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Thursday, July 4, 2019

The Power To Bring People Together - ROMP Fest 2019 (The People)

Positive Press  Pit Vibes with SeMiBluegrass
I'm not going to lie, it's been a rough year: too much work; too little live, local music; and and the incessant name-calling and decisiveness that defines our modern, on-demand pop culture, political and media cycle.  So it was with great trepidation that--at the last minute--I decided to ask for and received a media pass to attend the Bluegrass  Music Hall of Fame and Museum's ROMP (River of Music Party) Fest in Owensboro, Kentucky.  I wasn't sure I was up to one more deadline; one more thing on my plate; one more responsibility.  However, reflecting back on LAST YEAR, I remembered not only a great festival with top-notch acts, but meeting an extraordinary number of really cool and friendly people, and decided that this was just the tonic I needed to banish the last of my long-winter, rainy-spring blues.  In fact, I thought that this year, rather than focusing on the stage show, I would go back to my roots (The People, The Places and the Music--Always in That Order) and try and capture a little bit of the magic that pulls people from all backgrounds and all walks of life together as "ROMP Family" each year.

Clayton Knight - Superstar
Like all festivals, it takes a literal army of volunteers to organize, promote and put on a festival.  This monumental task starts with a dedicated team of leaders at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum; each tasked with making sure things run smoothly in their area of expertise.  I'm sure there must be dozens of these selfless workaholics, but three of them stood out to me.  As we showed up Wednesday evenings, a week-long series of rain showers, followed by an incredible lightening-punctuated gully-washing downpour left the grounds a soggy mess and seriously in danger of not being ready for the first act at 4:00 the next afternoon.  My partner on this adventure was Jerry Eicher, who had volunteered to do a live broadcast of the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show on WorldWideBluegrass  that afternoon from the--at that point--nonexistent media tent behind the stage. We set out to find someone who could tell us what we needed to do, where we needed to go, and how things needed to happen.  We quickly ran into Site Supervisor Clayton (Clay) Knight with a radio.  In the midst of a million crises, he took the time to get on the radio, quickly get us the information we needed and get us on our way.  Over the long weekend, he was EVERYWHERE, usually the first person I saw in the morning, and the last I saw in the wee hours of the night; always busy juggling a million responsibilities; always with a smile on his face an a "can do" attitude.  He was definitely my vote for "MVP" behind the scenes, as much for his winning attitude as for his work ethic.  Instrumental in our success putting on the radio show were also Marketing Director Carly Smith, in charge of all of us media-types and generally running around making sure things happened on time.  Through the weekend, the smiling face and quick wit of Operations Director Roxanne Trombly was ever-present in the backstage area keeping staff, stage crew, artists, VIPs and media people where they needed to be an on schedule.  Her tireless energy and enthusiasm was certainly contagious and kept everyone's spirits high in the face of soggy ground, steamy mid-day heat and the countless last-second "issues" that inevitably arise during a festival of this magnitude.  I'm sure there are dozens more people who dedicate just as much time and effort and they should be applauded for the "illusion of effortlessness" they create by doing their jobs so well.

Jerry and Phil on the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show
As a second year media person, I am astounded at the tight-knit, caring, sharing and giving community of print, broadcast, digital media and photography folks who hang around the media tent backstage at ROMP.  Really just a few table and chairs in the shade, with a power strip and WiFi hotspot, this modest tent somehow feels more like a home. As I mentioned, Jerry Eicher set up his Ol' Hippie Bluegrass show broadcast from the tent.  Since his show is broadcast on the local affiliate, as well as online at WorldWideBluegrass, there was a non-stop stream of people stopping by to say "hi" and tell him how much they enjoyed the show.  This year we met Phil Dawson and his MoJo61 Media Stream, all the way from Western Australia by way of Cincinnati.  Phil is an amazing photographer and huge fan/supporter of the live music scene, though this was his virgin voyage into the realm of Americana/Bluegrass and I think it's safe to say that he's hooked!  Check out his Facebook, YouTube and Instagram for some incredible imagery. 

Joe Mullins Live with Mixx Magazine
The informal community of "pit photographers" continues to restore my faith in humanity.  Led by "official" photographer Alex Morgan, these professionals and amateurs alike spend the weekend sharing ideas, helping each other out, and generally having a good time.  I have learned more about photography from them in two weekends than all the years of self-taught shooting I've done!  The informal nature of the media tent lends itself to this community building.  Throughout the weekend, various print, digital and broadcast media folks wandered back, often with a confused look and asked "is this the media tent"?  They were always greeted with an enthusiastic "Yes it is!", offered a chair and a cold water and welcomed in to the circle.  Probably the most fun we had this year was with the online ezine Mixx Magazine.  Used to covering fashion shows, celebrities, NBA stars and other major pop-culture icons, these two field reporters found themselves WAY outside of their comfort zone!  However, encouraged by the rest of us media types, they dove right in and got to work.  I have to say that watching these two do an thoroughly modern/millennial-centric interview with Joe Mullins (arguably the most traditionally bluegrass act at ROMP) was a surprisingly surreal, eminently entertaining and thoroughly satisfying experience.  Both the interviewer and interviewee were total professionals; asking and answering some great questions and probably exposing each other's audiences to some things they had never considered liking.  Great job on all sides!

Just Chillin' in the Parking Areas
There were so many other great folks we met at ROMP.  A huge shout out to the Moonlite BBQ crew who took time in the sweltering heat kept us well hydrated with cold waters and even a few tasty treats over the weekend.  The security and law enforcement crew managed the near-impossible feat of being omnipresent and visible and fading into the background--all while sweating out the mid-90s heat and humidity in full, long-sleeved uniforms and bullet-proof vests.  I attend many festivals, and it was great to feel that safe and secure, and also witness zero incidents.  Great job and professionalism by all the law enforcement personnel!  Like all great bluegrass festivals, there is an informal community that springs up each year, where "neighbors" catch up and share stories, though they only see each other once a year at ROMP.  This was even true of Jerry and myself: our neighbor from last year made a point to find our RV and stop by and tell us where he was camping (and invite us to try his latest batch of craft-brewed beer).  Never did make it by...so I will have to stop by NEXT year).

Pickin' With Some New Old Friends
This is not, per se, a "picking festival"...but there is definitely picking to be found.  Jerry and I did some picking outside the camper every morning (and were even interviewed by the local TV affiliate!).  Had an enjoyable jam with a couple old-timers on banjo and dobro outside the bathroom...picking some killer old bluegrass instrumentals.  The camper directly across from us had some on-and-off again jams (they kept leaving to see the stage show--go figure!).  I finally made it across the street to pick a few.  We got to talking and they asked about my media pass and how I got into the blogging business.  When I told them about one of the first articles I did (on the Steeldrivers - HERE) and how that article led to a spontaneous road trip to the Station Inn in Nashville to see the Steeldrivers the next day, where I was treated to front-row seats with the band's families.  "That's where we know you from!" exclaimed our new neighbors.  Turned out they were Brent Truitt's relatives, and had sat with us at that very show.  Once again, the Magic of ROMP pulled together old friends.

Young Fans:  Hope for the Future!
On the last evening, after the last late-night show in the Pioneer Village, I was walking back to my camper and came across a bass, mandolin and dobro player doing some picking on the bridge.  I stopped to snap a picture and they asked me if I played.  I told them I did, but my guitar was "clear on the other side of the campground".  They immediately told me "that's OK, we'll be here for a long time", so I made the trip and was glad I did.  They knew a lot of cool songs, and we soon drew a surprisingly large, and surprisingly young crowd of mellow, yet enthusiastic listeners.  We played songs until nearly 5:00 in the morning when the air cooled enough to turn the clinging humidity into a soft, eerie fog that lay lightly over the campground and muted even the soft thrum of generators. As I walked back to the RV for a too-early departure I reflected on my experience over the week.  I arrived stressed out, up tight and defeated.  Through the people I met, and with a long festival season ahead of me, I left invigorated, re-energized and hopeful that the power of live music can continue to fight the waves of divisiveness in our country and bring us together in peace, harmony and love (a guy can wish...).

I've included some photos of The People below.  For more, follow SeMiBluegrass on Facebook.

Meeting of the Minds

Hard Working Stage Hands

Technical Crew on the Screen Stage

Taking it All In

Back Stage Perfection

Sweating It Out With The Ground Crew

Getting the Lay of the Land

Taking a Quick Break

Keeping Cool in VIP

Checking the Shot


Checking thing Out Before the First Show

Hats Off to the Sound Crew - PERFECTION

High Alert - Low Key

Enjoying a Moment in the Shade

Way Cooler Gear than Me

Alex Morgan - Photographer Extraordinaire

Our New Moonlite BBQ Friends

Jerry and Kendra On Air with the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show

Photographer Adam Williams

Thowin' Down on the Dobro

A Beautiful Banjo

More Video Crew

Best Smiles at ROMP - IBEW Volunteers

Had a Great Smile all Weekend


The Tough Life of a Print Journalist

"Who" is that?

Rocking That Look

Couple Characters

Keeping the Late Night Crowd Fed
Good Buy ROMP  -   See You Next Year!