Terry Woodward, chairman of the International Bluegrass Music Museum’s board of trustees, has seen every bluegrass festival in Owensboro since they began in 1985.
“I have never seen a crowd as large as we had at ROMP Saturday night,” he said Monday. “There were easily more than 8,000 people out there. We ran out of parking spaces.”
Woodward said the BBC sent a film crew to Yellow Creek Park to record the Old Crow Medicine Show performance Saturday night for a future broadcast.
Gabrielle Gray, the museum’s executive director, estimated 5,000 people on Thursday night, 6,000 on Friday night and 8,000 to 10,000 on Saturday.
“We had 20,000 easily over the three days,” Woodward said. “And we lost a lot of local sales because of the heat. Can you imagine what we would have had if we had had last year’s temperatures?”
Friday’s 107 degrees tied an all-time record that had stood for 68 years. The mercury hit 106 on Thursday and 105 on Saturday.
If the official count comes in at 20,000 when all tickets are counted, this year’s crowd will have grown at least 25 percent from last year.
Last year, the museum, which sponsors the ROMP : Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival, reported 13,693 tickets sold to 8,807 people — not counting children who were admitted free — over the event’s three-day run.
But the museum’s biggest fundraiser can’t grow much larger.
In fact, it’s nearing the point where ticket sales might have to be capped, Gray said.
“Things don’t always have to grow,” she said. “You cap ticket sales, and you know what your budget is and how many to prepare for. We haven’t reached capacity yet, but we’re very close.”
“The only way to continue to expand would be to have satellite stages,” Woodward said. “Maybe when things are finished downtown, we could have a stage there. That’s a possibility.”
The museum wants to turn the old State Office Building into an International Bluegrass Music Center with indoor and outdoor stages with seating for 200 or so inside and 1,000 outside.
“The festival now has a national reputation,” said Ross Leigh, director of Daviess County Parks & Recreation. “We had people driving in from Oregon and Santa Cruz, Calif., because they had seen posters in a coffee shop somewhere. It’s a godsend to us.”
“We had street teams across the country marketing ROMP to colleges and other places,” Woodward said.
“We were probably using 75 to 85 percent of our capacity for parking,” Leigh said. “The only area we had left was the ball fields and the old Thruston School property. That’s a long way to walk, and I wouldn’t want to have to do it. But if I wanted to go to the festival, I would do it.”
Gray said she hadn’t tallied how many states were represented at the festival. But, she said, “we had people from 24 states in the campgrounds alone.”
Nearly 1,000 campers were registered before the park opened, she said.
Gray said she met people from Japan, Brazil, Australia, England, Canada, Mexico and Italy at ROMP .
Woodward added Sweden and China to the list.
“It’s an international event now,” he said. “I had a number of people tell me that they’re marking their calendars for ROMP and plan to come every year.”
“We had so many people tell us that ROMP is the coolest event they go to,” Gray said. “That’s the way we want to brand it. People here knock themselves out to be helpful. We have a great camping area and excellent food. The children’s area was packed all the time. We try to have a good mix of traditional and progressive music.”
Dozens of fans heaped praise on the festival on ROMP ‘s Facebook page.
“Just got back from the Romp Music Festival in Owensboro (River of Music Party, Right On or Rock On, My People),” Jerry Pacholski of Lawrenceville, Ill., posted Sunday. “What a great time, despite the #/)& 105 heat. Great setting, clean, everybody had fun and the music!! Wow! Every band was good and every band was better than the one before it. Kept on until about 1 a.m. and we left before the after concert jam. My son and I are already planning on going back next year. Congrats to the Intl Bluegrass Museum, Romp and the city of Owensboro for hosting a great party.”
Gray and Woodward praised Leigh’s staff.
“The park staff took ice to campers and only charged them $2 a bag.” she said. “They weren’t making money. They were providing a convenience so people wouldn’t have to leave the park to get it. They hauled trash off and sprayed water to keep the dust down.”
“The county did an incredible job.” Woodward said.
“That’s Daviess County hospitality,” Leigh said. “That’s how we treat people.”
He said, “Everything went very smoothly. There are always minor problems, but I think it hit on all eight cylinders.”
Woodward said there’s no doubt that adding roots and branches to traditional bluegrass has helped the festival grow.
Acts like Old Crow Medicine Show, the Punch Brothers and the Carolina Chocolate Drops boosted sales by bringing in people who prefer a variety of styles of acoustic music, he said.
But Woodward and Gray both noted that Jesse McReynolds, an 83-year-old member of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame, drew an enthusiastic crowd for his set Thursday, playing a tribute to the Grateful Dead.
“He totally knocked it out of the park,” Gray said. “Young people who came to see progressive acts were exposed to his music. And older fans who came to hear him were exposed to newer music. And they all heard good music they hadn’t heard before. It was all ages having fun.”
The festival struggled for years to do more than break even.
But last year, with help from Steve Martin, Emmylou Harris and a number of young, progressive acts, the festival turned a healthy profit.
It turned another profit this year, Gray said, although the total won’t be tallied for a few days.
“We’ve turned the corner,” Woodward said. ” ROMP is a brand now.
And fans packed the museum downtown all three days, Gray said.
Now the question is, how do you top this year’s show and this year’s crowd?
“I don’t know how we can top it,” Woodward said. “But there’s a lot of talent out there. I don’t think we had a throwaway band this year. It was a great lineup.”