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Redefining family fun at Memphis Rock-n-Romp




Beginning as a small backyard gathering for parents who wanted to stay connected to the local music scene, Memphis Rock-n-Romp has grown into a series of family-friendly concerts that attract thousands each year. With the tenth season opening this weekend, find out what the concert series has to offer--and why Memphis seems to do it best.
On a sunny afternoon dads escort children up the bluffs only to come right back down, sliding on cardboard boxes. Moms chase toddlers wading in a replica of the Gulf of Mexico. On a picnic blanket, new mothers enjoy a few sips of a Memphis brewer's latest concoction while catching up. Some notable local musicians from years past wait in line for complimentary Central BBQ. Somewhere in the background, a local punk rock band sells a t-shirt to a tween attendee.
 
Welcome to the Rock-n-Romp.
 
Billed as adult music in a kid-friendly environment, Rock-n-Romp is a family-friendly daytime concert series with a "backyard party" feel. Each show is at different location, with local bands playing (not necessarily kids') music for parents and their children.
 
This Saturday is the beginning of the tenth season for one of Memphis' most popular family attractions, and for the third year in a row the season kicks off at the Mud Island River Park. Rock-n-Romp concerts will continue throughout summer. For the suggested donation of just $5, families have come to expect great performances by local musicians, a relaxed atmosphere, and complimentary beer and barbeque, along with other season surprises.
 
Genevieve Stockwell, a fifth grader, has been attending Rock-n-Romp since she was "like a toddler." She's still excited about the new season, particularly the opener, because of Mud Island's "big hill" and the water attractions.
 
But even though Genevieve expects a great time, she knows it's really all about the parents. "Parents want to see live music, but they don't have time to go to shows because they have to get their kids in bed. They get to see other parents they haven't seen in a while and get to catch up on what's been going on with each other."
 
For this season, the organizers have added some new venues to the calendar of shows--with concerts at Overton Square and Shelby Farms--but they are keeping the most popular stops, including Mud Island and the Agricenter's Mid-South Corn Maze, on the list.   
 
Rock-n-Romp was launched in 2006 as a solution to a common problem--when you start raising children, you stop going out. Seeing that new band that all of the millennials are talking about likely requires a trip to a dive bar for a set that won't begin until 1 a.m.  Even if one found a babysitter willing to take on such a late-night task, parents would foot a heavy bill.
 
For some Memphis parents, for whom live music was their main social experience, this conundrum came to a tipping point. Local supermom Stacey Greenberg had had enough. She led a call to action to others in the same boat.
 
One such parent Greenberg contacted was Chip Chockley, who became a founding board member. "I was one who played in umpteen bands and knew all the musicians and bands in town when I was in my twenties. Once we all had kids, we sort of lost touch with that whole scene. It is natural--staying out late in loud, smoky bars is not usually compatible with parenthood. We wanted a way to get back into it," said Chockley.
 
Chockley fully admits that the original board members coalesced in an attempt to stay in touch with Memphis' vibrant music scene, but the group also "grew out of a desire we had to be cool again." 
 
Explaining the concept of the concert series as "inevitable," he remembers how Greenberg stumbled upon the idea of Rock-n-Romp through the "mom blog" scene. "She heard about kid-friendly rock shows, and that a woman named Debbie Lee had gotten shows off the ground in Washington D.C. Stacey rounded up folks she thought would be interested, including me, Robby Grant, and a few other rockers."
 
The D.C. parents gave the Memphis chapter their blessing to use the Rock-n-Romp moniker, and Memphis’ first show was organized. It was held in a small Midtown backyard, featured Amy Lavere and was a big success.
 
Growing Up Strong
Today the Memphis chapter of Rock-n-Romp is the largest in the country.
 
"Nine years later, we don't fit in backyards anymore, and we're still going strong," said Chockley. "It was, in fact, a great adjustment for the [Rock-n-Romp] board in 2009. They simply ran out of backyards that could accommodate the 500+ people that were signing up for the events in droves."
 
The success of the Memphis concerts was so dramatic, D.C. founder Lee had to take a road trip to check out Memphis' brand of show. "Rock-n-Romps have sprung up around the country in places like Boston, Austin, Lexington, Baltimore and Philadelphia because it's just a damn good idea. I think Memphis has the most successful chapter because our crowd has been amazingly loyal," Chockley said.
 Kids play in the "Gulf of Mexico" at the Mud Island Rock-n-Romp in 2014
Chockley also believes the high level of talent in Memphis--with big-name local acts willing to give their time to Rock-n-Romp--has driven the growth of the local chapter. "The well of quality Memphis music is really deep. We've had the best bands around play our shows, like Snowglobe, Mark Stuart, Harlan T. Bobo, the Memphis Dawls. But there are always new bands for us to book."
 
It was clear to the board during the fourth season that to keep up with the demands of the crowds they would need corporate sponsors, larger venues and community partnerships. They actively recruited board members with experience in nonprofit community relations.
 
"Our sponsors have really enhanced the experience," said Chockley about the now long-running partnership with sponsors like Central BBQ, Whole Foods, Bluff City Brewers and many others. 
 
When all of the sponsors who have been involved over the years are catalogued, from venue sponsors, "backstage" sponsors, local schools and nonprofits, it's an impressive list that demonstrates a real synergistic relationship between local music and local business.
 
Building a Music Scene for the Next Generation
The goal for the original board was simple: to create a series of events that they could bring the family to and enjoy. The parents soon began to see some fringe benefits, though, through giving their kids exposure to different cultural experiences. In addition to exposing kids to different kinds of music, Rock-n-Romp introduced them to their city's own vibrant music scene.

In addition to the summer concert series, Rock-n-Romp hosts a week-long summer camp for kids in first through seventh grades. Kids get to work with local musicians to learn how to play instruments, write their own songs and perform with their pint-sized bands in a group showcase.
 
In short, says Chockley, Rock-n-Romp is radically different than taking the kids to see the Wiggles at the Orpheum; it's a fresh spin on family friendly music. "What about real music that the kids wouldn't be ashamed to say they saw and heard when they grow up?"
 
Save the Date
Rock-n-Romp's first show takes place on Saturday, April 11, from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Mud Island River Park downtown.  There is a $5 suggested donation to help the organizers keep the music and the series going.    
 
Insider Tips for First-Time Attendees
  • Bring cash to purchase the Rock-n-Romp t-shirt (what is a killer concert without the tee to back it up?)
  • Arrive early if you want generous amounts of the free BBQ and other snacks
  • Bring a cardboard box for sliding down the bluff (think summer sledding)
  • Dress your tot in a swimsuit under his or her clothes for water play
  • Plan to parent responsibly, supervising your child at all times

Read more articles by Kate Crowder.

Kate Crowder is a freelance writer and veteran educator who has taught for over a decade in public schools. The longtime Memphian and mother of three is frequently found on the stage as musician, actor, or director when not filling her role as contributor and Assistant Editor at High Ground News.
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