It's early evening, and children swarm every corner of a Midtown bungalow, running through the living room, eating marshmallows, wrestling, giggling, and playing video games. Their parents chat in small clumps, drinking beers and excusing themselves briefly to break up fights, kiss boo-boos, and take their kids to the bathroom.
Debbie Lee, a diminutive brunette and mom of two, is the guest of honor at this get-together. The founder of the country's first Rock-n-Romp, held in Washington, D.C. in 2002, Lee is in town as part of a two-week roadtrip with her family. Though she won't make it to the July 11th Memphis Rock-n-Romp, a potluck with former and current board members and their kids is probably the next best thing.
"The people I met online who are interested in Rock-n-Romp are the same people I'd be friends with in real life," she says.
Before she had children, Lee was out three or four nights a week. She sang in indie rock bands. Her husband played the guitar. Then in 2000, she gave birth to her son, Jack, and they moved into a house with a backyard.
"After a six-month baby honeymoon, it was like, oh my God, we're never going out again," she says. "I decided to ask our friends if they wanted to play in our backyard.
"We told a few parents we knew that we were going to do this thing, and we'd have a keg and a swing set."
Rock-n-Romp was born. It was music for parents — nothing from Barney or the Wiggles — but in a family-friendly environment.
About 30 people, including the bands, showed up for that first show. Lee decided to do one Rock-n-Romp a month during the summer and continued hosting them for the next three years.
"The music community in D.C. is pretty small and tight-knit, so at first we asked our friends who were in bands to play," Lee says. "Then I started booking bands that I wanted to see but couldn't. Well, I could go see them, but it was more fun to have them play at my house."
Rock-n-Romp eventually moved from Lee's backyard to a local pub, but she says everything is basically the same with the exception of the swing set. That and the addition of lots of people. At its largest show, attendance for the D.C. Rock-n-Romp was around 600 people.
"Anytime a parent finds out about something cool, they tell five other parents," she says.
In the meantime, one of Lee's friends who was also a blogger, moved to Baltimore and started a Rock-n-Romp there. Someone from Baltimore moved to Philadelphia and started a Rock-n-Romp there.
As with Memphis, people in Boston, Austin, and St. Louis heard about it — many through bloggers — and started Rock-n-Romp in those cities.
"Without the Internet, it wouldn't have become anything. I'm not that ambitious," Lee says. "It's not a hard sell when you have the right mindset."
It's also not a hard sell for many musicians.
Robby Grant, a founding and former member of the local board, is scheduled to play a solo set at the joint Rock-n-Romp/Memphis Music Foundation Family Picnic at the Levitt Shell on July 11th.
"I've got two kids, and it gives me a chance to hang out with them," Grant says. "It's been a lot of fun. My son is going to sit in with me."
During the group's first three seasons, Grant booked the bands. Though Rock-n-Romp now pays bands about $200, they couldn't afford to pay anything in the beginning. But it gave musicians a chance to play for people who probably wouldn't get to see them otherwise.
"Bands play in bars all the time, and this is something that's a little bit different. It's a different audience," Grant says. "When you say you get to play in front of kids, they're either frightened and run away, or they're really into it."
Not only do music-minded parents get to do something they enjoyed before having kids, their children also get an experience.
"It was pretty selfish when I started it," Lee says. "I wanted to hear good music. The added benefit is that my kids get to hear good music, too."