Article by Matt Wickstrom
Photos by Tom Wickstrom
This article originally appeared in Appalachian Jamwich.
The heat was persistent throughout the weekend at the 13th annual ROMP festival in Owensboro, Kentucky with temperatures firmly cemented in the 90s, but even more persistent were the musicians and fans who battled vigorously throughout each day to spread the love and joy of music and community that you can only find in a festival environment.
The first full day of ROMP began not at Yellow Creek Park but in downtown Owensboro, where a ground-breaking ceremony transcribed for the building of a new International Bluegrass Music Museum, which organizes ROMP year after year.
As festival-goers continued to file in and set up camp Thursday afternoon, Louisville’s 23 String Band took the stage to kick off ROMP’s main stage. The quintet recently returned to performing after an 18-month hiatus. The group huddled around a single mic on stage, belting out synchronous lyrics bursting from the seams with intensity and emotion, blending effortlessly with 23’s ultra-progressive bluegrass instrumentals.
Following 23 String Band were bluegrass legends Larry Sparks and Del McCoury. After a long hot summer’s day, lightning and ominous rain clouds moved in and loomed large over the festival. Lightning delayed the start of Spark’s set by 30 minutes, and rain was held in check until the skies opened up during McCoury’s set. Ironically “Travelling Teardrop Blues” opened the set, a precursor for the rain to come, which cut the set short after a performance of “40 Acres and a Fool”.
The rain quickly intensified, shuffling the remaining schedule for the night. Scythian’s main stage set was cancelled due to the uncooperative weather, but the Canadian bluegrassers took matters into their own hands, jumping into the pit in front of the main stage to perform an acoustic three song set in front of an energetic crowd that had gathered in anticipation of the ensuing Steep Canyon Rangers’ set.
Over the (creek) and through the woods wasn’t Grandma’s house, but rather the Pioneer Village, home to ROMP’s late night festivities, which featured The Travelin’ McCoury’s and Lil Smokies on Thursday night. The McCoury’s got started just after midnight and had the crowd moving and grooving all night as they covered Passenger’s “Let Her Go” and The Grateful Dead’s “Cumberland Blues”. Heaven McCoury, guitarist and son of mandolinist Ronnie also joined the group on stage for a performance of Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life”.
Following the McCoury’s was Missoula, Montana’s Lil Smokies’. The progressive bluegrass six-piece outfit and 2015 Telluride band competition winners managed to tire out even the most restless of fans, playing to nearly 4am. After a few brief hours of rest, the Lil Smokies helped get music cranking on the main stage Friday under an equally demanding sun as the day prior. The only thing hotter than the summer heat during the set was the precision of dobroist Andy Dunnigan, who mentioned the band is hard at work on a new album slated release for later this year.
Town Mountain played the first of their two sets under the blistering sun later that afternoon, performing several tunes from their recent album, the critically acclaimed “Southern Crescent” including “Tick on a Dog”, “Arkansas Gambler”, and “Whiskey with Tears”. The band’s final set came late night in the village, after which they packed up and journeyed to Nashville for their debut performance on the Grand Ole Opry that evening.
Closing down the main stage in style Friday night were the Infamous Stringdusters, led by dobro-master Andy Hall, this night emblazoned in a Ryan Adams Star Wars-esque t-shirt. Hall and fiddler Jeremy Garrett went back and forth trading licks all night, accompanied with Andy Falco’s soothing guitar picking, Chris Pandolfi’s banjo plucking and Travis Book holding down the low end on upright bass. Book also shined with his voice, leading the way on “Won’t be Coming Back”. Later in the set the Dusters paid homage to Ralph Stanley, who passed away earlier in the week, with a cover of The Stanley Brothers “Lonesome River”. Many other artists honored the late bluegrass pioneer throughout the weekend with song performances, stories, or just general kind words to help remember the life of someone who inspired millions.
Friday’s action came to a close with the expert musicianship of acoustic guitar fiend Jon Stickley, accompanied by drummer Patrick Armitage and graceful violinist Lyndsay Pruett. The all-instrumental compositions of the Jon Stickley Trio are extremely powerful and intricate, telling a story that maneuvers through an assortment of emotions. Highlights of the Trio’s set were performances of “Flight of the Durban” and “Slopes”, two cuts from 2015’s crowd-funded “Lost at Last”. Stickley and Co. are already hard at work on a new record with a targeted release for later this year.
Earlier Friday afternoon Stickley reunited with former bandmate in Broke Mountain and current bassist for the Infamous Stringdusters Travis Book. The two, scheduled to lead a workshop together ended up taking questions from fans gathered and performing a mini acoustic guitar duo set.
Saturday brought with it more humid, stagnant temps in the 90s along with a scorching hot set from Front Country in the early afternoon. Much like The Lil Smokies who performed earlier in the weekend, Front Country are winners of the Telluride band competition, in 2013 respectively. The group, led by Melody Walker, hails from the San Francisco Bay area and is currently preparing to release a new record in the fall.
As the sun set on ROMP’s final day, arguably the festival’s most anticipated act, Old Crow Medicine Show, took the stage. Led by fiddlier and all-around showman Ketch Secor, Old Crow opened their set with “Tell it to Me” and “Alabama HighTest”. The renowned artists covered Willie Nelson’s “City of New Orleans” and Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight” around performances of the ever-popular “Sweet Amarillo” and staple “Wagon Wheel”, which the crowd joined in singing with them in unison.
Another glorious weekend of picking and partying concluded at ROMP with Billy Strings and Old Salt Union jamming late into the night in the Pioneer Village. Strings wowed the crowd, performing songs off his new self-titled EP mixed between a plethora of covers, including Creedance Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” and Jimmy Martin’s “Freeborn Man”. Later in the set Strings and friends welcomed Lindsay Lou of Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys to the stage. Lindsay Lou was a late add to the festival bill after Monogram was unable to make the trek to western Kentucky.
Strings later joined Belleville, Illinios’ Old Salt Union during their set to put a cap on an amazing weekend of bluegrass music. The 2016 edition of ROMP may have been a scorcher, but the sweet string music produced all weekend long helped to make the summer heat much more bearable.