Last weekend’s ROMP: Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival at Yellow Creek Park sold 13,693 tickets to 8,807 people — not counting children — over the event’s three-day run.
Nearly 2,500 people bought tickets for all three days.
“And there were a boatload of children out there,” Gabrielle Gray, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum, said Monday.
Total attendance for the three days probably topped 15,000, she said, when children are factored in.
Children 12 and under were admitted free with a paying adult.
The festival, sponsored by the bluegrass museum, was easily the largest of the 27 bluegrass festivals Owensboro has had since 1985.
It was 44 percent larger than the previous record of 9,500 total tickets sold for the International Bluegrass Music Association Fan Fest at English Park in 1995.
“That’s just phenomenal,” Mayor Ron Payne said Monday. “It reinforces what we’ve believed all along. They’re in town eating in our restaurants. Some of them are staying in our hotels. It’s no telling what the economic impact of that festival was.”
To Payne, ROMP’s success means “we need to move forward with turning the state office building into the International Bluegrass Music Center where we can have something going on all the time. It’s exciting to think where this can go.”
“It was a good crowd,” Judge-Executive Al Mattingly said. “It was a young crowd. That’s what surprised me.”
The IBMA’s website says the median age of bluegrass fans is around 48-50 today. But the median age of the ROMP crowd was probably a decade or more younger.
By including the roots and branches of bluegrass and not booking strictly bluegrass musicians, ROMP became more eclectic than it’s ever been. And that appealed to a younger audience.
Mandolin, guitar, banjo, fiddle and bass with sometimes a resonator guitar are the traditional bluegrass instruments.
But ROMP saw drums, electric guitars, keyboards, accordions, cellos, violins, a jug, bones and a variety of instruments not usually found at bluegrass festivals.
The crowd and the musicians loved it.
“I know I can speak for all of the Mountain Heart gang when I say “ROMP ROCKED”!!!,” fiddler Jim Van Cleve wrote on Facebook.
“We had an absolute BLAST!,” he wrote about his band. “Thanks for having us and our buddies Tony Rice and Terry Baucom on Friday! Hopefully we will be back to ROMP it up with you again next year.”
Ross Leigh, county parks director, said 440 camps were set up in the park, ranging from expensive recreational vehicles to pup tents. They housed more than 1,000 people.
This year, ROMP added “after parties” in Pioneer Village with bands there playing into the early morning hours and fans jamming into the pre-dawn hours.
The parties were a big hit, Gray said.
“They went on until 3 or 4 a.m. every day,” she said. “We had more than 1,000 people the first night, about 750 the second night and then back up on Saturday night. It was very exciting.”
Saturday afternoon, a thunderstorm delayed the festival for about an hour. But those in the park stayed and, when the rain stopped, large numbers poured into the park for the night’s concerts. The weather was cool and dry for the rest of the lineup.
Then, another wave of thunderstorms rolled through the county starting at around 2 a.m. Sunday.
‘Dancing in the rain’
“People were out dancing in the rain,” Gray said.
“People I talked to were just floored by the hospitality of the community,” Leigh said. “I think we’re already at the next level. It doesn’t get much better than Steve Martin.”
Martin’s performance on Thursday night was considered the festival’s main draw. But Terry Woodward, museum board chairman, said, “Our gate Friday night was almost as large as Thursday. We had big crowds all three nights.”
Emmylou Harris, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Punch Brothers and Trampled By Turtles also brought in large followings as did several other bands.
“So many people said it was the best festival they had ever been to,” Gray said. “I’ve never been to one I liked as much as this one and I’ve been going to festivals since I was 20.”
She said: “It was such a great mix of different styles of music. It was a beautiful venue and people’s attitude was so great. Everyone I saw was so happy.”
The crowd came from at least 42 states plus Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, England, Japan and The Netherlands.
“One woman got out of a cab with a backpack,” Woodward said. “She was from London, had flown to Richmond, Va., and ridden a bus to Owensboro.”
More diverse than ever
“This was a much more diverse audience than we’ve ever had before,” Gray said.
“To have that many people from all over the world, we had no problems at all,” Woodward said.
Leigh said the only complaint he heard was about people drinking beer and wine during the festival.
“Alcohol is not permitted in county parks,” he said. “We had complaints and I wasn’t happy about it. We’re going to need more security at ROMP as it grows. But there were no real problems, no arrests. We’ll be talking with (County Attorney) Claud Porter and ROMP officials. I don’t want to react to this year. I want to be proactive for next year.”
“We were fortunate with the weather,” Mattingly said. “That (Sunday morning) storm traveled along the river and it hit eastern Daviess County hard. We had three- to four-foot (diameter) trees just broken in pieces and barns down. If it had had hit Yellow Creek Park with all those campers, we’d have had big trouble.”
The damage was less than 10 miles from the park.
“It scared the hell out of me,” Leigh said. “We had people camping all through the woods at Yellow Creek Park. That storm could have caused some serious injuries there.”
As it was, the 1.37 inches of rain that fell during the storm left the campgrounds so muddy that several RVs were still stuck Monday when another series of storms rolled through.
“We had a bunch of people stuck in the mud out there and the tow trucks couldn’t get to them,” Mattingly said. “We had to bring in a big tractor to pull them out. But I heard no complaints other than the mud.”
What about next year?
“We’re going to have to get our heads together and start planning,” Woodward said. “We could get another 2,000 to 3,000 people in there. We could look at having two stages. But obviously, you can’t see all the acts that way.”
MerleFest in Wilkesboro, N.C., drew more than 80,000 this year. Its website says it had 90 artists performing on 14 stages.
“There is room for expansion,” Leigh said. “There were places where we could have parked cars that we didn’t. This festival has a major economic impact on the community.”
Gray said collection boxes circulated in the crowd brought in $2,500 to help the museum complete a documentary about Bill Monroe. The Kentucky Arts Council also announced a $5,000 grant for the project.
“We still need more money,” Gray said.
Donations can be sent to Monroe Documentary, International Bluegrass Music Museum, 207 E. Second St., Owensboro, KY 42303.