ROMP is more than banjos & dulcimers. This isn’t your granddaddy’s bluegrass! Well, strike that. Actually, part of it is. But it’s also progressive, folksy bluegrass like “Wagon Wheel” that you can hear on Top 40 radio right now. In the 11 years since the River of Music Party (as it was originally called) began, folk music has become the fastest growing musical genre in the world.
“All we’ve got to do now is capitalize on that popularity, and those who made it popular,” says festival founder Gabrielle Gray. That is exactly the idea behind the name ROMP: Bluegrass Roots and Branches Festival – honoring the roots and celebrating the offshoots. You can take your granddad and he would feel right at home. But you can also take your 20-year old hipster cousin and your 10-year old kid and they will also have a blast. That may look strange on paper, but it makes perfect sense at ROMP.
In this feature article, Owensboro Living highlights this award-winning festival hosted right here in our own backyard at Yellow Creek Park June 25-28th.
“What we’re trying to do with ROMP is establish it as the go-to festival for the best emerging young musicians and pair that with the legends,” Gray says. It’s that pairing that makes ROMP truly unique. ROMP takes special effort to pay homage to the founding fathers of bluegrass in several ways, even giving the remaining first generation musicians public recognition on stage.
First of all, the lineup each year is a mix of traditional bluegrass pioneers, up-and-coming contemporary artists, and bands representing emerging genres. (Those would be the “branches.” We’ll get to them in a minute.)
Then, to kick off the festivities, all the first generation musicians who are still able to travel and play will be invited to the “Legends Jam” to be held at the museum on Wednesday night from 6-8 p.m. ROMP officially begins immediately following the “Legends Jam.”
Another reason that ROMP reaches out to the pioneers of bluegrass is to include them in “The Pioneers Project” video archive, which is being filmed at the International Bluegrass Museum. So far, the museum has filmed interviews with 268 out of the 270 original bluegrass band members.
The pioneers who can make it to ROMP will also perform together on stage Thursday when the museum staff unveils this year’s hall of fame plaques.
Right in their midst – literally at their feet – will be the new students at the museum, known as “The Kentucky Bluegrass All-Stars.” The Bluegrass Museum’s “house band” is composed of new beginners who are learning an instrument by taking lessons at the museum on Saturdays. Since the lesson program started in 2005, over 3,500 students have participated. Each year at ROMP, the All-Stars get a chance to perform a song on stage. It’s the museum’s way to regenerate those roots by bringing new players into the fold.
Attracting a younger crowd is as equally important to ROMP organizers as paying tribute to the forefathers of bluegrass. One of the first things Gray did to grow the festival was to form a street team mostly comprised of college students. “I simply asked them what bands they thought were cool. Who would you and your friends love to see?” Gray explained. Once the “wish list” was formed, they got on the phone and started inviting those bands.
That kind of forward thinking has helped ROMP grow from the beginning. Gray knows what she’s doing. She coordinated another festival before coming to the International Bluegrass Museum, so when she came to Owensboro, she brought that experience with her, plus a few new ideas. In its early years, the “River Of Music Party” drew crowds of up to three to four thousand fans.
The festival got a major boost in 2010, when Gabrielle proposed the idea to broaden the scope by changing the name to “ROMP: Bluegrass Roots and Branches Festival,” rounding it out with jam bands, more big-name acts, and several lesser known bands that had a strong following of younger fans. With that approach, attendance grew from 4,000 in 2009 to 15,000 in 2010.
This year, Gray is implementing another new idea to attract college students: anyone enrolled in a university or college that has a focus for Americana or folk music can come to ROMP for free, provided they bring their instrument. The goal is to attract a large core group of young established musicians, because that’s what will sustain ROMP in the future.
“We want the brightest and the most talented up-and-coming musicians to fall in love with ROMP,” Gray says. “We want them here, and we especially want them to meet new friends and play with other musicians while they’re here.” Hopefully, those students from all over the country will go back to their campuses and tell all their friends about ROMP so the word keeps spreading.
By changing the name and broadening the focus, ROMP has greatly widened its audience. With the worldwide surge in popularity of folk acts like Mumford & Sons and Old Crow Medicine Show (who is playing this year!), ROMP truly has struck gold.
Ask anyone who’s been to ROMP and they’ll tell you there’s nothing like it! That’s music to the ears of festival organizers, who work extremely hard to make ROMP a one-of-a-kind experience. The result is a premier music festival that has become a fan favorite to thousands of folk, roots, Americana, and Bluegrass fans that can’t wait to return year after year.
“There is no one who isn’t happy at ROMP,” says Katie Keller, who’s been to ROMP five times. “It’s such a positive, fun atmosphere. I just love being there.” Keller now works in marketing for the International Bluegrass Museum and gets a behind the scenes perspective into the work and planning that it takes to make ROMP so memorable. Now she says it’s one of her favorite weekends of the year and she wouldn’t miss it.
She’s not alone.
“I get excited about seeing my favorite bands, but my greatest excitement is getting to watch all the enjoyment that everyone else is having,” says Chris Langdon, who works at the Bluegrass Museum and volunteers every year at ROMP. “Knowing that we’ve all worked together to put on this event and then seeing people show up from near and far to enjoy it is the best feeling! It’s just great!”
ROMP is not just about the bands on stage. Impromptu jam sessions that spontaneously spring up are a trademark of bluegrass and folk festivals. Several bands have actually evolved out of chance meetings and jam sessions at the festival. (King’s Highway and Brotet for example.)
The “After Party” is another great tradition at ROMP. Each evening, following the performances on the main stage, the party continues with more bands playing on the front porch in the Pioneer Village section of the park.
Between the main stage, the jam sessions, and the after party, you literally can hear music somewhere in the park around the clock.
As an added bonus, free workshops are offered throughout the weekend, covering everything from instrument lessons, to songwriting, clogging, square dancing, yoga, and health seminars. The workshops have gotten more and more popular over the years and now have become one of the most sought-after features of the festival. Several of the world class musicians who perform on the main stage will present workshops, offering fans a truly up-close-and personal experience to learn from the masters.
Fred and Danielle Hillebrand coordinate the children’s area and oversee a team of twenty volunteers who provide activities for children, including puppet shows, storytelling, art projects, and a huge slip n’ slide.
It takes a lot of dedicated people to make ROMP such a great event year after year. The Daviess County Parks Department works incredibly hard to mow the grass, spray for mosquitoes, take the trash away, and keep the park beautiful. EMTs, Yellow Ambulance, and Thruston Dermont volunteer firemen are always on hand to keep everyone safe and handle parking. Area chefs provide the food. Corporate sponsors love to bring their employees and friends to enjoy the festivities as well. It truly is a community event.
To accommodate the growing crowds, the county is building a permanent, covered stage that should be ready for ROMP 2015. There is plenty of room to grow, but Gray says they plan to cap tickets sales if attendance grows to 10,000 per day consistently.
“We want it to be a good experience for everyone,” Gray explains. “We want to keep it manageable. It’s less comfortable over 10,000 and it becomes more about making money and less about the experience at that point. The way it is now, you can work your way up to the front if you want, or you can set up a chair toward the back of the crowd or even set up a canopy along the very back if you want shade. You couldn’t do that if there were 20,000 people. We also couldn’t park them all. There are several key elements that we want to keep nice. Parking proximity is one, and also the other amenities like hand washing stations and really good food.”
All of those elements are what make ROMP stand out above other festivals. The extra attention by the volunteers and staff makes a huge difference. There is also something for everybody; from the family atmosphere to the late night after party, from traditional bluegrass to progressive bands, and everything in between. No matter what you’re looking for, ROMP has it.
It’s a winning combination, and anyone who has experienced it is glad to share their little secret and invite you to join them. Gabrielle Gray put it this way: “Creating an entire music scene in a park setting that lasts several days, is all-intensive, and has really good players from all over the world … what could be better?”
A ROMP fest love story
Bluegrass musicians are known for the heart and soul behind their music, so it’s no surprise this passion is passed from the musicians on stage to the heart “strings” of those around them. Many of you have undoubtedly felt the magic of ROMP, or have heard from others the joy this music can instill in your soul.
For past ROMP attendees Isaiah and DeAnna King, this joy pulled them together and formed what is now a beautiful harmonic marriage.
Their story is sweet and organic; having mutual friends and both attending ROMP, it seems like they were destined to meet.
“We had just set up camp and were all hanging out when I first saw him,” she explained, “I thought, ‘he has a really nice smile and energy.’”
Hanging out during the festival, the couple realized just how much they had in common. It didn’t take long until they knew they were made for each other.
“We got married in the same spot that we first set eyes on each other less than five months after we met.”
Great taste in music, a drive for life, and a spiritual connection that continues to bring them closer together has provided Deanna and Isaiah with a lifetime of happiness and a foundation as they create their new life together in Colorado.
Open your hearts to the possibility of love this June, and join the fun at ROMP fest!
-Submitted by ROMP Festival
For a full schedule and lineup visit www.rompfest.com or call 270-926-7891.
To get a glimpse: start by watching the video for “Satisfied” by the Boston Boys. All the color shots were filmed live at ROMP. All artists who are playing this year have videos on the ROMP website by clicking on “lineup.”
Advance weekend passes are available online or at IBM. Price goes up June 15th.
Wednesday, June 25 – $15
Thursday, June 26 – $45
Friday, June 27 – $50
Saturday, June 28 – $55
[tw-divider]Award-Winning Event: [/tw-divider]
Kentucky Travel Industry “Top 10 Kentucky Festival or Event”
Southeast Tourism Society “Top 20 Events in the Southeast”
2012 IBMA Event of the Year (International Bluegrass Music Association) award out of over 1,500 festivals.
2013 Governor’s Award for the Arts