A Tale of Two Bluegrass Festivals

Recap ROMP, and what to look for at Bluegrass in the Park Festival.

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

Here in the Tri-State, we are fortunate to be near such a stellar festival, where attendance typically exceeds 20,000 and this year topped 24,000. The license plates on RVs and vehicles parked on the grounds at this year’s ROMP revealed that people traveled from across the country to be at the event.

Photo of Peter Rowan and band by Art Woodward

By design, there were many types of bluegrass music presented, from the traditional bluegrass music of The Earls of Leicester — a Grammy-Award-winning ensemble led by Jerry Douglas, whose very specific catalog consists only of Flatt and Scruggs music from the years between 1954 and 1965 — to the genre-bending stylings of Keller Williams and his current “Grateful Grass” tribute to Jerry Garcia; to Peter Rowan, a bluegrass and folk music legend; to Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, an act that fuses many different music genres; to Country Gongbang, a bluegrass quintet from South Korea who sing in their native tongue; to Molly Tuttle’s flat picking; to … With 26 acts, there are far too many to acknowledge here. Check out the entire lineup at www.rompfest.com.

A note about Miss Molly Tuttle. Halfway through her set, she announced that she has alopecia, as she removed her wig to play the rest of her set, sans hair. Her bold message was honest, touching, and, I am sure, helpful for people who have this autoimmune disease.

The aforementioned Jerry Douglas, considered by most to be the top Dobro and lap steel guitar player in the world, should have been awarded the “hardest working musician at ROMP” trophy, 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 witness these one-of-a-kind performances is during the after party that follows the last main-stage performance of the night. If you can stay awake for it, (the second band on Friday night strikes up at 1:30 am), it’s well worth sleeping in the following day.

ROMP is the major fundraising arm of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum, also in Owensboro. The museum does an excellent job of bringing festival goers into its impressive facility by providing free daily shuttles to and from it. There were performances in the lobby, and discussions with ROMP artists at the Woodward Theatre. The museum offers a visual and audio history of bluegrass music through the life of Bill Monroe and currently features a Jerry Garcia exhibit that reveals the influence bluegrass music had on The Grateful Dead.

ROMP offers many workshops during the day, where ROMP artists show attendees 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 that provides children with a free harmonica, plus a fun lesson on how to play it.

I attended my first ROMP in 2012, which was the same year I started going to another local fest: Bluegrass in the Park Folklife Festival in Henderson, Kentucky. This free festival runs Aug. 9-10, and the lineup is always exemplary. Up-and-comers are often booked at the start of their career, and with 36 years under its belt, Bluegrass in the Park attracts A-listers, too. For instance, in 2016, a young Billy Strings played the fest, and 21 years before that (in 1995), the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, graced the stage.

Besides showcasing awesome live bluegrass music, the festival has unique, family-oriented activities, such as a traditional bluegrass instrument “petting zoo,” embroidery, crochet, and other demonstrations; plus, for the little ones, crafts and a children’s harmonica workshop.

While there is no camping at this festival, the music starts early and lasts until after 10 p.m.

As I stretch and yawn, I notice out my window that the sky has gone from black to cobalt blue. The sun has not yet peeked over the horizon, but its promise is evident. Sleepy-eyed, I sign off with acoustic roots music still playing in my mind.

Art the dude

Be sure to read Art the dude’s piece on Evansville as a bluegrass music connector, in the July/August 2024 issue of Evansville Living.

Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti joined Tucker Publishing Group in September 2022 as a staff writer. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelors degree in English. A Connecticut native, Maggie has ridden horses for 15 years and has hunt seat competition experience on the East Coast.

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