Article by Matt Wickstrom
Photos by Kim Blackburn
OWENSBORO, Ky. (July 9, 2018) – Persistent heat and unforgivable humidity couldn’t put a damper on the 15th annual ROMP Fest held at Yellow Creek Park outside of Owensboro, Ky. from June 27-30. Continuously gathering the best in bluegrass, old-time and roots music, the festival’s 2018 celebration featured headline and standout performances from Alison Krauss, Leftover Salmon, Billy Strings, Love Canon and others.
Missing earlier sets on Thursday from the likes of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, bluegrass state native Ricky Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder and others, I arrived just prior to Colorado music and ROMP veterans Leftover Salmon. The group opened their set with frontman Vince Herman singing about the state’s rolling hills and ever-flowing moonshine on “Kentucky Skies” before jumping into more from 2012’s Aquatic Hitchhiker such as “Liza” and the Drew Emmit led “Gulf of Mexico.” Later bassist Greg Garrison took the lead on “Analog,” a tune bursting at the seams with twang and a silky smooth groove. The group has developed an undeniable chemistry in their 25+ year lifespan as evidenced by taking over on lead vocals, but each member also has the ability to take command at ease on instrumentals, from Erik Deutsch’s finger dancing on keys to Alwyn Robinson’s “Drums and Space” -esque solos to Andy Thorn’s clawhammer picking, helping to elevate the group to the peak of a budding jamgrass music scene.
Lighting up late night Thursday (along with Pert Near Sandstone) and early Friday afternoon was Asheville, North Carolina’s Fireside Collective. The quintet of Jesse Iaquinto on mandolin, Tommy Maher on dobro, Carson White on bass, Joe Cicero on guitar and Alex Genova on banjo energized both crowds with a set that intertwined original compositions from 2017’s with energetic, upbeat covers of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and The Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band.”
Later Friday afternoon the double brother duo of Enda and Fergal Scahill and Martin and David Howley, better known as We Banjo 3, took to the main stage at ROMP with one of the most uplifting performances of the entire weekend of what the band dubs Celtgrass, a combination of bluegrass, traditional Irish and old-time music . The group had an unrivaled ingenuity and charm about them as they encouraged fans in the crowd to hoot and holler to show they’re enjoying the show “like a true Irishman.” Top performances from the set included the traditional, foot-stomping ballad “Little Liza Jane” and “Haven,” the group’s latest release.
Following We Banjo 3 was former Carolina Chocolate Drops frontwoman Rhiannon Giddens, who returned to the festival following a rousing performance at ROMP a year prior. Performing a diverse set of originals mixed with bouts of old fiddle tunes, helping to stretch the message of love and togetherness from We Banjo 3’s set further into the evening as attendees began to loosen up as the heat slowly receded.
Bringing Friday night to a close were The Travelin’ McCourys on the main stage followed by the rowdy Jeff Austin Band on the cabin. The McCourys, fresh off their debut, self-titled studio effort, wowed the crowd with their popular cover of Passenger’s 2012 pop chart-topper “Let Her Go” featuring the McCoury’s tight harmonies and expert picking. Following their set, fiddler Jason Carter, a Kentucky son, and mandolinist Ronnie McCoury surprised fans by joining the Jeff Austin Band at the cabin for a late night hoorah.
One of Saturday’s (and the weekend’s) grandest highlights was a scorching set from the frenetic Billy Strings. At the youthful age of 26, Strings has come a long way in a short amount of time. I recall seeing him for the first time at ROMP in 2015, where I was stirred from a mid-afternoon slumber to the sounds of Strings and mandolinist Don Julin. Fast forward to 2018 and Strings now heads his own band comprised of Billy Failing on banjo, Royal Massat on bass and Jarrod Walker on mandolin that I made sure not to make the same mistake of arriving at the stage late for his set again.
I wasn’t alone, with hundreds of others eagerly awaiting Strings and company under a brutal sun, but they weren’t the only ones feeling the heat. When Strings emerged, he and his band were all donning jean shorts, with Strings briefly wearing a novelty pair of sunglasses during opener and Bill Monroe cover “Rose of Old Kentucky.” Strings continued to perform a variety of material throughout his set, from the uplifting instrumental “Pyramid Country” to fan-favorites “Meet Me at the Creek” and “Dust in a Baggie” to a cover of The Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider,” with the crowd kicking up dust and singing along gleefully every step of the way. Strings closed his set with “On the Line,” the opening track from last year’s, a tune calling for people to live with happiness and joy rather than worry and fear, a strong message of positivity given the country’s current social climate.
Following Strings was yet another youthful up-and-comer in Parker Millsap, although the two artists musical styles contrasted, with Millsaps leaning more toward soul-drenched Americana rather than a blend of progressive and traditional bluegrass. Millsap performed a flurry of cuts from his new record, none more impressive than “Fine Line,” which showed off Millsap’s commanding, borderline deranged voice.
Strings’ and Millsap’s electrifying sets led to perhaps the weekend’s most anticipated performances in first-time romper Alison Krauss and festival staple and Western Kentucky bred Sam Bush. For Krauss, now post-Union Station, her ROMP performance wasn’t the first of it’s type at a Kentucky festival, having first made a name for herself in the 1980s as a teenager performing three hours west in Lexington at the long-running Festival of the Bluegrass. Krauss worked in an array of her musical catalog during her performance, opting to open with new compositions “River in the Rain” and “I Never Cared for You” off last year’s before turning back time on 1999s “Stay.”
Following Krauss’ and Bush’s epic back-to-back to close out the festival’s main stage activities, the celebrations went out with a bang over the river and through the woods on the cabin stage, where Charlottesville, Va., based bluegrass cover kings Love Canon helped to put an exclamation point on the weekend with a mix of twang-infused 1980s and 90s nostalgia. The group, comprised of Jesse Harper on guitar, Jay Starling on dobro, Adam Larrabee on banjo, Andy Thacker on mandolin and Darrell Muller on upright bass, have expertly crafted the songs in their repertoire, including Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie Eleison,” Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” and Men at Work’s “Down Under,” among others to fit their bluegrass mold, illustrating the band’s musicianship and creative prowess in reinventing old songs and making them new again.
After being away from ROMP in 2017 it was incredible seeing how the festival had grown in my first time away, capping attendance early on Saturday afternoon after 30,000 people converged on Yellow Creek Park to enjoy the festival’s final day. ROMP stamped its mark in year 15 as not just one of the region’s premier bluegrass festivals, but one of the best and most family-friendly festivals around, period. With a new Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum opening in downtown Owensboro in October, featuring a grand-opening performance from Sam Bush, the festival and surrounding area are not just making Owensboro a destination for ROMP, but a destination year-round for fans of bluegrass music in the Bluegrass state and beyond.
View a full gallery of Kim Blackburn’s photos from ROMP at Capture Kentucky.