OWENSBORO, KY. — Around noon on the last Saturday of Gabrielle Gray’s long run as the founder and director of ROMP, this Ohio River City’s signature bluegrass music festival, a moment of pure love and remembrance unfolded unexpectedly.
Standing alone on the festival stage with her fiddle, Phoebe Hunt, one of the singularly great young artists that ROMP has featured in the last several years, prepared to open her set as a solo. A striking dark-haired woman, Phoebe paused. Her shoulders seemed to fall. She bowed her head, struggling to compose herself. But the weight of her tears became overwhelming. Glancing at Gabrielle, who stood offstage nearby, Phoebe mouthed “I love you,” and almost stumbled.
A few more moments passed before Phoebe gathered herself and started to play, the sound of her voice and fiddle like a halting lament. When she finished, Gabrielle strode to center stage and wrapped Phoebe in a big hug, a warm embrace of kinship and confidence, which is how Gabrielle always treats Phoebe and the other uncommonly talented millennial generation musicians who play ROMP.
All of them – The Rigs, 10 String Symphony, Luke Bulla, Vickie Vaughn, Sam Grisman, Sarah Jarosz, Billy Strings, Alex Hargreaves, and many others — are shaping the fresh, ascendant sound of bluegrass music. Settled at last, Phoebe was joined by the two other virtuoso members of her trio, mandolin player Dominick Leslie and cellist Nathaniel Smith, and performed the rest of her flawless and stylish set.
Tears of An Artist
There aren’t many music festivals, or festival directors for that matter, that are capable of inspiring a performer’s tears. ROMP is one of those festivals and so is Gabrielle, its founder and director for the past 12 years. The 2015 ROMP fest was Gabrielle’s last. With new leadership deciding next year’s lineup of performers there’s no assurance that ROMP’s internationally distinctive musical center — the cadre of prominent young bluegrass artists that Gabrielle has recruited and cultivated — will still be featured in Owensboro.
That’s what drew tears from Phoebe Hunt, the awareness that it wasn’t just one era that was surely ending — Gabrielle’s sensational run as a festival director. So might another — the place ROMP holds for the emerging stars of bluegrass to perform during the last weekend of June and gather as friends to catch up and jam together. ROMP is what this generation calls its “hang,” and has been as important to elevating young careers as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado was in the 1980s for Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien, Mark O’Connor, Stuart Duncan and other artists who are now some of the biggest acts in bluegrass, and all of American music.
“ROMP was the first place that I could come to spend time with great musicians and hear their music,” Eric Robertson, the lead singer and mandolin player for The Rigs, told me. In 2013, Robertson was joined by fiddle player Duncan Wickel, drummer Nicholas Falk, and bassist Josh Hari at their first ROMP, performing a festival-best set that mixed bluegrass, soul, and New Orleans funk at an after party attended by a throng of dancers.
The ROMP Hang
They returned to close the Thursday night lineup last year in an equally stunning set. This year, without new bassist Aaron Lipp, The Rigs played as a trio at a Tuesday night party and closed the Wednesday night festival opening. They were joined in the Wednesday set by Nathaniel Smith and Alex Hargreaves, who played a memorable fiddling duel with Duncan Wickel. The next day Phoebe Hunt invited The Rigs three to join her trio during a performance at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in downtown Owensboro.
“There was no place like that for me until ROMP,” Robertson said. “The generation before us had that and it made a big difference. It helped them to stay in touch. They could share their music.”
This year’s ROMP, which attracted over 25,000 people over its four nights and three days, was the best of the four that I’ve attended. The music is always superb, distinguished by Gabrielle’s instinct to join heralded artists — John Prine, Punch Brothers, David Grisman, Del McCoury, Hot Rize, and Sam Bush were headliners this year — with rising stars. Playing ROMP is recognized by all of the artists as a measure of prestige and accomplishment.
It was easy to see that in the joy that David Grisman and Del McCoury, hall of fame performers with decades of music behind them, made so apparent in their delightful set. And in the spellbinding, bring-the-people-to-their-feet performance by guitarist and singer Billy Strings and mandolin player Don Julin, who hail from my neck of the woods in northern Michigan and played their first ROMP on Saturday. It was the biggest crowd of their careers and Billy didn’t miss the chance to show off his picking and singing and stomping for a premier Kentucky bluegrass audience.
Billy should be invited back to ROMP. As should the quartet of Sam Grisman (bass), Dominick Leslie (mandolin), Nathaniel Smith (cello), and Alex Hargreaves (fiddle), who’ve invented a bold concerto-like repertoire fully immersed in American bluegrass but performed with such creative technique and inviting melodies. As should all the other young virtuosos who have created the atmosphere and the experience that is ROMP.
Compelling Music and Energy
Whether ROMP will want them back is uncertain. And that would be a mistake for the festival, for bluegrass music, and for Owensboro and Daviess County. ROMP set a goal and achieved its stature as the country’s premier showcase for the best young bluegrass performers. Their youth and energy gives ROMP a classy, inspiring vibe that calls to the thousands of young people who come to Owensboro from all over the South and the country. As the festival’s reputation has grown so has notice increased for Daviess County, and especially for Owensboro, its reconstructed and thoroughly updated Ohio River county seat.
In many ways ROMP is a kind of regional capstone, an annual musical celebration of a mid-American city’s transition from the Rust Belt industrial economic collapse of the 1980s, when the last of General Electric’s 6,000 manufacturing jobs left town, to a much more dynamic and durable 21st century center of education, banking, professional development, trades, services, recreation, and retail sales. In its way, ROMP’s surpassing excellence ties this place together with great and distinctive music that is everything its young performers represent – ambition, creativity, songwriting craftsmanship, virtuoso technique.
A number of people I talked to worried about ROMP without Gabrielle as festival director. My view is that ROMP’s new directors, men and women who came of age in the 20th century and inculcated in the “bigger the better” values of that time, ought to be careful. The 21st century is a much different time, an era that thrives on strategies that are more right-sized, elegant, ornate, and fit into their place. Mega anything is out. Chic and courageous, collaboration and invitation are in.
These new operating rules apply to developers unable to build big dams in the earthquake and landslide prone Himalayas, or to bluegrass festival leaders anxious to sign big names at the cost of turning away the musicians and fans that are the heart and soul of their enterprise.
Gabrielle Gray found that sweet spot that turned ROMP into the encompassing musical and cultural experience that it’s become. She possesses an uncommon instinct for music and performance, honed by her own background as a musician, composer, and producer. Before starting ROMP in 2004 as a 3-day festival along the Ohio River that attracted 6,000, Gabrielle founded the Master Musicians Festival, which this year holds its 22nd event in Somerset, Kentucky.
She built the festival’s young vibe by also bringing bluegrass into schools. In 2003 in Owensboro, she established a program in city, county, and private schools, reaching 9,000 children every year for lessons and training in bluegrass that includes concerts by some of the same young groups Gabrielle featured at ROMP.
A Farm Team In The Schools
“Every year those groups inspire these kids,” Gabrielle said. “The students coming up through these programs are graduating from high school and going to college. They now form the base population of ROMP. More than ever, colleges and universities have bluegrass or roots music programs. We invite university students enrolled in these programs to come to ROMP for free, provided they bring their instruments and jam. This creates the atmosphere of serious, young musicians who want to come and play with their peers and party. It’s all about bringing the young ones into the fold. The young ones are our farm team.”
Certainly, Gabrielle had plenty of help in Owensboro. Her board and staff. Sponsors. Volunteers. Artists. Vendors. City and County leaders. The beautiful county-owned and managed Yellow Creek Park is a superb venue for staging ROMP. Even the county sheriffs, who oversee order and safety, patrol with a knowing touch that makes ticket holders feel confident and secure.
For years there’s been a tug at the top of the festival’s leadership between tapping mega and very expensive stars to perform – like Willie Nelson, or Mumford and Sons – who drain the budget. Or having slightly less prominent and costly headliners in order to have enough in the budget to attract a strong and consistent lineup of first-rate artists.
Gabrielle’s absence could mean ROMP becomes a festival of one or two huge stars and a number of filler acts. Then again, the festival may now be large enough to do it all — have huge stars and the best of bluegrass music’s other performers.
Phoebe Hunt’s emotional performance on Saturday encompassed that essential question. What will ROMP be? It was more than a young artist’s recognition of a shadow that was passing. It was more than a salute to a mentor who presented a lasting musical gift to a community.
Phoebe’s tears were a prayer, as well. Whatever it becomes, ROMP’s well-earned reputation as the premier showcase of the country’s finest young bluegrass artists should always be preserved.
— Keith Schneider