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    Each year, hundreds of bluegrass lovers converge upon Owensboro’s Yellow Creek Park to spend three and a half days basking in the sound of bluegrass music and the summer getaway vibe of a four-night camping trip.

    This years River of Music Party - better known as ROMP Fest - was an adventure on its own. Headlined by the likes of John Prine, Punch Brothers, Del & Dawg and The Lone Bellow, the festival faced its share of challenges at the hands of mother nature.

    Thursday, the first full day of the festival, was faced with high heat and humidity, culminating in thunder and lightning overhead as The Lone Bellow played out a great set. I saw these guys play in Louisville a couple of months ago and I expected this one to be different, for a couple of reasons - the band spent about a half hour on stage before their set working on a sound check, so there was a kind of familiarity that had developed before they started their first song. I also took in the huge difference between the ROMP audience and the audience I stood in at Headliners. At ROMP, the range of ages spread all over the life cycle - kids hanging out with grandparents, groups of old and groups of young, etc - while the Louisville crowd was mostly 20-somethings, high energy with a beer in hand. The ROMP crowd was mostly laid back, all of those energetic listeners standing in front of the stage while the rest of the crowd lounged in the field, laid back and enjoying the set. [Note: If you haven't seen this band yet, you can catch them at this year's Forecastle.]

    The band came out with the same kind of energy that they performed with at Headliners, and somehow they connected with the starkly different audiences in the same way. As the set wound down, the storm developed further, leading festival officials to immediately postpone the last act of the night - Punch Brothers - while the skies threatened to break open.

    The threat of lightening ultimately led officials to cancel the rest of the night's’ shows, to the great dismay of rompers. But the thing about ROMP, I learned, is that nothing can stop it. Punch Brothers expressed their disappointment in not being able to play for fans, while Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen tried to salvage the night, playing a set near Pioneer Village - the host of each night’s after party shows - to a huge crowd. They played until the storm was literally right above them, threatening to fry their equipment and everyone standing too close.

    The next day, day three, was plagued by rain (though, this time lacking the dangerous lightning). Crowds still came out to the field in front of the main stage to hear their favorite bands play, taking it graciously when the weather forced sets to be postponed or cut short. Rompers stuck it out, even through the night’s after parties, with groups of people in late-night camping zones staying up until dawn.

    The last day of ROMP could be identified as the best day. Thursday’s unstoppable rain swept out of Owensboro and took the heat with it, leaving a cool and breezy, albeit muddy, park for rompers to enjoy. The crowd grew and the space in front of the stage became deeper and deeper in the time leading up to the night’s headliners - John Prine and Leftover Salmon. It was a great gift to bluegrass fans, after surviving a challenging few days.

    While the groups featured at ROMP Fest are vast - bluegrass bands hailing not only from the great state of Kentucky, but from places as far away as San Francisco and Sweden. Coming together, the groups formed a community that very much opened its arms to the festival’s guests. Featured musicians could jam with rompers in front of their tents and workshops took place every day, all day, to allow musicians to share their thoughts and lessons on playing guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and so many more instruments. Workshops also covered dance, singing and the ways we see the world.

    This four day festival is about more than bluegrass music, really putting focus on the community that surrounds bluegrass. It’s a community that just wants to sit outside and appreciate music for what it is. It’s a community that is incredibly open to a stranger joining the group. It’s a community that joins the youngest generations with the oldest, allowing them to share an experience (and let me say, I looked for kids who were acting miserable and I couldn’t find any). It’s the kind of community that is cool with ignoring your appearance and/or smell after three days of camping in the Kentucky summer.

    At the heart of this community is the International Bluegrass Music Museum, which has put on the festival for the last 12 years. The festival is the main fund-raising event for the Museum, which is housed in Owensboro and inducts new members every year - those members make up a portion of the bands that play the ROMP stage.

    You have about a year to pick up a guitar or a banjo and learn how to play so that you can show off for next year’s festival. Check out the festival’s website to see previous years’ lineups and listen to our Spotify playlist to get a taste of ROMP.


    Photos by Elliott Carter

    Michelle Eigenheer's picture

    About Michelle Eigenheer

    A Louisville transplant beginning to appreciate all the city's small things.

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