I was hoping to get through this weekend at the La Roche Bluegrass Festival in La Roche sur Foron, France, without getting wet, but it seems to be part of the festival tradition for a few showers to put in an appearance. I’m sitting in the VIP tent listening to the French band, Lonesome Day and watching French school children dance in circles as the sky opens up. It doesn’t phase the band or the kids. Audience members pull out umbrellas and ponchos and hold their ground through the end of the set.
I’ve just wrapped up an interview with guitarist Jean-Paul Delon, guitarist for the French band, Bluegrass 43, the longest-running bluegrass band in France, and gotten a lesson in French bluegrass history. According to Delon, the music’s popularity can be traced back to Roger Mason and Steve Waring playing hootenannies at the American Center in Paris in the late 1960′s, followed by French finger picking artist Marcel Didi and the movie Deliverance.
It’s not just French bluegrass musicians rocking the stage. According to Festival founder Christopher Howard-Williams, 12 countries are represented this year. There are American guest bands headlining, but the Czech musicians are a dominant presence on stage and in late night jam sessions that taper off toward dawn.
The American band Hickory Project, from Pennsylvania, has been here all week conducting instrument workshops for European musicians at a variety of skills levels. For the community and visitors who come in from surrounding towns and cities, it’s all about the summer fun.
“Bluegrass brings joy and good spirits to La Roche sur Foron, and you can’t help having fun when you hear the music,” says Mayor Michel Thabuis in his formal thanks to the guest musicians participating.
I’m staying in the dorms at a local high school with the musicians. I fall asleep to banjo riffs down in the courtyard after 3 am, and wake to the pleasant strains of mandolin being played in the room next door. The sense of fun among the musicians is palpable, despite their lack of sleep.
After jamming the night away, the six members of Dr. Bluegrass and the Illbilly Eight from Brighton in the UK, were out early, headed to Chamonix to play in the streets all day as ambassadors of the festival, then back to La Roche to take the stage at 5 pm. “I had a terrible hangover when I woke up, says Cleo Dibb, drummer for the band, “but as soon as we took the stage, it was gone and I was just having fun.”
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