Bluegrass French Style

Saturday 18 August 2018 12:42

What a weekend! Bluegrass music in the Haute Savoie, France - at La Roche-sur-Foron, a mere stone’s throw from Mont Blanc.

The La Roche Bluegrass Festival was the brainchild of English musician, Christopher Howard-Williams. He says ‘Success is often simply having the right people meeting at the right time’, and the genesis of this festival is a good example of just such an happenstance!

In 2004 the French group ‘Moonshine Bluegrass Band’ played a show in the town square. On mandolin and guitar that day was Christopher Howard-Williams, a resident of La Roche since 2000. A few days after the show he went to visit Roland Jobard, cultural attaché to the mayor, to ask if the town could be interested in hosting a bluegrass festival.

‘Why not?’ replied Roland.

Then, after a pause - ‘What's bluegrass?’

Roland gave Christopher a cautious green light and suggested he go see Didier Philippe, director of the Tourist Bureau. Didier, at that very moment, was looking for an event to promote during the summer months to attract more visitors to the town.

He’d never heard of bluegrass either.

A meeting was arranged with Roland, Didier, Christopher and representatives of the town's social, cultural and economic communities. Mayor Michel Thabuis gave the group only one instruction: ‘Make it work!’

They did!.

Amateur musicians and aficionados of bluegrass come from all over Europe to listen to the music and busk in the streets of La Roche. There are professional bands from the US, as well as many European groups, who play on the stages set up at the main open-air venue. This is but two minutes walk from the bars and cafés in the centre of town so it is easy to come and go as one pleases.

The concert programme kicks off on the Thursday evening and runs through every day until the big finish on Sunday night - this year with the hugely popular and stunningly brilliant American band from Colarado, ‘Rapidgrass’.

In the week before the festival week-end members of the visiting US bands and French-based tutors run workshops for all the budding musicians who have turned up with their various instruments hoping to improve their skills and earn the approval of their idols. The workshops are geared to all levels of musicianship from complete newby to semi-skilled; some 45 free concerts take place over the festival weekend; and parking throughout the town is without charge.

An army of volunteers, all townspeople, give their time and energies also for free. They cook huge amounts of food on site for their hungry visitors; it’s cheap and tasty, and, witness the long queues, very welcome. As well as the cooking and serving a never ending flow of liquid refreshment, they organise everything on the site from moving chairs, to emptying the rubbish, manning the stalls and sorting out the lost dogs and children. There are professional sound engineers and the quality of the music is superb. Now in its 13th year the festival appears to run like clockwork; given that there can be up to a couple of thousand people attending the most popular concerts it needs to, but in the end, the real success of the whole thing is down to the forever amiable volunteers.

And amiability is the hallmark of the whole show; audiences range from babes in arms to any number of the seriously ancient and decrepit and all the in-betweeners: families with their kids and dogs; the spreading middle-aged, thankfully offset by lovely young women and handsome boys. Even the heavily-armed French police, who have to be the most macho ever, are issued with stetsons, which they clearly love; making them look even tougher but, funnily enough, a bit more approachable too!

In town, throughout the weekend (which here begins on Thursday) impromptu groups form and play. Numbers vary but sometimes there are as many as twenty or more musicians playing and singing together in different locations around the town. Amoeba-like, the numbers grow, then divide and reform again on other sites. This year the unrelenting sun causes everyone, clutching their instruments, to scuttle from shady patch to shady patch; thankfully relief comes every now and then in the form of a cool(-ish) alpine breeze. The stone-paved square, where shelter from the sun is provided by ancient plane trees and a constant fountain cooling the surrounding air, became the main gathering ground. Here we could sit in the nearby cafés drinking ice-cold panachés, relaxed with feet up, totally enjoying the music. Given the common interest it’s easy to get into conversation with strangers, and though they came from all over Europe, all communicate very competently in English, with us, and with each other.  

Mandolins, five string banjos, guitars, fiddles and the double bass make for the main bluegrass lineup. Players of these last looked like strange beasts of burden as they humped their cumbersome instruments on their backs from place to place; so much easier in this sort of heat to be a harmonica player - of which there were a few. Many of the street musicians had been at the teaching workshops, living together, learning to play their instruments better, exchanging material and ad-libbing to the stuff they didn’t know, but basically, everyone was having a really good time just playing the music; it was the common language and the best means of communication for all.

Once bluegrass was heavily male-dominated; it still is to some degree, but there were loads of women musicians at La Roche plus a surprising number of quite young boys and girls. They played along with the grown-ups and it was great to see the way these kids were gently encouraged to step forward and take a solo and a bow, even when they were, clearly, still at the very beginning of their musical careers.

Bluegrass has come a long way from the days of Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe. These were the musicians who could really play up a storm. True the tunes can still be belted out at the same fast and furious pace as that of the old timers, and this way of playing certainly shows off the amazing dexterity in their fingers, but bluegrass is also a genre which has plenty of room for modern interpretations, new songs and new singers and a more thoughtful, less frenetic sort of music.

Tam, who after last year’s visit, brought his old John Gray down from the loft and started playing again (he says fumbling around) after a gap of some 50 years, was sufficiently enthused to buy himself a nice new banjo from a Polish maker whose instruments were on display at the festival; his is custom-made for his style of playing, with an easy action and sweet tone. He is very pleased with it and the fumbling is less fumblier by the day.

I think that is sufficient clue to where we hope to be this time next year and as part of the action too! The dates are in the diary and our hotel room is already booked!   

Some useful/interesting links: 

The Festival: https://larochebluegrassworkshop.wordpress.com/2018/08/07/inscriptions-2019/ http://www.larochebluegrass.org/learn-to-play.html 


2018 Headliners

• Molly Tuttle (leading an on-stage jam session) 


• RapidGrass


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wq0uwVtQjm0 (in their Gypsy music mode)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LMJ5lukXH4 (with Festival founder Christopher Howard-Williams guesting) 

Banjo makers (luthiers)

• Bulas Banjos https://www.facebook.com/bulasbanjos/ 

• Steph and Sam Hutchings https://www.JusteCordes.com





  Pub. Prospect Books, Aug. 2017


  ISBN -13 978-1-909248-51-9  

  240pp, paperback with flaps

  Size: 216 x 138mm

  Price: £12.50 Black & white

Where to find some of my writings:

Petits Propos Culinaire (PPC) is a journal of food studies and food history published by Prospect Books three times a year since 1980. Now edited by Tom Jaine it is a mix of academic study, food history written with a light touch, and slightly quirky essays written by people like me. Amongst its contributors over the years are some of the best food and cookery writers of our time. Such a special publication continues to deserve our support.

PPC 96 August 2012:

      Food on the Move

PPC 99 November 2013:

      Hospital Food - à la française

PPC 101 October 2014:

      The Limejuice Run

PPC 104 December 2015:

      Cabbage Rules

PPC 110 February 2018:

      Une Mauvaise Herbe; Purslane