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ROMP Marks Twenty Years Of Bluegrass Synergy In Owensboro

Alex Morgan Imaging/ROMP
Tuba Skinny from New Orleans brought a traditional jazz flavor to ROMP on Friday evening.

The sun went down through the trees at Yellow Creek Park east of Owensboro, KY last Friday evening. A crescent moon hovered near a beacon-bright Venus. And on the ground, while Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder shot sixteenth notes like roman candles, a small parade. About a dozen figures emerged like wood nymphs wearing gossamer fabric lit from within by tiny LED lights, carrying bedazzled jellyfish umbrellas, butterflies, and vaguely aquatic creatures on poles. They danced through the thrumming crowd, making a couple of orbits before parading on to somewhere else, perhaps a glade in the Kentucky countryside. But I’m willing to allow for the possibility that these were ordinary ticket buyers finding their own way to express what a good time they were having.

This was the moment that ROMP came into focus for me - an epiphany made of music, setting, people, light, and sound. I was back among the southern roots music festy people I’ve grown so fond of over the years - the working folks, the nymph people, the Deadheads, and the local high school kids hanging and selfie-taking. While one mark of a traditional bluegrass festival is folding chairs lined up from the front of the stage, ROMP is arranged for revelers up front, while the chairs start about 20 yards back. It fosters a truce between the dancers and the recliners, and while temporarily reclining, I watched a motley mix come and go - not racially diverse alas, but all kinds of weird white people, me among them. I was struck by a cute little girl with a high capacity bubble gun on the shoulders of her tie-dyed dad, who was dancing next to a US flag tank top guy with a Punisher skull tattoo on his calf. It was a collection of Americans without a lot in common but a fondness for roots music and a good hang.

While it got its name 20 years ago, ROMP carries on a tradition of bluegrass gatherings in Owensboro that goes back to at least the 1980s. Its mission is to raise money for and awareness of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum a few miles away on the city’s riverfront. In that respect, ROMP marks a confluence of interests and agendas - a cultural institution, a grand musical genre whose founding father was born just down the highway, and a city remaking its identity for a new century.

ROMP 2023 marked its major anniversary with “very strong” attendance and sponsorship support according to Executive Director Chris Joslin. News was made as well, with the announcement of the most ambitious exhibit yet planned for the Bluegrass Museum, a February 2024 showcase about the bluegrass life and legacy of Grateful Dead guitarist (and accomplished banjo player) Jerry Garcia. That is likely to coax many thousands of first-time visitors to make the journey to this musical but somewhat out-of-the-way place.

Alex Morgan Imaging/ROMP
Molly Tuttle picks guitar with banjo player Kyle Tuttle and fiddler Bronwyn Keith-Hynes on Thursday night at ROMP.

Owensboro, a small city of 60,000, prospered a century ago as a traffic hub on the Ohio River, so it’s home to some dazzling classical buildings and mansions. It started to seize its modern day destiny as a bluegrass hub when it welcomed and facilitated the formation of the International Bluegrass Music Association in 1986. That led to the first World of Bluegrass convention in 1987 and a new Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum a couple of years later. World of Bluegrass moved on to Louisville, then Nashville and now Raleigh, NC, but the flame never went out. A local event called Bluegrass Blast got the town through the 90s, and that begat ROMP - an acronym for River Of Music Party - in 2003.

ROMP wasn’t on the river for long. In the mid 2000s, the event moved to its current location in Yellow Creek Park, which has built capacity for campers and RVs over the years, and it felt like about half of the audience stays on site. But what really catapulted ROMP beyond its aging audience and local status, say participants, was the museum’s longtime director Gabrielle Gray, who steered a makeover of the festival in 2011.

“2011 was a light switch moment. ROMP never looked back,” says the event’s former marketing director Danny Clark from his current home in California. “I think they just kept putting on the same festival, and it was attracting the same crowd, and it wasn't growing.” Gray and the board, he says, realized something needed to change, so with the help of banjo star Pete Wernick, ROMP was able to recruit Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers as an anchoring act. “The moment that happened, the ability to foster headliners changed immediately,” Clark said.

That new lineup philosophy reached beyond traditional bluegrass to the kind of roots and branches idea that’s fueled perennials like Merlefest and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. From the heart of the music the fest has repeatedly presented the Del McCoury Band, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, The Earls of Leicester, and Larry Sparks. Jamgrass fans heard regular appearances by the Infamous Stringdusters, Yonder Mountain String Band and Leftover Salmon. The festival was on to Billy Strings before his rise to arena-scale fame. Alison Krauss headlined in 2018. The posters from the past decade are a who’s who of today’s coolest Americana artists, and it might be easier to name cool artists that haven’t played ROMP than those who have.

Bigger crowds begat bigger sponsorships and an overall synergy that galvanized interest in the region’s bluegrass heritage, said Chris Love, chairman of ROMP since 2012. “What ROMP did was rally the whole community of Owensboro and Daviess County around this brand of music, and it became a signature event,” he says. “It just catapulted into all this enthusiasm, and we were able to build a $15.3 million museum on the riverfront. And I say without ROMP, that would just never have happened.”

I covered the opening of that new museum in the fall of 2018, a handsome landmark that anchors extensive development of the city’s river walk. The museum’s pitch to visitors centers around coming to northwest Kentucky to see the story of bluegrass through its collection, supplemented with a swing to the birthplace of Bill Monroe in the tiny town of Rosine about 40 minutes away.

Alex Morgan Imaging/ROMP
Andy Falco on guitar, jams with Andy Hall on dobro during the Infamous Stringdusters' Friday night set.

My ROMP experience began with an especially interesting drive to Owensboro, because the museum put out a call that Peter Rowan needed a ride from Nashville’s airport to the festival, and I chauffeured him. Rowan is one of last year’s new inductees to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame for his varied, adventuresome career connecting Bill Monroe’s original sound to world music and the jamgrass legacy of Garcia through their collaboration on the famous and influential Old And In The Way band. I was already set to interview Rowan on site for the Museum’s in-the-works Garcia exhibit, but our 2.5 hour car ride made for a bonus conversation that touched on new music books, Bob Dylan, Rowan’s brothers and his upcoming 81st birthday on the Fourth of July.

That got me to Yellow Creek Park after dark on Thursday, but well in time to see Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway’s 90-minute set. When I wrote last year about Tuttle’s breakthrough bluegrass album Crooked Tree and her new band of young Nashville hotshots, she was stepping into a new chapter of her career. Now after scores of shows across thousands of miles and a Grammy Award, Tuttle and band define today’s state of the art. They’ve got deep musical chemistry and virtuosity on every instrument, and on this evening fiddler Bronwyn Keith-Hynes was especially magnetic.

Friday’s lineup started with Bill and the Belles, the old-time country band from Bristol fronted by Kris Truelson of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, another roots music institution with a supportive festival, which I surveyed in 2021. Their locked-in harmonies and effervescent personality makes antique country music sound lively to unfamiliar ears. Then came a discovery for me in the Texas duo The Purple Hulls. Texan twin sisters Katy Lou and Penny Lea Clark offered rich alto vocals and exceptional picking on banjo, mandolin, and flatpicked guitar, along with fine original songs that tugged the heartstrings.

Speaking of heart, that’s about when the announcement was made to the crowd that bluegrass icon Jesse McReynolds had passed away at age 93. Director Joslin made some moving remarks and the crowd shared a long, contemplative moment of silence for the Grand Ole Opry mandolinist, himself an aficionado of Grateful Dead music. After a solid set of bluegrass music from the Slocan Ramblers (who I’m starting to think of as Canada’s 21st century Hot Rize), ROMP threw a nice curveball with a long golden-hour set by New Orleans trad jazz band Tuba Skinny. Bolstered by Todd Burdick’s sousaphone in the bass, the band swung Dixieland style with interlaced improvisation on clarinet, trombone and cornet, the latter played with particular grace by musical leader Shaye Cohn.

That set up the piledriving classic grass of Ricky Skaggs, always locked in, dynamic and capable of hyperspeeds. The set included classics “Uncle Pen” and “Highway 40 Blues,” but also adventuresome fiddling by Nashville’s Billy Contreras and guitar whiz Jake Workman, capped by a mournfully lovely mountain solo by Skaggs on “Over There” near the close of the set. The night’s final main stage performance came from jamgrass mainstays and ROMP veterans the Infamous Stringdusters. When all their assets are totaled - the instrumental virtuosity and group dynamics, the four-man arsenal of vocalists, the deep catalog of original songs - they’re simply the best in their class - a thinking person’s jam band.

Saturday’s early music included local bluegrass band Kentucky Shine, an area clogging troupe, deep tradition from Nashville’s David Peterson, and flinty Americana songwriter John R. Miller. Then came the friendly, holy-rolling funk of the McCrary Sisters, who sanctified the late afternoon amid more gorgeous sunlight. And then the set that told the deepest story for me this weekend - the bluegrass band of Peter Rowan. We’d spent 30 minutes that afternoon in a hot trailer talking about his collaborations with Jerry Garcia, but Rowan’s approach now leans more on his origins as a Blue Grass Boy in the 1960s with Monroe. The hall of famer harmonized with mandolinist Chris Henry and banjo player Max Wareham on the standard “Footprints In The Snow” and then dove into his own songbag with “Land of the Navajo'' with its mystic yodeling. And his famous “Midnight Moonlight” did indeed accompany “the setting of the sun.”

Old Crow Medicine Show burned 1,000 calories per hour per man in a fast-paced set that stirred the crowd’s dancing feet more than just about anybody else that weekend. Rowan’s musical soulmate and Kentucky son Sam Bush rounded out the festival’s main stage music with his signature roots/newgrass. And then those with the stamina made it over the elaborately lit bridge down in the hollow to the log cabins in the Pioneer Village where the late night stage ran every night from midnight until after 2 am.

Festivals are hothouses for roots music’s growth, an essential part of the ecosystem that keeps musicians working and fans discovering, and each one has its own personality. In a month that saw the cinematic grandeur of Telluride and the rustic intimacy of the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival in Tunbridge, VT, ROMP falls in between, with a balance of size and lineup power that’s hard to beat. And now, three years after the forced year off of 2020, ROMP hit its goals, according to its boss.

“It just felt like things clicked into place,” Joslin told me, adding that a first accounting saw more than 8,000 unique tickets sold. “And in terms of the setting, and the lineup, and the pace of it. And there was just such a spirit about it. And that's important, because that's why we want people to come to Owensboro - not just for entertainment. But we want them to come here and engage with something unique that's multi-dimensional. And it felt like we really got it right this year.”

Alex Morgan Imaging/ROMP
Peter Rowan performed with his bluegrass band on Saturday evening.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org