As a thirty-something who grew up in Owensboro but moved away after high school, it’s hard to not look at what the city has become and be a little jealous. Don’t get me wrong: Owensboro was a great place to grow up. However, since I’ve relocated, exciting developments in the community have given young people more options than ever before. The kids these days don’t know how good they have it.
One of the two biggest changes in Owensboro in the last fifteen years have been the revamping of the downtown riverfront with newer, hipper bars, restaurants, and shops. The other has been the creation of ROMP, Owensboro’s very own bluegrass music festival. Now in it’s fifteenth year, ROMP is boasting bigger and better acts than ever, and attracting people from around the globe.
Many young professionals have played a part in transforming Owensboro into what it has become today. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Katie Keller, a friend and former coworker who moved back to Owensboro after college and, among other things, did her part to reinvigorate the bluegrass music scene in Owensboro and helped make ROMP a global attraction. Having recently accepted a job in Nashville, this will be Katie’s last year officially working for ROMP, and we at Dead Audio Blog thought it would be the perfect opportunity to discuss the origins of ROMP, how it has changed throughout the years, some of the best moments of the festival so far, and what’s next for Katie and for the festival itself:
Dead Audio: What’s your official title with ROMP?
Katie Keller: Right now I’m still the Marketing Director. I’m also VIP Coordinator, and I host the late-night shows.
DA: What are the origins of ROMP? How did it begin?
Gabrielle Grey (who was the Executive Director at the International Bluegrass Museum when I was hired) had started a festival in Somerset called Master Musicians Festival. When the museum board brought her in to take over the Executive Director role, they kind of picked her brain about starting a festival in Owensboro as a fund-raiser for the museum. ROMP was kind of born out of that.
It started down at English Park. It was really small, very traditional. But really cool! A really neat festival. A lot hall-of-famers were there. You look back at the inaugural poster and you see these names and you’re just like, “Damn,I would’ve gone to that!” But back then, nobody really knew what it was. And it all kind of started from there.
When did it make its move to Yellow Creek Park?
The following year.
Were there ever any other sites that were considered?
I don’t really know. I know that they talked about keeping it at English Park, but it was really going to work with what we wanted to do. Yellow Creek Park has been perfect. It has the Pioneer Village, where we have our late night after parties. Just the whole space, the tree line for camping, it’s been perfect.
When ROMP was starting out, do you know if there was ever any pushback from the community? Seeing how polarizing new ideas can be sometimes, like the development of the downtown riverfront for example, I would imagine a project like a music festival would meet with some objections.
I think there’s pushback with everything, but the beauty of ROMP was that it really developed slowly. There couldn’t have been pushback because nobody knew about it for awhile. The big boom happened in 2011 when Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers came. And people only really came because they knew Steve Martin the actor. Most people didn’t really have a clue that he could play the banjo, or that he was extremely distinguished at it and played in this (what would eventually be) a Grammy award-winning band.
That’s when the shift happened. It became this cool thing: “I went to ROMP.” And one thing we did with marketing after that, we would ask people to bring other people and say, “Don’t judge it until you’ve been.” And once you go, you realize it’s nothing like you could ever imagine in Owensboro.
There are plenty of older people in the community that have never been to a music festival before. They hear the words “music festival” and they think about Woodstock, or “it’s just going to be a bunch of hippies running around.” Is that the case with ROMP?
I mean, there’s definitely a hippie element. Which, you’re going to have at any festival. But that’s also the beauty of it. You have these people who maybe don’t normally act like that. But they can kind of get out of their element and get back to more of this free-spirited feeling. It’s like a vacation. It let’s people get loose and have a good time.
There really hasn’t been much pushback from the community, which is great. In fact, some of our biggest sponsors are the county and city government. That is a huge element to our success. They donate the park to use for the event. And when you fill that park up with that many people, that’s a lot of work. Not only for our staff, but for the park staff as well. If you think about the preparation and the clean-up, it’s insane. It’s a lot of work, and (the local governments) spend a lot of money. To have that support has just been priceless, really.
They understand it helps them out as well…
It helps the economy, absolutely. The hotels are full every year. Not everyone wants to tent-camp, believe it or not. And people are going downtown, they’re eating at the restaurants, they’re buying stuff at the shops. It’s definitely a huge boost.
And How Long Have You Been With ROMP?
This will be my sixth full-time festival. I street-teamed before that, but this is my sixth year actually being on the payroll.
How have you seen it change in just your six years?
Camping has boomed, which is really cool to see. This year we maxed out our RV passes, which is something we’ve never done before. I’ve had families tell me, “We bought an RV because of ROMP. We’re an RV family now.”
More and more people are buying 4-day rather than single-day tickets, which is great. It means that they’re really enjoying the experience of getting out there, and they’re completely immersing themselves into this gorgeous festival experience. Also, the caliber of music has increased. It’s always been an incredible lineup of artists, but I think we keep bringing in better and better artists because artists want to play the festival, too. We have one main stage, and the focus is always on that one stage. And I think artists really like that. They’re not competing for attention with other artists.
And of course, there’s more going on than just the music on stage.
Oh yes. Our workshops are really incredible. We have artist-led workshops in Pioneer Village during the day on Friday and Saturday. We have instrument workshops: mandolin, guitar, bass, everything. And we also have songwriter workshops. So people can really get one-on-one with the artists, which is really unique. We have a HUGE kids area where, Thursday through Saturday, all day long, we have fiddle lessons, dance workshops, arts and crafts, face painting, you know, typical kids activities. But it serves as kind of this reprieve for parents, where they can take their kids and have them create something, or make music. We are very family friendly. Kids 12 and under get in free.
I think the scene at the camp sites are neat. You go in and see people setting up the most ridiculous sites. They have every piece of camping equipment. People have full kitchens set up. It really becomes a home away from home. There’s hiking trails. There’s a spray water park. There’s definitely more going on than just music.
And there are the after-parties, which is my favorite part.
The after-parties are wild. They’re a lot of fun. You see a lot of younger people stick around for the after parties, but really, all ages are there. We give the musicians free-reign to play as long as they want. It really depends on the energy of the crowd, but they can play to four, six in the morning if they want. It’s been known to happen.
Have the after-parties always been apart of ROMP?
Ever since it moved to Yellow Creek. It started as a way to pull in more up-and-coming bands as well as some other genres. ROMP started as a really traditional bluegrass festival, and that was a way to incorporate other acts, like dance bands, or Americana bands. Now we put some big names on there. It’s not just up-and-coming bands anymore. We have some really fun bands, some jam bands. Jeff Austin Band is going to be there this year, and that’s just epic.
You talked about the hotels being full earlier. I personally know someone who’s brought friends from New York City who had such a great time they came back the next year by themselves. Have you heard from any people that have travelled long distances to be here?
Yeah! So this year, we’ve sold to 38 states and 6 different countries. I’d say probably the furthest away is Australia. We sell to Japan almost every year. There’s a huge bluegrass scene in Japan, believe it or not. Hawaii is probably the furthest state that we’ve sold to. We had a group of around 6 people come last year from Hawaii. They loved it said “We’re never going to miss this again.” What a pilgrimage!
Any special ROMP moments you want to share?
I have a story but I wasn’t there. I want to share it anyway because I think it’s one of the coolest things that has happened. In 2007, we had this torrential downpour, and Punch Brothers got rained out. But they went under this tent that we had by the merch table that we were just using as a shade tent. They basically just started jamming, and they continued for awhile. There were only, like, 25 people over there, and we have these epic pictures from it of people just in disbelief that it was happening. And so for those 25-30 people, they got this personal concert from Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers.
What would be your dream headliner?
Actually, Allison Krauss is one that we have been wanting for awhile and she’s there this year! But for me, personally? Beck would be really cool. Maybe we can get Jack White to come down from Nashville in the coming years.
ROMP seems to have a lot of collaborations between bands every year. What’s been your favorite unexpected collab?
A highlight for me was David (Dawg) Grisman, Del McCoury and Sam Bush. It was when Del and Dawg were doing their show, and Sam just kind of popped up. He just showed up in a Kentucky jersey, which was really badass. And to see him, a Kentucky boy, playing with two legends was really incredible.
What’s been your all-time favorite show?
Sam Bush, hands down. I’m like, a Superfan though. I really enjoyed Keller (Williams’ Grateful Grass) last year. I thought that was so fun, and watching everyone sing along to the Grateful Dead songs, it really touched me. Old Crow Medicine Show ALWAYS puts on a good show at ROMP. They’re just so lively and they always play great sets. And I love the after-parties of course.
Any surprises in store for the 15th anniversary?
(with a coy smile) There’s probably going to be some pretty cool collaborations. We’re also doing two instrument raffles this year. But really, bringing in Allison Krauss is our special 15th anniversary thing. We kind of went all-out on getting her. She’s with a whole new band, she just put out a new album. She’s not with Union Station anymore. I think people are going to be surprised. And Ricky Skaggs, he’s going to split his time between doing his traditional bluegrass and his classic country stuff, which is really going to be fun.
What’s the future of ROMP? How do you see it growing?
I would love to see it become more like Telluride (Bluegrass and Country Music Festival). We’re trying to gear it more toward the 4-day experience than just having people come for a single day. We want people to enjoy every part. It would be great to just set a maximum number of tickets and to sell it out, like Telluride. We’re definitely trending in the right direction when it comes to ticket sales.
What are you most proud of regarding your time at ROMP?
I’m proud of the development of the VIP area. When I showed up there wasn’t much of a VIP experience. There was a tent and a bathroom trailer, but that was about it. And I’ve really enjoyed helping create this space where you can hang out, you can have dinner and have a elevated experience in the park.
Taking our marketing to another level was a challenge for me. I feel like I progressed as the festival progressed, so in a way ROMP developed my skills. And I think that’s been a really cool part of working for a festival. Really learning digital trends and social media. And then getting to know really cool people: Having mentors, getting to meet with different artists, and just being able to connect with like-minded people to create something really special. And at the end of it, these people come up to you and are just so grateful for great experience that they’ve had. That’s probably my favorite takeaway.
Is that what you’re going to miss the most?
I don’t think that I can ever go to ROMP and not miss being hands-on. But at the same time I’m really excited to go next year and just live it and get to see another side of it that I probably haven’t seen. Because when you work a festival, you don’t see certain things. You’re just running around putting fires out all the time, or taking pictures, doing on-site promotion. So to maybe go sit for once and see what other people see and experience would be really cool.
I know that I don’t ever want to miss ROMP, and I have a feeling that if I do show up, they’ll just pull me in anyways, so…It’s this little family that you don’t ever get to leave.
What’s next for Katie Keller?
Nashville! Conquering Nashville (laughs). I think that I did everything I wanted to do in Owensboro. I feel like I made Owensboro a better place. I like to think I brought a little more entertainment, a little more culture, a little more fun for some people. I tried to do as much as I could to create a better life there, for others as well as myself. But it’s time to move on now, and let other people fill those roles.
Last question: You wouldn’t have been with ROMP this long if the music wasn’t something you were passionate about. Why is bluegrass so important to you?
It’s the community, by far. Bluegrass has this way of drawing you in, whether you play an instrument or not. Even if you can play just three chords, you could walk right up to a jam session and immediately jump in. Doesn’t matter if you’ve never met those people in your life. Doesn’t matter where you’re from. You can jump in and immediately start making music with people. And I think that’s the most unique quality of bluegrass, and it just drew me in. It touched my heart. To see people from all walks of life come together to tell stories, to pick and play music, to sing the same standards that everyone knows. It’s just this beautiful little community that says, “Hey, come on in! Let’s just pick some music.” It’s kind of a simple way of thinking, but in this crazy world that we live in, it’s a way to escape from it and get back to the basics: We’re all just humans, and we just want to smile have a little bit of fun, and enjoy each others company. That’s the feeling bluegrass gives me.
ROMP is June 27-30 in Owensboro, KY. Get your tickets at rompfest.com
This interview and article was conducted and written by contributing columnist Ben Hayes.