OWENSBORO, KY — When Gabrielle Gray was recruited ten years ago from Somerset, KY to direct the International Bluegrass Music Museum here, and to found an annual bluegrass music festival, this was a comfortable southern city stuck in a mid-American mustiness, a city in need of a fresh scrub.Â Two hours downriver from Louisville, Owensboro’s populous, 54,000 residents in 2000, was barely growing. Its downtown largely consisted of parking lots and empty turn of the 20th century brick storefront buildings. The Ohio River made a big and impressive turn at the place where the city was founded in 1817. But Owensboro greeted the spectacle with a big yawn of a boring shoreline where a once great downtown hotel stood.
In 2004, Gray organized the first River of Music Party — ROMP — in English Park. It attracted no more than a few thousand people to the river’s shoreline during the last weekend in June. But the line-up, reflecting Gray’s ability to attract talent, included Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, and Sam Bush.
On Thursday night, the 10th annual ROMP Bluegrass Roots and Branches Festival opened six miles east in Daviess County’s Yellow Creek Park, and things are different. Much different. Gray, her professional museum staff, and a squadron of volunteers have built the gold standard festival in the world of bluegrass music in the United States and around the globe. Last year, following a festival that drew rave reviews from the Messenger-Inquirer, this city’s feisty and often querulous daily newspaper, and after a global evaluation, ROMP was named the Bluegrass Festival of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association. Over 20,000 people are attending this year’s four-day event to dance and cheer a lineup that includes renowned veteran artists — Merle Haggard, Dell McCoury, David Grisman, Sam Bush, Leftover Salmon, and Doyle Lawson.
The distinctive feature, though, the one that marks ROMP now as a must-attend, trend-setting event is Gray’s allegiance to recruiting the best young bluegrass artists in the United States, and from outside the country, to perform here. This year’s festival celebrated virtuoso playing and keen original lyrics from The Deadly Gentlemen, The Boston Boys, The Punch Brothers, Della Mae, 10 String Symphony, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Town Mountain, and David Wax Museum.
Gray’s goal, multi-faceted, is to expand the boundary lines that define bluegrass music. Just as significant, in doing so she’s also attracting a young audience to music that is as beautifully wrought, expertly structured, and absolutely electric and compelling as anything happening now in American music. All of that makes an invitation to play at ROMP a coveted step along the road to the musical and financial success that so many of these young artists seek to achieve.
Eric Robertson, the mandolin player and lead singer for The Boston Boys, explained as much during the group’s hour-long set last night at ROMP’s after party — a mesmerizing and almost tribal Polynesian dance gathering of shirtless boys and comely maidens wearing flowers in their hair. “We are so glad to be here,” Robertson said. “We drove 16 hours from New York to get here. Thank you Gabrielle.”
Minutes later, during the next set, Christian Sedelmeyer of 10 String Symphony and who lives in Nashville, about 130 miles south, described what ROMP has become for bluegrass musicians of his generation. “We all know that ROMP is the best festival in any real radius.”
There are a number of people to credit with ROMP’s steady ascension to prominence. Terry Woodward, a marketer of music and a generous patron, chaired the board of the International Bluegrass Music Museum through its early development and helped recruit Gray to Owensboro. Elected leaders in Owensboro and Daviess County, distinctively in the United States, are important festival partners, providing operating funds and the Yellow Creek Park, a terrific venue that includes a large sinking green that forms a natural bowl in front of the stage, and a historic pioneer village. One of the nearly 200-year-old hand hewn cabins has a lovely Kentucky porch that serves as a stage for the after party. Gray and her board also have recruited many of the city’s prominent businesses as sponsors, among them Independence Bank, which has its headquarters in Owensboro.
Much of the credit, though she is loathe to accept it, belongs to Gray. Three years ago, following a ROMP festival that didn’t have the pure sound and dance-inspiring arc of electricity that she wanted, Gray seized artistic control of ROMP. She recruited Steve Martin to perform, drawing a huge crowd that also heard some of the young sounds she’d brought to the festival.
Last year, with The Punch Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Deadly Gentlemen, and Vince Gill — among others — more people came, 20,000 at least, and she’d made her point. ROMP was the talk of this region for weeks.
The festival’s superb mix of music. The well-behaved and large crowd. The really good time helped brand the city as a place more than willing to reshape itself to reckon with the new opportunities of the 21st century. And one of those opportunities was imprinting ROMP and Owensboro as the center of an essential American musical heritage that has 80 million ardent fans worldwide.
Last fall, as part of its own work to develop a new economy for Owensboro, an economy that jump started itself with an $80 million tax increase in 2009 to rebuild the downtown, the city pledged $3 million to renovate a closed downtown state office building to become the Bluegrass Music Center. Less than a year later, Gray’s organization is 70 percent of the way now to reaching its $10 million capital campaign goal.
Though she is a striking poised beauty, articulate, creative, a composer and musician, an accomplished non-profit executive, Gray gets fidgety when her friends talk about the engaging way she has built ROMP and provided such a lasting and lovely musical gift to Owensboro. Her much more comfortable space is to open her home to friends during the ROMP weekend while she spends all day and much of the night at the festival. As I write this the David Grisman Sextet is warming up in Gabrielle’s living room for their set tonight with a lyrical rendition of Shady Grove. David’s son, Samson Grisman, the virtuoso bassist for The Deadly Gentlemen, is staying in a room upstairs.
There’s a word in Yiddish, ‘qvell’, which describes what Owensboro feels about ROMP and Gabrielle Gray. It means celebrate, feel warmth and gratitude for a task well accomplished. Parents qvell when a child consistently brings home good report cards. Husbands qvell when their wives make a home a beautiful place.
Owensboro qvells about Gabrielle Gray. At the market, strangers stop her to express their appreciation. City and county officials hug her. Friends at the festival have three words, and they come constantly: “This is awesome!” Gray smiles, of course. She can’t help but love how the music moves her community. But all she’ll usually say is this: “Did you hear The Deadly Gentlemen? Were you here when Del McCoury played? Weren’t they great!”
— Keith Schneider