Monday, June 30, 2008

Review: ROMP Bluegrass Festival, Owensboro, Kentucky

This weekend we did vending at the ROMP Bluegrass Festival in Owensboro, Kentucky. Although I've seen a lot of Bluegrass at various music festivals, this was my first true all-Bluegrass festival. ROMP stands for River of Music Party, and this was a two-day Friday and Saturday festival. At first I was curious why there was no music on Sunday but I soon realized the reason: church.

We got in Thursday night, set up the tent, and overall it was pretty uneventful. We set up Friday, and since there was hardly any business, I had a lot of time to take it all in. Here are a random series of observations:

-There's no way around it: every intro to every Bluegrass song either sounds just like "Ginseng Sullivan" or "My Long Journey Home"

-We had a Swedish customer, and after we chatted for a few minutes and I mentioned that I am in law school he pointed to the other people in the booth and asked if they were lawyers too. Apparently, he already had the impression that everyone in America was a lawyer, just like everyone in Sweden is an engineer.

-We had some really cool neighbors again. The people to our right were these really cool older biker hippies who only do vending at Bluegrass Festivals in Kentucky. The people to our left were from the northeast and have been on the road with their vending business since Langerado, and were stopping at the ROMP in between Bonnaroo and July 4th at Nelson Ledges. They've been doing the vending thing for two years now, and gave us a ton of helpful advice.

-I know that throughout the course of the weekend we heard "Paul and Silas" along with "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad" and I'm pretty sure we also heard "Poor Heart."

-The older, more traditional Bluegrass bands would sit there and tell stories for what seemed like hours between songs. I felt like my grandpa was on stage telling these tall tales that never really went anywhere, or if they did go anywhere it would take too long and it wouldn't make any sense. And a lot of the time, of course, the stories didn't really end, they were just the background to the next song, which was a whole other story.

-Apparently "Let the Circle be Unbroken" is Bluegrass' version of "Soulshine" - I think we heard three groups in a row play that song during their sets on Saturday, not to mention that we had already heard the damn song twice on Friday. I kept having flashbacks to when I was on the college debate team and the debate coach, who was essentially what you would get if Mr. Burns and Darth Sidius had a love-child that lived to be 1000 years old, would play that song over and over at top volume on the van on trips across the country.

-One of the main acts got the audience to cheer based on their Christian denominations. "How many methodists do we have in the audience? What about Baptists? Catholics?" etc. At this point I yelled "what about Jews?" really loudly and then ran away, fearing that I might have inspired the town to play its own version of Throw the Jew Down the Well

-I was bit by a field mouse as we were taking down the tent. Here's to hoping that I don't have rabies.

-One of our smoothies is called the "vegan breakfast smoothie," and the 15 Western Kentuckians or so that ordered it asked for the "veggin' breakfast smoothie."

-Favorite band of the weekend: Crooked Still. This sounded a lot more like newgrass than bluegrass to me (the distinction always seemed trivial until this weekend), but they put on such a great show that they got a better reaction from the church-going, 50+ year old crowd than I thought possible.

-Runner up: Cherryholmes. They were just a rowdy Bluegrass band who put on a really fun show. Apparently they are pretty popular.

-Honorable mention: the Japanese Bluegrass band that played Friday night with the rest of the Bluegrass allstars (the whole thing is sponsored by the Bluegrass Museum and they got together literally 25 aging Bluegrass legends up on stage to play together and videotaped it all for historical documentation purposes). These Japanese dudes have been playing Bluegrass music their whole lives, singing about Kentucky, Tennessee, coal, moonshine, etc., only in Japan. Come to think of it, there were also Swedish and Italian Bluegrass bands there as well. I was astounded at how many people flew in from other countries to attend the ROMP.

Back to business: business was so slow that it was questionable whether we were going to be able to pay for company herb, let alone pay ourselves for the weekend. We'd sell a smoothie here and there, but overall we were getting crushed by the "Redneck Concessions & BBQ" booths, whose owner kept trying to get us to try the Rocky Mountain oysters.

Business was slow for three reasons. First, there were only 2,000 people or so at this thing and we were competing for those people with an Italian ice booth and a homemade ice cream booth. Second, and this was very surprising, no one moved during the music sets. Everyone sits in their lawn chair the entire time and only gets up during the 10 minute set breaks, like it would be rude to stand up during an artists' performance. Third, let's just say that most of these folks are not exactly thin (this town has a drive-thru Panera), have never had a smoothie, and would only be interested in one if it was barbecued and then deep fried.

But then, there was a miracle.

The festival director announced that the Kentucky Governor's Scholars, which is comprised of 400 high schoolers with lunch money and a taste for smoothies, were being bused into the festival. Let me tell you: high school kids loooooove smoothies. I think we probably sold a smoothie to every high schooler there. One of them actually ordered a Honeydew smoothie which was so good that we added it to our menu right then and there. Because of the high schoolers, we got to get paid, which is a wonderful thing. And as a plus, our little operation is getting to look a lot more legitimate and a lot less like a shit-show.

Overall I thought this was an awesome weekend, and this will definitely not be my last Bluegrass festival.


WeightStaff said...

Loved the insight into the world of a Kentucky Bluegrass festival. Great personal review coming from a vendor and not an attendee.

Apparently "Let the Circle be Unbroken" is Bluegrass' version of "Soulshine" = Very Funny


Gabrielle Gray said...

"Oh, would that God the gift would gee us, to see ourselves as others see us"?

I guess we’ve been given the gift via the partyin' peepin’ blog, eh?

We're trying to transform the landscape around this part of the country, and your presence at ROMP was definitely the direction we're trying to go. Come on back in '09 and fix me a honeydew smoothie.

Thanks for coming and I'm really glad you did OK financially. Go now and preach bluegrass. (:>)

Gabrielle Gray, the museum and festival director

Anonymous said...

I saw Cherryholmes last weekend for a festival at Bean Blossom in Indiana, and they were great. The bassist came up to the mic and told the men in the crowd to "stay away from my women. I have a castration tool on my hip."

Not your typical bluegrass-gospel banter...

Mike Lawing said...

We were very happy to have you at our event! We booked Crooked Still specifically for the Peeps who might attend and I'm glad you liked them. Thank you for coming and I'm glad you made your money! Sincerely, Mike Lawing - Museum Assistant Director and Event Staff