Kentucky ROMP Bluegrass Festival Turns 20

a bucket-list bargain

More than a ROMP in the park: 20th Kentucky ROMP Bluegrass festival is bucket-list bargain

It takes about 11 hours to drive to Owensboro, Kentucky from eastern North Carolina. Kentucky, where the grass is blue, the horses are fast, and the bourbon is abundant (or so we’re told). The drive is just a smidgen longer than a trek south to Disney World, but Kentucky fiddling is faster than any roller coaster, and the music is . . . magic. 

To get on the lineup of the ROMP (River of Music Party) festival, hosted by the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum, requires at least 10,000 instrument practice hours and a swig of Preparation-Meets-Providence potion that is stronger than any corn cooked up in a still. So by comparison, a leisurely 11 hour drive seems like a bucket list bargain. For eastern NC adventure planners, an overnight stop in Asheville breaks up the trip nicely, as does a gas fill-up at the Crossville, Tennessee Buc-ee’s, where brisket and bathrooms (not to be outshined by 120 gas pumps) are as abundant as Kentucky bluegrass.

Attendance over the four days of the festival was right at 24,000. The approach to the festival site ate Yellow Creek Park is rural, with modest homes springing up like dandelions alongside cows grazing on grass that (reality-check) appears green to experienced Greenville eyes that should know.

Apparently the term “bluegrass” (for ground cover, anyway) came about due to early settlers looking out on fields of Poa Pratensis in Kentucky, with seed heads that take on a purplish hue. In the sun the grass looked blue-green.

Owensboro is proud to lay claim to Bill Monroe, considered the Father of Bluegrass, who was born on a farm in Rosine, Kentucky, less than 40 miles southeast. The whole music genre has Monroe to thank for naming his band the Bluegrass Boys in 1938 after his home state. He described the music as “Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin’. It’s Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It’s blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound.”

The Purple Hulls photo by Donna Davis

And to the festival planners’ credit, the ROMP lineup managed to check all those boxes. The Nashville-based McCrary Sisters took attendees to church for sure, shoutin’-and-singing-stay-a -while Holiness style. Between Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent and the Purple Hulls, surely all the other denominations were covered, as they slipped gospel numbers into their sets. Plenty of “ole-time fiddlin” (and some new-time too) was heard from the likes of Ketch Secor in Old Crow Medicine Show, and from IBMA fiddler of the year Bronwyn Keith-Hines, from the Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway bands, along with others. While the chanter and drone of Scottish bagpipes might not have made an appearance per se, certainly bands like New Orleans’ Tuba Skinny covered a lot of instrumental territory, including brass and washboard. Celtic influence was discernible in many of the sets, so much so that Peter Rowan even commented on it from the stage.

Bronwyn Keith-Hines photo by Donna Davis

In its 20th year, ROMP organizers went to great lengths to make the festival family-friendly, selling no alcohol and giving extraordinary attention to a lineup of activities especially for kids. Everything from making flower crowns to wear during the festival to build-your-own 5 string banjo from recycled materials, and being wowed by the youthful Bluegrass Brothers Band.

The Daviess County venue, Yellow Creek Park, features a stocked fishing lake with hiking trails, picnic shelters, playgrounds, along with disc golf and pickleball courts. The Jim Lambert Pioneer Village on the grounds was called into service as the location for artist workshops and after-hours music and dance, with musicians performing from the porch of a historic cabin.

Recognizing that performances extended into the wee hours (not even counting campsite jamming), campers joked that a “disco nap” was necessary. That’s the term for a “short sleep” during the day, but is easier said than done when enthusiastic pickers get cranking.

The Infamous Stringdusters may have verbalized the sentiment of many ROMP performers when they said, “There’s something about playing bluegrass type music in Kentucky.”  The band that is described as “progressive acoustic/bluegrass” added, “You have to put the word ‘type’ after it when you follow Ricky Skaggs. Now that’s bluegrass music.” 

Ricky Skaggs introduced his band, Kentucky Thunder, with, “There ain’t a one of ‘em from Kentucky, but they’d like to be.” He summarized his diverse career by saying, “We got out of the wilderness of country music into the promised land of bluegrass.”

After kicking off his set with “Roll in my Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “Appalachian Joy,” Skaggs said, “We’ve done two songs already. It’s time for a Stanley Brothers song: they’re part of the Mount Rushmore of bluegrass.”

Growing up on a cattle farm in nearby Bowling Green, Sam Bush had an ample repertoire of venue-appropriate material, including a song that spelled out K-E-N-T-U-C-K-Y, reminiscent of Tammy Wynette’s song of marital divide.

Even though headliners on the large outdoor stage likely prompted ticket sales, some of the ancillary events on the schedule offered the most memorable, intimate performances. The Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame Museum in downtown Owensboro hosted bands in the lobby and theater early in the day and a free shuttle provided transportation from the park. Attendees were able to get so close, one was even able to compliment Rhonda Vincent on her dress and she responded, “Thanks, I just got it.”

Kris Truelson photo by Donna Davis

On Friday, Bristol Radio’s Farm and Fun Time show was taped live from the museum’s Woodward Theater. The show is normally taped live once a month in Bristol, Tennessee and began in 1946. “This is the first time we’ve taken ‘Farm and Fun’ on the road,” program director Kris Truelsen said. Truelson’s retro-style band, Bill and the Belles, serve as host and perform songs and custom old-timey jingles for the program’s sponsors, around guest performances. Guests were the McCrary Sisters and Peter Rowan’s band. 

The McCrary Sisters sang songs like “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “The House of the Rising Sun” with a powerful organ keyboard sound and full instrumental backup. “I’ll take you there” was another lively number introduced by one of the sisters, promising, “We’re going to take you to heaven with us.”

As they left the stage, Truelsen said, “How do you follow that? I know. With a Toyota jingle.”

Peter Rowan, who was a Bluegrass Boy in Bill Monroe’s band in the 1960s, opened (appropriately) with “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”

Peter Rowan photo by Donna Davis

Rowan said that a journalist once asked Bill if he didn’t think Elvis Presley made a travesty of “Blue Moon.” He responded, “No sir. Those were powerful checks.”

The ROMP schedule also included artist workshops held outdoors under a shelter with picnic tables. They covered a wide gamut, from instrument-specific classes to bluegrass jamming and songwriting. Ketch Secor participated in a Q&A where he talked about turning the 36 seconds of Bob Dylan’s unfinished recording into the ubiquitous hit, “Wagon Wheel.” He confessed that he listened to all of Dylan’s recordings, “including the bad ones.” He shared stories like the time when John Hartford visited his first grade class with his banjo case in hand and Secor was convinced a snake was curled up in the round part of the case.

Fans familiar with Secor’s frenetic performance style on stage with Old Crow Medicine Show may have been surprised to learn that he helped found a Christian school in Nashville. And that he etched on the back of his fiddle the names of the five children killed in the Covenant School shooting in Nashville earlier this year, feeling passionate about the cause of keeping children safe.

By definition, the festival’s name refers to “energetic play,” aptly describing the performances as well as the festival’s family fun. “It’s a good verb: ‘romp,’” Paul Hoffman from Greensky Bluegrass declared from the stage. The mandolin player who appeared to have come to Owensboro by way of Nazareth added, “If you look it up in the dictionary, there’s a picture of you all dancing.”

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Originally published in the Daily Reflector June 8, 2023.

Rhonda Vincent photo by Donna Davis