Bluegrass Beyond Borders: The Louvat Brothers bring their bluegrass to Belgium

While Belgium might seem an unlikely point of origin for an eclectic bluegrass band, The Louvat Brothers prove that nationality has no bearing when a genuine love of music is concerned. Indeed, over the past 25 years, Steve Louvat and his trio have won critical kudos by providing a unique blend of bluegrass, folk, jazz, classical, and world music influences, as demonstrated by their appearances throughout Europe, the US, and Canada. Further proof of their prowess was realized when they won the prestigious Liz Meyer Award at the European World of Bluegrass Convention in the Netherlands in 2012. Likewise, the praise that accrued from such legends as Byron Berline and Bill Keith, both of whom hailed the trio for their acumen and ability, also confirms their credibility. 

“They are fantastic musicians,” Berline once wrote. “When I first met Steve and Jefferson, I was impressed with their enthusiasm and eagerness… Give a listen to these guys; you will not be disappointed!”

Keith hailed them as “Belgium ‘s best-kept bluegrass secret,” and noted Steve’s “complex and compelling banjo playing, as well as his writing skills,” before concluding that, “These guys are really good!”

“My younger brother Jefferson and I started playing because our father was attracted by American music,” Steve Louvat explains. “I was four or five when he would borrow records from the local media library. He first learned about the blues, along with country and bluegrass music. As a result, we grew up with the sound of the Marshal Tucker Band, the early New Grass Revival, Tony Trischka, and Doc Watson, along with Jacky Galou (a French singer, composer and writer who made some wonderful bluegrass album in French for children), and the finger-picking guitar player Marcel Dadi, to name but a few.”

Those influences played a significant part in the brothers’ own musical development, and Steve recalls a point in particular where it all started to gel. “I will never forget this crucial moment,” he says in retrospect. “I was 13 when I saw a friend playing some guitar at school, and it really made a spark in my mind. I thought, ‘I want to do that!’ So when I came back home at the end of the week, I asked my parents if I could learn the guitar. They thought it was a good idea, but my mother suggested, ‘Guitar is cool, but very common … how about the 5-string banjo? The sound is fantastic and it’s not so often that we can hear it.’ Since I was familiar with its sound and the music it made, I naturally considered it and then agreed to try it. I received my first banjo — a left handed Aida — for Christmas 1987. I was so excited. I still smile when I remember the song that seemed so appropriate — Santa Never Brings Me a Banjo by David Miles. I love that tune.”

Accordingly, Louvat also holds fond memories of his initial banjo lesson. “It was in February 1988 with the banjo player Guy Donis in Liège, Belgium,” he reflects. “I was completely blown away by the sound that was occurring live and in front of me, as well as the feeling of the picks on the strings. I knew then that I would be spending a lot of time practicing. A little bit later, I experienced the same feeling while meeting the Belgian finger-picking guitar player, Jacques Stotzem. When I received my first guitar at 15, I took some lessons with him. Since the guitar allows me to express myself and to write tunes in a complementary way to the banjo, I also pursued a solo separate career with it, and I’ve continued to keep both instruments with me along my musical journey.”

At that point, it was clear he had found a definitive path forward. “Jefferson and I started to give local concerts soon after that,” he recalls. “We always had our instruments with us. I remember I had my 17th birthday just a few days before we played at a big country festival with André Vandomber on guitar and Wally Lawers on bass, in front of thousands of people. We spent all the money we earned buying a top bluegrass vinyl album collection recorded by our bluegrass heroes.”

At that point, things began to accelerate. Louvat picks up the narrative.

“It started with a duo,” he explains “Jefferson started playing the mandolin a little bit after I took up the banjo, and so we grew up as brothers as well as musicians, playing and learning bluegrass together from the beginning. We tried forming several bands — the very first one was with our parents — but it wasn’t easy because very few people played that style of music, or were as involved in it as we were. So Jefferson picked up the guitar and we started to give concerts and to tour as a duo named Steve & Jefferson Louvat, and that turned into The Louvat Brothers after playing in the States at the Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival in 1997 and 1999, and at the IBMA in Louisville in 2000 with Mark Schatz. That unforgettable experience taught us how much fun and how important it was to play with a bass player.”

In the meantime, certain of their idols instilled their own impact on the brothers’ progression, Bill Keith in particular. 

“I feel very lucky about that,” Louvat insists. “I remember being a teenager  practicing and trying to figure out what my heroes were playing on their recordings. I was dreaming about someday meeting them as well. When I was 16, I met Bill at a workshop in Bruxelles that my friend and fellow banjo player, Thierry Schoysman, organized. That day changed my life. I was blown away by the power and the creativity of Bill’s playing. When I was 18, Bill became my mentor. Then in July 1993, I turned 19 and I found myself touring several states in the US with Bill. I did so again in 1996 and 2004, and these wonderful travels allowed me to meet and play with most of my heroes — Bill, of course, and also, Béla Fleck, Scott Vestal, Sammy Shelor, Tony Trischka, Dave Dick, and Jens Kruger, plus all the musicians I met when Jefferson and I played at the IBMA in Louisville, along with all the musicians we met at the Byron Berline’s Oklahoma International festival in Guthrie — where we played five times — and those we met at the festivals were I played alone or with the trio. It was a true pleasure each and every time to meet and to play with fantastic musicians and great  human beings. It taught me so much about how to reach an authentic sound.”

By 2008, after a few false starts with some bassists that turned out to be only temporary, the trio began to gel. In October 2010, Byron Berline invited the Louvats back to his Oklahoma music festival, and Steve and Jefferson decided to take what they saw as “a big turn.” That’s when the decision was made to perform their own original music.

“Since it was not only traditional bluegrass any more, but rather some personal compositions that drew from various influences, we thought it was time to focus on some specific arrangements with one permanent bass player — a musician named Michel Vrydag — and have him come with us,” Louvat says. “He said yes right away, so we decided to take up the challenge together. We worked hard on the arrangements of the pieces we had already written, and we also started to write new tunes with him as part of a trio. This musical approach was completely different; Michel brought his wonderful, and different, musical background and knowledge, his virtuoso technique and his humor. At that point, we started to develop a new sound all together, and he became the third Louvat Brother.”

Nevertheless, in 2015, their efforts took another big turn. Jefferson decided to work full-time in a duo he had started with fiddle player Ariane Cohen-Adad, so Steve turned to a Canadian friend named Jeff Cardey to take his place. “Jeff was living in Bruxelles for some years, and he is a wonderful mandolin and guitar player,” Louvat says. “He also sings and his musicality was very compatible with our project. As life is a perpetual evolution and these changes are part of the trio’s story, we kept the name Louvat Bros., and we welcomed Jeff Cardey as our new musical brother.”

The band’s output has been prodigious and prolific ever since. They’ve recorded three albums as the Louvat Bros. an eponymous debut, their sophomore set, Contrastes, and a third titled Between the Heart and Reason, all in addition to their appearances on various compilations and an assortment of individual projects.

“Each of us loves to write music, and we enjoy creating the arrangements together,” Louvat says. “We practice the new tunes while sharing spontaneous ideas, but we also carefully analyze each part to create a full score. Each of us reads music and we study the harmony that finds bass, guitar, banjo, and mandolin coming together as if they were part of a big keyboard playing all the notes together, with each note having its perfect place in the mix. The main inspiration and energy come from the wonderful moments we share while being on tour, traveling throughout Europe, the United States, Canada, and India. It also comes from the cultural richness and the generosity of all the people we meet on the road. That’s one of the aspects I love the most being a musician.”

Louvat also shares his passion for making music by passing on what he’s learned to others. “I feel very blessed and thankful to have met so many amazing musicians who taught me what I know, as well as those who are still teaching me today,” he says. “So I love to share that, probably because I see myself in the people who find they are unable to sleep unless they know how it all works. I do workshops at festivals, as well as banjo and finger-picking guitar lessons on Skype, and I’ve also been organizing a workshop once a year for ten years here in Libin, the village where I live in the southern part of Belgium. It’s tailor-made for various skill levels to fit everyone’s expectations. It takes place in a lovely little old hotel and it always leads to a wonderful time of sharing music.”

That said, he admits that it took some indoctrination to get the people back home acclimated to the trio’s sound. While there were certain connections to the country’s traditional music, bluegrass in particular wasn’t necessarily known.

“As far as I remember, the people here in Belgium always enjoyed the exotic sound of the banjo and the mandolin… and the happy music they are connected to,” Louvat suggests. “However, to be honest, since it is not part of the musical culture here, the first reaction was usually to associate it with cowboys, hats and guns. Being teenagers and completely in love with our instruments, and later discovering the recordings of the people we considered masters — Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Bill Keith, Béla Fleck and many others — we knew about the music’s amazing potential. So it was frustrating sometimes, but very soon we realized that if we wanted people to be aware about the finesse of this music and these uncommon instruments, it was our responsibility to bring the subtlety to them, not the other way around. Very soon we started to incorporate various styles of tunes into our repertoire, and we’ve been doing that at every concert and sharing that idea with everybody we meet. I always feel like I’m a musical ambassador of some sort, but after doing this for 30 years now, I can tell you not only that it’s worked, but it’s also led us to play in many kinds of places, from bars and music clubs and schools, to radio and a wide array of major festivals worldwide.”

Naturally then, Louvat has his own idea as to why bluegrass seems to catch on so quickly. 

“This music has a fantastic and positive energy,” he insists. “Even if the lyrics are sad, you can start a fast tune with a banjo lick and people will quickly start to smile and dance spontaneously. I think the instruments involved, such as the banjo, the mandolin, dobro, fiddle — combined with the way they are played — creates something really mysterious and magical that makes you want to understand what’s happening, and sometimes you just want to tame it. It also has a familiar sound with its groove and vocal harmonies. So even if you don’t know what it’s called, you recognize it after just a few bars. It’s a music full of sensibility and subtlety, and since it’s constantly evolving, you can fully express yourself with a unique touch and color.”

He pauses for a moment and then adds, “It’s a music that’s close to the people and also close to the heart. You can just feel it.”

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.