The 21st Romp Music Festival Celebrates Bluegrass Music in the Bluegrass State - Festy GoNuts!
ROMP Festival 2024_The Travelin' McCourys_photog_LauraRay

The 21st Romp Music Festival Celebrates Bluegrass Music in the Bluegrass State

by Jul 8, 2024Featured, Music, Reviews

The Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum’s 21st annual ROMP Festival took place June 26-29, 2024 at Yellow Creek Park in Owensboro, Kentucky. Headliners included Dierks Bentley, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, The Travelin’ McCourys, Keller Williams, and Leftover Salmon. The legendary Dobro player Jerry Douglas was the artist in residence, and festival-goers enjoyed performances from the Earls of Leicester, Peter Rowan, Sierra Hull, The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, and the Sam Grisman Project among others.


The 21st ROMP Music Festival Celebrates Community, Culture and Bluegrass

Article and photographs by contributor Laura Ray

Celebrating its 21st year, ROMP Music Festival takes place in Owensboro, Kentucky, The Bluegrass Music Capital of the World. This celebration of the culture, community, and legacy of bluegrass music is a fundraiser for the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum, the only museum of its kind in the world. Held in Owensboro’s 150-acre Yellow Creek Park, it features four days of bluegrass music in the Bluegrass State.

I live just a couple of hours away and got to attend for the first time this year.

ROMP Festival 2024_Lillie Mae_photog_LauraRay

Della Mae’s Vicki Vaughn Kicks Off the Pre-Party

A heavy summer rain let up just in time for Vickie Vaughn to take the After Party Stage on Wednesday, the first night of ROMP. Originally from Paducah, the western Kentucky native kicked off the festivities with a song off her upcoming solo album. Vaughn’s band was down a banjo player thanks to Covid, but luckily Brenna MacMillan, who appeared on Bronwyn Keith-Hynes’ new album, ‘I Built A World,’ was able to fill in.

At one point, Vaughn’s band left the stage while she performed a bass solo called “Straight on For You.” Corrina Rose Logston Stephens of the band High Fidelity was on fiddle and joined Vaughn for “Won’t It Be Wonderful There,” a gospel song that Vaughn had dreamt her late father was singing. Vaughn and Logston Stephens knew each other from Belmont, a popular music school in Nashville. They also performed Logston Stephens’ traffic light-inspired song “Never Green.”

ROMP is sponsored by the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum. Executive Director Chris Joslin grew up playing in a family band and sat in with the rest of the band for one song on the dobro.

Vaughn shared that she wanted to write a song about her dad’s passing, but doesn’t like sad songs, she and Deanie Richardson from Sister Sadie, who produced her new album, wrote one about her mom instead called “Mama Took Her Ring Off,” which will appear on said album. The set closed with “King of the Road,” a fitting anthem for Vaughn, who was headed to San Francisco the next day with the band she tours with, Della Mae.

ROMP Festival 2024_Vikki Vaughn_photog_LauraRay

Next up was Nashville-based band, Lilly Mae. Siblings Frank Carter (guitar), Lilly Mae (vocals, fiddle, guitar), McKenna Grace (guitar, vocals), and Scarlett Rische (mandolin) make up most of the 7-piece band, which is rounded out by Craig Smith (electric guitar), Chris Gelb (drums) and Jay Weaver (bass). Pronounced reshee, the Risches have been playing together since they could hold instruments, first as a family band, then as Jypsi, and now backing Lilly Mae, who has played with Jack White and as part of Jim Lauderdale’s band along with brother Frank.

No strangers to the bars of Broadway, the Layla’s regulars played “Honky Tonks and Taverns” as an ode to their Music City roots. They also played “Cold Day in June” (which it most certainly was not) as well as “Festival Eyes,” the title track off the band’s latest album. On my way out, I claimed a primo spot up front with my camping chair for the next day.

ROMP Festival 2024_Lillie Mae_photog_LauraRay

A Big Hoo Hoo for Day Two

Day two kicked off with Rick Faris, who lives in Owensboro and owns Kentucky Guitar Works, which crafts custom guitars, repairs and restores stringed instruments, offers workshops, and more. Faris was flanked by brother JimBob Faris and two teenagers, mandolinist Henry Burgess and banjo player Gibson Davis – all at least second-generation musicians. Bill Monroe’s birthplace is less than an hour from Owensboro, so the band paid tribute to the Father of Bluegrass by playing the traditional tune, “Footprints in the Snow” but threw in a cover of “The Power of Love,” as well.

ROMP Festival 2024_Rick Faris_photog_LauraRay

Next up was East Nash Grass out of Madison, TN, where John Hartford lived. Finally, a band I had seen before! The six-piece opened for Yonder Mountain String Band at 3rd & Lindsley last October. I’m thankful for them because they started an awesome bluegrass night at Dee’s Lounge. And if you can’t make it to Madison on a Monday, you can stream it on YouTube! In July, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes returns for her July residency.

ROMP Festival 2024_East Nash Grass_photog_LauraRay

By now, it’s after work on a Thursday and I’m starting to get the vibe: the crowd is a little on the older side (possibly due to the genre) and super-friendly. Shout out to my fest-neighbors Fran and Catherine! Although I had friends at the fest, I was flying solo for the first few days, but it just felt like I was there with everyone. It was H-O-T-T hot, but the food was good, and there was a laissez-faire attitude about bringing in your own coolers of food and drinks. While they didn’t sell beer, ROMPers were allowed to BYOB – and hopefully, water too, because it was like 90 degrees.

ROMP Festival 2024_Romp Crowd_photog_LauraRay

Taking the stage in snazzy outfits, The Po Ramblin’ Boys opened with “Ramblin’ Woman” and treated the crowd to a couple of tunes that are coming out on their Smithsonian Folkways project in August, “Wanderers Like Me” and “The Clouds in My Mind.” Formed 10 years ago, the band, including guitarist Josh Rinkel from Shepherdsville, KY, Jasper Lorentson on bass, fiddle player Laura Orshaw, banjo man Jereme Brown, and mandolinist C.J. Lewandowski, began as a house band at Ole Smoky Moonshine in Gatlinburg, TN.

PRB has since graced the stages of many a bluegrass fest and even the Opry, notably accompanying Jim Lauderdale on his album, ‘Long and Lonesome Letting Go.’ Lauded by the Americana scene, Lauderdale joined the group onstage at ROMP, treating the crowd to the title track of said album and more! I had only seen him solo a couple of times, so it was great to see him with a backing band.

ROMP Festival 2024_PoRamblinBoys_photog_LauraRay
I’m not sure why, other than they can be found in the area, but the great horned owl is the festival mascot. While Lauderdale was on stage I got up close and personal with a small owl that was brought in by the Western Kentucky Raptor Center, a local family-run rehabilitation center for mammals and birds of prey.
ROMP Festival 2024_Owl_photog_LauraRay

Not to be out-snazzed, old pros Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives showed up in matching baby-blue vintage Nudie suits – well the Superlatives were wearing them anyway. Stuart was rocking his signature blowout, purple scarf, and black blazer, complete with fringe. Stuart introduced the Superlatives as “Professor” (Chris) Scruggs on bass and “Handsome” Harry (Stinson) on drums, and guitarist “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan. I was hoping to hear “This One’s Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time)” but the band played cover after cover, including one by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as well as “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd” and “The Ballad of Easy Rider.” While introducing their up-tempo version of “Wipeout,” Scruggs encouraged the crowd to “sing along if you know the word,” then Stinson proceeded to perform the intro drum solo by opening his mouth and beating his cheeks.

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Thursday night’s headliner was The Travelin’ McCourys with The Grateful Ball. Now I’m no Grateful Dead fan, but I do like Jerry Garcia. (Side note: In case you didn’t know, The Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum has a new Jerry Garcia exhibit!) They covered “Friend of the Devil,” “Mama Tried,” “Peggy-O,” “Cumberland Blues,” and more. Ronnie McCoury broke out a cute little electric mandolin and his son Evan joined them for a spell. “Midnight Moonlight” served as an apt encore since it was past 12am at that point, but the party wasn’t over yet!

ROMP Festival 2024_The Travelin' McCourys_photog_LauraRay

Late Night Party Under the Big Dipper

Down a hill, over a beautifully lit bridge (complete with disco ball), and up another hill that had a winding trail through the woods or a paved path, the crowd ventured to the After Party Stage, where Never Come Down played under the big dipper until the wee hours.

It was vocalist Crystal Lariza’s first time in Kentucky and boy did we get a proper introduction – girl’s got pipes! Never Come Down was my favorite new discovery at ROMP. The Oregon five-piece played “Mother” off their latest album as well as “Candle,” which Lariza explained she thought was a love song, but ended up being about addiction. Teo Quale from Cryin Uncle String Band, another of my fave new discoveries, sat in on mando for a sec, which was strange considering they already have a mandolin player in Harry Potter lookalike Kaden Hurst.

Brian Alley’s banjo solos were inspired on songs like “Better Late Than Never.” There were times were he damn near set his five-string on fire! I chatted with the bass player Ben Tichner after the show a bit and they just seem like a cool group of folks. They closed out the show with “Greener Pastures,” the title track off their brand-new album.

Closing out the evening was The Rumpke Mountain Boys, who were down a banjo player thanks to a family emergency. I was completely exhausted by the time they went on at 1:50 am, so I didn’t stay, but I did see them swigging Makers and Jamo before their set, lol. I sat around the campfire and made some new friends and caught up with old ones before heading to bed.

ROMP Festival 2024_Never Come Down_photog_LauraRay

Crying Uncle on a Friday Afternoon

My aunt and uncle live nearby, so I crashed in their “guesthouse,” a luxurious RV that’s almost as nice as Dolly Parton’s tour bus. My husband came up Friday because Keller Williams is one of his faves and he’d never had the chance to see him live. I missed the Country Gongband who kicked off Friday’s festivities waiting for him to arrive. However, we did get there in time to catch California-based Crying Uncle and I’m sure glad we did!

First of all, the guitarist Ian Ly is the current National Flat Pick Guitar Champion and a total beast. Plus, the band won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Momentum Award for Band of the Year in 2023. Oh, and they’re a bunch of geniuses!

Andrew Osborn is an engineering major, while award-winning fiddle player Miles Quale is studying to be an astrophysicist at UCLA. Miles Quale (fiddle) and his brother Teo Quale are big David Grisman fans, and Teo was playing Grisman’s old mandolin, cleanly AF I might add. He also has a beautiful voice, which was showcased on a cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland.”

Speaking of Grisman, David’s son Sam was up next with his collective, the Sam Grisman Project. I was familiar with Sam because he played with Lindsay Lou and her boyfriend Kyle Tuttle at Tuttle’s birthday party at Dee’s in April, along with fiddle player Phoebe Hunt and her husband Dominick “Dom” Leslie. I knew Hunt had been on tour with Sam, but I hadn’t seen him with his band.

Jerry Douglas was the unofficial artist-in-residence of the fest and joined Sam’s band on stage for a few songs. Sam said Douglas was one of his “absolute musical heroes.” East Nash Grass banjo player Cory Walker sat in for a spell as well. Sam’s dad David was inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2023. He was tight with Jerry Garcia, performing together in several arrangements. Sam’s project pays tribute to their music, performing songs like the last song Garcia, recorded, “Blue Yodel #9.”


ROMP Festival 2024_Sam Grisman Project_photog_LauraRay

Next up was another IBMA Hall of Famer, Peter Rowan. A former member of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, Rowan has been around since the beginnings of bluegrass. Garcia famously auditioned to be Monroe’s banjo player back in the ‘60s, and Rowan played the opening of the “Jerry Garcia: A Bluegrass Journey” exhibit at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum.

On this hot day in June, Rowan and his band played “Mississippi Moon” off Garcia’s first solo album. Rowan’s guitarists Tony Rice and David Greer and mandolinist Christopher Henry all seem to have doctorates in their instruments. They also played “Thirsty in the Rain” which Rowan explained that he wrote after a retreat when he started looking at the world a little differently.

ROMP Festival 2024_Peter Rowan_photog_LauraRay

Molly Tuttle and Keller Williams Wrap Up Friday’s Main Stage

I was pumped to see Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway because I’d seen most of her band members – Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, Kyle Tuttle, and Dom Leslie – perform in other capacities, but never all together and I’d never seen her perform. Molly came out in a red Chappel Roan-looking wig and a shiny silver foil-looking dress. I think people assume that Kyle and Molly are siblings, but I’m pretty sure they just share the same last name. Molly addressed this when she introduced the song “Yosemite,” explaining that the road trip song confuses people because when they hear it they think that Molly and Kyle were married.

My favorite song they played was their cover of The Rolling Stone’s “She’s a Rainbow,” but they also played “Where Did All the Wild Things Go?” and an unreleased song that’s not even on the new album, which Tuttle described as her “Sex and the City bluegrass song” called “Getaway Girl.”

Made up of musicians who are all amazing in their own right, the veritable supergroup also played Bronwyn Keith-Hynes’ “Open Water” as well as “Crooked Trees.” Tuttle removed her red wig that she said was from Halloween, explaining that she wrote “Crooked Trees” with a friend because they felt like crooked trees. Tuttle uses her platform to spread awareness about alopecia, a condition she suffers from. And what set at ROMP would be complete without an appearance from good ole Jerry Douglas?

ROMP Festival 2024_Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway_photog_LauraRay

Finally, Keller Williams appeared to “take some liberties with some Grateful Dead songs,” as he put it. His Grateful Grass showcase was interrupted by an ambulance. Apparently, a man had a bit too much to drink and was taken away on a stretcher. But that didn’t stop the show, or the crowd from shooting off streamers to “Mexicali Blues.” This was my husband and I’s first time seeing Keller perform and I’d really like to see him again performing his own tunes.

ROMP Festival 2024_Keller Williams_ photog_LauraRay

Afterwards, we headed over to the After Party stage to see The Bibelhauser Brothers (pronounced beeble-housin’). The PA wasn’t working, so the twins Aaron and Adam Bibelhauser, regaled the drunken, somewhat rowdy crowd, with an acapella performance of “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain.” I love a sibling harmony moment and this unproduced, impromptu performance was a wonderful end to the evening.

Sierra Hulls Performs at the Bluegrass Hall of Fame

The next day hubs headed home, stating that I and the rest of the ROMPers were crazy for standing out in 90-degree weather and he was going to the lake, lol. Luckily, my first stop on Saturday was in the air conditioning in Owensboro’s cute downtown. I scored some (free!) primo parking right in front of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum and headed in to see Sierra Hull.

The museum lobby was packed. This was my first time seeing Hull and I could see what the hype was about right off the bat. Hull was the first woman to be named IBMA’s Mandolin Player of the Year, a distinction she has earned six times! She has graced the stages of Carnegie Hall, the Grand Ole Opry, and the White House. She has the voice of a Disney princess and looks to match. Speaking of good-looking, Hull’s band consists of Eric Covenant (bass), Sean Richardson (guitar), Mark Raudabaugh (drums), and Avery Merritt (fiddle).

Hull opened the floor for questions, and someone asked where everyone was from. Hull hails from Byrdstown, Tennessee. When someone in the crowd cheered, she asked if they were from there too, and said that there were only like 700 people in Byrdstown, so if they were there that meant there must only be 699. Someone else from the crowd requested a Grateful Dead song and the band obliged with “Black Muddy River.”

ROMP Festival 2024_bluegrass hall of fame and museum_photog_LauraRay

The Bibelhauser Brothers Part Deux

Thankfully, I got another chance to see The Bibelhauser Brothers, this time on the mainstage. The twins play with old-timers Jeff Guernsey on mandolin and Steve Cooley on banjo. The Louisville group played “I’ll be on My Way,” which they co-wrote with famed bluegrass fiddler Michael Cleveland. They also played “Place in the Sun,” by Stevie Wonder as we all baked like potatoes in 91-degree heat. The brothers were stoked to be playing ROMP, where they’d seen everyone from Meryl Haggard to Sam Bush play over the years.

So many big names have played ROMP in the past couple of decades and festivalgoers had the t-shirts to prove it! I remember seeing a 2017 lineup on the back of one that looked amazing, with Lindsay Lou, Rhiannon Giddens, and Yonder Mountain String Band. I’ve been missing out on this festival for so many years. It did seem like a flex to wear your oldest ROMP t-shirt. I saw one guy with a shirt from 2007.

Jamie Wyatt was on next, playing “Fugitive,” off her new record. Wyatt’s screamin’ guitar player, Laur Joamets, who used to play for Sturgill Simpson, was shredding on an old beat-up Telecaster. As she introduced “Althea,” Wyatt said she grew up going to shows and got to see Jerry Garcia perform in Seattle in 1995. They also played her singles “Neon Cross” and “World Worth Keeping.” With her outlaw attitude and guitar prowess, Wyatt reminds me of a younger Lucinda Williams.

ROMP Festival 2024_Jamie Wyatt_photog_LauraRay

Everyone was dripping sweat as Sierra Hull played her mainstage set, which featured “Beautifully Out of Place” off her album ‘25 Trips,’ “Choices and Changes,” and “Out of My Blues,” which she wrote with Pat McLaughlin. Jerry Douglas, who Hull called “one of her heroes,” joined. She mentioned that she got to play with him and Allison Kraus when she was a kid.

ROMP Festival 2024_Jerry Douglas joins Sierra Hull_photog_LauraRay

Speaking of Douglas, his band, The Earls of Leicester was up next, warming up the stage for Dierks Bentley. According to Douglas, Flatt and Scruggs (former members of Bill Monroe’s band, the Bluegrass Boys, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs) had a sponsor: Martha White. So they played the Martha White theme song, singing about the “finest biscuits, cakes and pies.” It seemed appropriate given their Colonel Sanders-style outfits. They were funny. Although most of the jokes were intended for an older audience, at one point Jerry Douglas goes, “I’m talking cause we’re out of tune.” Lol!

After the Earls left the stage, the crowd was treated to a very loud static and then thundery noise that seemed like it lasted for ages, but probably was just a few minutes. Something must’ve gotten messed up as they summoned all the power the festival had to power Dierks Bentley’s performance.

ROMP Festival 2024_The Earls of Leicester_photog_LauraRay

Dierks Bentley Brings the Saturday Night Country Tunes

Now I was not familiar with Dierks Bentley other than knowing he is popular in country music, but a huge crowd showed up to see him, and I gotta say, I see the mass appeal: He’s cute, he puts on a show, and his songs like “Free and Easy Down the Road I Go” are catchy. Now he did seem kinda douchey, acting like he was going to smash his guitar, but that was easily forgiven with a ripping guitar solo from “Say You Do.”

In case you didn’t know, one of Bentley’s most popular songs is “Getting Drunk on a Plane,” so he had the set broken up into taxiing, cruisin’, and boozin’ altitudes.

Dierks Bentley_Romp Festival 2024_Courtesy of ROMP, photo by Alex Morgan Imaging.

Courtesy of ROMP, photo by Alex Morgan Imaging. 

The best part of the show was when Bentley was singing “Bourbon in Kentucky” solo and was interrupted by The Hot Country Knights. The band had gone backstage and changed into ‘80s gear and came back to perform all kinds of 90s hits, from Travis Tritt’s “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” and Tim McGraw’s “I Like It, I Love It” to Diamond Rio’s “Meet in the Middle” and Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places”.

The crowd ate. it. up.

Eventually, the Hot Country Knights got drug off stage by security, but not before Bentley bit into one of the roses he was tossing into the crowd while wearing a mullet wig and leopard-print tank top and singing “Achy Breaky Heart.”

ROMP Festival 2024_Hot Country Knights Dierks biting rose_photog_LauraRay

Leftover Salmon Sets Us Straight

Back to your regularly scheduled bluegrass program, Leftover Salmon arrived fresh from their trip to Telluride for the mountain town’s own bluegrass fest.

The ROMP regulars have been gracing “festivaaallll” (as they say it) stages for 35 years. Well, Andy Thorn, the banjo player has only been with the band since 2011, but he sure can pick! I once saw Nashville band Airshow open for Leftover Salmon, and Thorn nods and shakes his head when he plays just like their mandolin player, Cody Chelius. They played “The Midnight Blues,” from their 1999 album, ‘Nashville Sessions,’ “Boogie Grass Band,” and “High Country.” I definitely had “bluegrass in my soul and rhythm in my feet” by this point. Jay Starling (keys) chugged a Modelo after he finished a killer solo.

I just love Leftover Salmon. They are like wizards with light beams coming down through their heads and bringing notes through their fingers. They’re having a conversation with their instruments, like, “this is what my instrument can do.” “Cool, here’s what mine can do.” They closed with “Down in the Hollow” and came back for an awesome encore with John Hartford’s “Up on the Hill.”

ROMP Festival 2024_Leftover Salmon_photog_LauraRay

But the fest wasn’t over yet! Fireside Collective was playing on The After Party Stage. I had seen the young, jammy, progressive bluegrass band at CaveFest (along with Leftover Salmon) last year. That was their banjo player Alex Genova’s last show. He was going to grad school to master in Jazz Studies for banjo and guitar at Middle Tennessee State University. I’m not sure if the Asheville band has plans to replace him or not, but there was no banjo player on stage with Joe Cicero (guitar); Jesse Iaquinto (mandolin); Tommy Maher (guitar), and Carson White (bass), but there was a drummer, Mike Tillis, who was not at The Caverns when I saw them before.

ROMP Festival 2024_Fireside Collective_photog_LauraRay

The ROMP Rundown

What a fun fest! I loved the lineup and the fact that I could bring in my NA beer, since that can be hard to find at a music festival. They did offer music workshops during the day, but I didn’t get a chance to check them out. I also did not get to experience camping there, but there were a TON of campers. Some even brought their golf carts to get around in. Oh, and kids 12 and under get in free! I’ll definetly be back – hopefully with cooler temperatures!

ROMP Festival 2024_ROMP Pedestrian bridge_photog_LauraRay
ROMP Festival 2024_ROMP fans_photog_LauraRay

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