and the Festival of the Bluegrass, but make no mistake. This is a new event. That meant the challenge facing Karr and Greene was to present a festival that continued the feel and tradition of its predecessor while making adjustments to address the needs of the demographics that support the present-day festival climate.
“The place we started was the lineup,” Greene said. “We have The Seldom Scene, which will play on Saturday night. That was the traditional closer at the Festival of the Bluegrass. The Seldom Scene was synonymous with that festival. It was one of those things where we knew, ‘Look, if you’re going to have a bluegrass festival at the Horse Park, it would just about be a crime not to have the Seldom Scene there.’ So that’s where started.
“You’ll see a lot of the bands that are rich in bluegrass music history, that make sense to be there, are there. Then we have the Travelin’ McCourys (a more genre-expanding version of the traditionally savvy Del McCoury Band without father Del at the helm). It’s a mix of the traditional bands synonymous with the Festival of the Bluegrass along with some powerhouse newer bands that are going to electrify this crowd.”
“It’s difficult because you just don’t know, until you put it out there, how the response is going to be,” added Karr. “Some things you wonder about whether or not you do them. Other things, you say, ‘Well, if we’re going to survive in the future, we have to do this.’ You have to make changes. You have to get younger people through the gate. You have to get teens and college age kids out there. If you do the same thing year after year, your audience gets older and stops coming. You’re killing yourself. So there are some things we’ve done at SamJam that we think will add a little bit of flare. We’re going to have a beer garden. We’re going to have an LED screen. Our lighting is going to be a little bit different and upgraded. You might even see a fog machine.
“We’re just going to have fun. I think that’s the key thing – just having fun in the music. If you do that, everyone will like it. Is everybody going to love every band? No. But that’s just part of the festival experience – seeing new people, getting introduced to something you may not have seen in the past and putting it all together and at the end of the weekend and saying, ‘Wow. That was cool.’ That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Spirit in the Bluegrass
When: June 8, 9 and 10
Where: Kentucky Horse Park Campground
Tickets: $40-$300 at www.spiritinthebluegrass.com.
Spirit in the Bluegrass performance schedule
Thursday, June 8
6 p.m.: Lacy Creek
7:30 p.m.: The No Joke Jimmys
Closing: Hancock & Shouse
Friday, June 9
1 and 6 p.m.: Bluegrass Cardinals Tribute
2 and 7 p.m.: The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys
3 and 8 p.m.: Tim Shelton Syndicate with Ronnie Bowman
Closing: Authentic Unlimited
Saturday, June 10
1 and 6 p.m.: The Ben James Band
2 and 7 p.m.: The Goodwin Brothers
3 p.m and closing: The Seldom Scene
8 p.m.: The Travelin’ McCourys