By Ruth Ellen Gruber
It's more than a week since the International Bluegrass Festival in La Roche-sur-Foron, France, and I've only now found a little time to reflect on the experience. I'm prompted to do so by listening to the quite pleasant CD I was given there -- a compilation of bluegrass music called "France Bluegrass 2" played by local French bands. Some 30 bands are represented, with names such as "Nashville Airplane," "Lonesome Day," "Sainte-Foy Family Reunion" and "Bluegrass Deluxe."
The first such compilation came out five years ago, with 21 groups represented. I was told at La Roche that there are about 40 really active bluegrass groups in France today. The heyday of the genre in France was apparently in the '70s and '80s -- according to the CD's web site and thick information booklet, bluegrass was introduced in France in the 1960s thanks to the efforts of the guitarist Marcel Dadi and bano players Jean-Marie Redon and Bill Keith. (Somewhere I have a booklet/magazine by Dominique Fosse put out a few years ago that details 18 years of bluegrass in France.) Some of the early groups -- Bluegrass 43 and the Sainte-Foy Family Reunion -- are still active and included on the CD.
Several French groups on the CD were among the 35 -- count them 35 -- groups that performed during the four days of the La Roche festival. (And I should note that the organizer of the festival, Christopher Howard-Williams, plays in a group represented on the CD called Moonshine.)
There were groups from more than a dozen countries at La Roche -- from Russia to Spain. They played in a variety of styles, from historical re-creation of old recordings (eg the Czech band Sunny Side) to a bluegrass base infused with rock, blues and swing (eg the British band Toy Hearts). Most of the bands were decidedly youthful in their demographic makeup.
A band contest was part of the festival -- and the difference in styles caused consternation among some of the judges. "Bluegrass content" was one of the scoring criteria, and some of the judges refused to acknowledge anything but the strictly traditional.
Once again, the Czechs (and Slovaks...) proved themselves to be at the epicenter of all the styles. The young Czech group Kreni won first prize, with its virtuoso playing, singing and original songs and instrumentals. "They represent the future," said "Big Herbert," a German promoter (and fan and afficionado) who was on the jury.
The second prize went to a band with a totally different demographic (ie, older) and sound -- highly traditional. The New Essex Bluegrass Band from England. The traditional sound and style is studied and deliberate -- as the band's web site puts it:
Since 1994, the New Essex Bluegrass Band has enjoyed over twelve years as perhaps the most traditional sounding of all the UK bluegrass bands.
The material comes from the repertoires of the early bluegrass bands, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, and Jim & Jesse, as well as more modern bands who have created fresh new work in the same tradition. Banjo, mandolin and fiddle drive the faster songs, and provide subtle back-up to the authentic duet and trio vocal harmonies of the slower songs.
From the outset the band adopted the single microphone as the most appropriate form of stage sound, and have inspired many of the other British bands to do the same.
The third place was a tie -- between the Czech Bill Monroe clones Sunny Side (which gives a great show hewing note by note to the old music) and the Slovak/Czech group Blueland, with a more modern sound featuring original material.
(to be continued)