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A tale of two bluegrass festivals

A tale of two bluegrass festivals

It’s late, very late, on Saturday night, June 29, 2024. I’ve just gotten home from a long weekend at ROMP, the four-day bluegrass festival in Owensboro, Kentucky. I’m in dire need of catching up on some much-needed sleep, but here I sit: fingers on the keyboard, MacBook screen casting an eerie glow around me. I have a few days to write this review, but I feel the need to capture the essence of what I experienced now.

Here in the tri-state area, we are lucky to be close to such an outstanding festival that normally attracts over 20,000 attendees. The license plates of the RVs and vehicles parked on site at this year’s ROMP showed that people had travelled from all over the country to be part of the event.

Photo by Peter Rowan and band by Art Woodward

Many types of bluegrass music were deliberately presented, from the traditional bluegrass music of the Earls of Leicester – a Grammy-winning ensemble led by Jerry Douglas whose very specific catalog consists only of music by Flatt and Scruggs from 1954 to 1965 – to the genre-bending style of Keller Williams and his current “Grateful Grass” tribute to Jerry Garcia; to Peter Rowan, a bluegrass and folk legend; to Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, an act that blends many different genres of music; to Country Gongbang, a bluegrass quintet from South Korea singing in their native language; to Molly Tuttle’s flatpicking; to… With 26 acts, there are far too many to mention here. Check out the full lineup at www.rompfest.com.

A note about Miss Molly Tuttle. Halfway through her performance, she announced that she had alopecia and removed her wig to perform the rest of her performance hairless. Her brave message was honest, touching and, I’m sure, helpful to people suffering from this autoimmune disease.

The aforementioned Jerry Douglas, considered by most to be the best dobro and lap steel guitarist in the world, should have received the trophy for “hardest working musician at ROMP,” as he shared the stage with several other artists on the bill. ROMP is known for such unique pairings of musicians, and one of the best places to experience these once-in-a-lifetime performances is the after-party that follows the final main stage performance of the evening. If you can stay awake for that (the second band on Friday night plays at 1:30 a.m.), it’s worth sleeping in the next day.

ROMP is the primary fundraising arm of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum, also in Owensboro. The museum does a great job of bringing festival-goers to its impressive facility by offering free shuttles there and back daily. There have been performances in the lobby and discussions with ROMP artists in the Woodward Theater. The museum offers a visual and audio history of bluegrass music through the life of Bill Monroe and is currently featuring an exhibit on Jerry Garcia that shows the influence of bluegrass music on The Grateful Dead.

ROMP offers many workshops during the day where ROMP artists teach visitors how to play traditional bluegrass instruments. The Kid’s Zone features a water park and offers daily activities for the little ones as well as fun presentations. There is even a harmonica workshop where children receive a free harmonica and a fun lesson on how to play it.

I attended my first ROMP in 2012, the same year I started attending another local festival: the Bluegrass in the Park Folklife Festival in Henderson, Kentucky. This free festival takes place August 9-10 and the lineup is always exemplary. Up-and-coming talent is often booked at the beginning of their careers and with 36 years of experience, Bluegrass in the Park also attracts A-listers. For example, in 2016 a young Billy Strings played at the festival and 21 years before that (1995) the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, graced the stage.

In addition to showcasing great live bluegrass music, the festival offers unique family-oriented activities such as a traditional bluegrass instrument petting zoo, embroidery, crochet and other demonstrations; and for the little ones, there are arts and crafts and a children’s harmonica workshop.

Although there is no camping at this festival, the music starts early and lasts until after 10pm.

As I stretch and yawn, I notice from my window that the sky has turned from black to cobalt blue. The sun hasn’t peeked over the horizon yet, but its promise is clearly visible. Sleepy-eyed, I say goodbye, acoustic roots music still playing in my head.

Type of type

Be sure to read Art the Dude’s article about Evansville as a vehicle for bluegrass music in this month’s issue. Evansville Living Magazine (July-August 2024).