WORTH THE TRIP
ROMP to Owensboro
Plan now to attend the world’s favorite bluegrass music festival
Ten years ago ROMP: Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival was just a fledgling fund-raiser for the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, but it has evolved into a bluegrass bonanza that is one of the most popular music festivals of its kind. Now fans come from around the country and even overseas to hear bluegrass music in the Bluegrass State, the birthplace of the genre.
There’s much to celebrate on the festival’s 10th anniversary.
This year approximately 25,000 lawn chair-toting bluegrass enthusiasts are expected to attend the family-friendly event held June 27-29 in Yellow Creek Park for some fast-pickin’, toe-tappin’ fun with headliner Merle Haggard. The audience has tripled since that first festival in English Park back in 2004, and that’s music to Terry Woodward’s ears.
Woodward, chairman of the museum board, has been involved in ROMP since its inception. He says it took years for the festival to really come into its own, and he pinpoints 2011 as the real turning point. That’s when organizers agreed it was time to pump up the volume.
“I don’t know how many (bluegrass) festivals there are in the United States, but basically they were all pretty much the same, just different locations,” says Woodward. “We just had another festival. There was nothing unique about it. We agreed to try something a little different to take this to the next level.”
They accomplished far more than they dreamed possible. Last September organizers walked away with the International Bluegrass Event of the Year Award, beating out 1,500 festivals held around the globe.
Here’s how they changed the face of the festival. They invited Americana and contemporary bluegrass bands that often meld bluegrass with other genres, like country, jazz, rock, and R&B, to make their ROMP debut. ROMP tacked “roots and branches” onto the festival name to reflect the inclusion of bands that weren’t 100 percent bluegrass 100 percent of the time.
In an effort to appeal to a younger audience without alienating current fans, organizers strategically selected the 2011 headliners—country music icon Emmylou Harris and Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. But the lineup also comprised edgy, young bands that gave the festival a fresh, funky sound, like the Punch Brothers and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
The Punch Brothers, a progressive bluegrass band, proved to be a big hit. Mandolin player Chris Thile (say THEE-lee) is known for his endlessly innovative picking, often at lightning speed.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African-American, old-time string band, were also a crowd-pleaser. Not only does fiddle player Rhiannon Giddens display a resplendent virtuosity on her instrument, she’s also got a talent for Appalachian flatfooting that inspires fans to try to copy her fancy footwork.
The new lineup was a huge success. Suddenly, 20-something hipsters were spreading picnic blankets and eating barbecue next to folks old enough to be their grandparents. The result was a multi-generational camaraderie that isn’t often found at music festivals.
The Punch Brothers and the Carolina Chocolate Drops return this year, but those who prefer pure, authentic bluegrass to all the genre-straddling will still hear plenty of it with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and the Grammy Award-winning Del McCoury Band. McCoury was handpicked by Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass himself, to join his Bluegrass Boys in the 1960s. McCoury and Lawson are both members of the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame.
Free workshops encourage musicians of all levels to bring their instruments and learn a few new licks from ROMP performers—a rare opportunity to jam with the best in the business.
International Bluegrass Museum
Bluegrass fans from around the world make pilgrimages to the International Bluegrass Music Museum in downtown Owensboro to learn about the birth of this unique genre and trace its evolution over the decades.
Visitors begin their bluegrass musical odyssey with “Big Mon,” an exhibit honoring Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, and his band, the Bluegrass Boys.
Artifacts such as instruments, vintage show posters, and clothing worn onstage by Monroe are exhibited throughout the museum.
Some may think bluegrass is as far removed from rock ’n’ roll as ducks are from donkeys, but the music that grew out of rural Kentucky in the first half of the 20th century influenced many early rockers that were geographically and culturally a world away. Monroe was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, and the statue awarded to him is on exhibit.
The Bluegrass Hall of Fame on the second floor honors the most respected names in bluegrass. Earl Scruggs, famous for mastering a three-finger picking style on the banjo, and Chubby Wise, who helped shape the sound of bluegrass fiddle playing, are just a couple of virtuosos in a pantheon of bluegrass champions.
Fund-raising efforts are under way for an International Bluegrass Music Center four blocks from the museum’s current location on Daviess Street. The space requires a $10 million renovation. Not only will the new facility have three times the exhibit space, it will also comprise a 1,000-seat concert hall, an outdoor concert plaza, a library, and teaching rooms. The opening is tentatively slated for late 2014.
Of course, the museum is best known for ROMP, but it does much more than throw a big party every year; it helps preserve the legacy of bluegrass music for future generations.
The International Bluegrass Music Museum
117 Daviess Street, Owensboro
(888) MY BANJO
Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday 1-4 p.m.(Closed January and February.) Admission $5 adults, $2 students, free age 6 and under. A complimentary shuttle transports ROMP ticket holders to the museum at no charge.
Runs June 27-29, at Yellow Creek Park, 5710 Highway 44, Owensboro. To purchase tickets, go online to www.rompfest.com. Camping is allowed at the park during the festival.
Where to stay
615 Salem Drive, Owensboro
3120 Highland Pointe Drive, Owensboro
Where to eat
The Miller House
301 E. 5th Street, Owensboro
Serves Southern-inspired fare in an elegant, historic home. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Friday, dinner only on Saturday and brunch on Sunday.
The Bill Monroe Homeplace
6210 Highway 62 East, Rosine
is where the founder of bluegrass music was born and raised. Rosine is approximately 40 miles south of Owensboro.
Western Kentucky Botanical Garden
25 Carter Road, Owensboro
admission adults $5, seniors $3, students $1.
For more info
Owensboro Daviess County Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 489-1131 or www.visitowensboro.com.