Owensboro sits, cradle-like, along a crook in the Ohio River in Western Kentucky. Indiana is across the river to the north, Nashville two hours south, and Bill Monroe’s homeplace just 30 miles southeast. It’s also home to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum, and ROMP (River of Music Party), now in its 15th year. So, it’s fair to say that it’s bluegrass country, and the folks who come to ROMP are more than fans, they are knowledgeable aficionados.
While the museum anchors the town’s vital riverfront, the festival is held at the 150-acre Yellow Creek Park on the town’s southern edge. It was evident from my first moments there that ROMP is a most accommodating, accessible, and friendly festival, with plenty of on-site camping and parking. While shuttles are available within the park, and trolleys to/from downtown, nothing on the site is more than a 7-10 minute walk away.
With this overview, here are my take-a-ways from this year’s ROMP.
Bluegrass, Bluegrass, Bluegrass
Fittingly, the festival was bookended by two of the most significant forces in bluegrass, and both are from Kentucky. Ricky Skaggs upholds the traditional, with an abundance of gospel. Whereas Sam Bush, who was at the forefront of sweeping changes in the genre some 40+ years ago, is the keeper of moving the genre forward, continuing to stretch it out. My only query: Is he always having that much fun doing it? Between them were plenty of younger musicians who are enthusiastically keeping the juices flowing while also putting their stamp on the music.
While the Travelin’ McCourys may not feature Del’s gravitas and mellifluous voice, everything else flows through their veins, with Ronnie’s vocals becoming stronger. Billy Strings comes across like a six-string gunslinger whose take on the music is at once straight ahead and ever so slightly psychedelic. How does he do it? The Barefoot Movement, recipient of IBMA’s 2014 Momentum Award, made tunes by Hendrix and the Beach Boys seem like part of the tradition. They are magical.
While definitely bluegrass-centric, the weekend was not “old and in the way.” I found it most interesting that John Hartford’s name was mentioned (and his music played) more often than Monroe’s. Hartford’s influence continues to reverberate.
Weekend Headliners: Alison Krauss and Rhiannon Giddens
Krauss, winner of 27 Grammys and 14 IBMA awards, became the first artist to sell out the festival — at 2 p.m. on Saturday ROMP had reached its 28,000 maximum allowed attendance. As Krauss took the stage, a hush came over the crowd, and she quietly held the audience in the palms of her capable hands. This was not an audience, it was a gathering of the faithful. Even the security detail, including extra deputy sheriffs, stood off to the side in spellbound appreciation. While she had a full band (not Union Station), my favorites were when she performed solo or with a small grouping around a single mic. The most moving moment came with “When You Say Nothing at All.” You could hear a pin drop.
The night before, Giddens, on the other hand, came out with fire in her eyes and a fierceness in her voice. She took hold of the audience by the lapels — and never let go. She rocked it out as I had not heard before, with the electric guitar pushing her forward in a determined manner. Her fiddle tunes unearthed forgotten histories and she used the banjo as an instrument to rail against oppression. To my suprise and delight, she also scatted, in a manner more rootsy than jazz. My high point was when Giddens used her operatically trained voice to infuse the overlooked gem “She’s Got You” with a near guttural wail that threatened to scorch the earth — an approach in contrast to those by Patsy Cline or Rosanne Cash. Afterwards, I had to make sure I could still breathe.
We Banjo 3: “We Need More Banjos”
I could tell from the outset that the crowd did not know what to make of this Irish band, and what kind of name is that, anyway? No one I spoke with had ever heard of them and openly wondered why such a band was even at the festival. I held my tongue, and merely said, “Wait, you’ll see.” The crowd was slow to form, their merch lay untouched. Not an auspicious beginning.
However, as the set progressed the crowd grew to an incredible size, and folks were moving and grooving. The tipping point came when they called out, “We need more banjos!” You see, this band’s four members have solved the conundrum of delivering both high-energy stage frolicking and great musicianship, a combination that satisfies both the mind and body. One that forces you to get up and dance, you’ve lost all free will. At the end of the set a buzz was in the air, and the line at the merch tent was by far and away the deepest of the weekend.
Surprise of the Weekend: “Michael Daves featuring Tony Trischka”
That’s how Daves and band were billed, and I was looking forward to seeing them both. However, I was not expecting to be enthralled by Daves’ embodiment of that high lonesome sound while not clinging to it. He’s a firebrand on guitar whose traditional take, if you listen carefully, has subtexts of the experimental, jazz and otherwise, and vocals with more than a hint of Roscoe Holcomb. Like any good maestro, Daves did not have to be the center of attention. His sound is constructed to let fellow musicians stretch out and fill those spaces with the many glories they have to offer. On this outing he put together what could easily be called a supergroup: Trischka on banjo, Jenni Lyn on mandolin, Mike Bubb on bass, and, drum roll please, Brittany Haas on fiddle. As spectacular as the rest of the group was, Haas, Live From Here and Dave Rawlings Machine alum, came close to stealing the show. It’s as though she sees the tradition from the inside out. (She’s also part of Hawktail, whose new album is one of my faves of the year.) What impressed me most was the way they were not trying to be impressive. They stole my heart and mind.
Now, the photos, which include some of folks not mentioned above, including a marvelous Parker Millsap. However, one thing the pictures do not reveal is it was hot hot hot that weekend. The hottest in decades.