Christopher Howard-Williams (left) with Guy Flammier and Didier Philippe
In September 2018 the IBMA recognized the significant contributions that Christopher Howard-Williams has brought to international bluegrass music with the presentation of their Distinguished Achievement Award.
Howard-Williams has been active in bluegrass music circles for 30 years, firstly as a musician/band member. Then as a volunteer MC for the Country Rendez-Vous Festival at Dore l’Eglise, a village in central France, he officiated during what was to be Bill Monroe’s last trip overseas (July 1992).
Four years later he followed the initiative of French bluegrass music stalwart and banjo player, Jean-Marie Redon, and became a foundeing chairman of the France Bluegrass Music Association (FBMA). Later he took on the role of the organisation’s president (for eight years), and for four years the editor of its magazine.
For a brief period, Howard-Williams was Vice-Chair of the European Bluegrass Music Association (EBMA).
All of this was the proving ground for his leadership role in starting and developing the La Roche Bluegrass Festival, staged in the alpine commune of La Roche sur Foron, Haute-Savoie, at the crossroads with Annecy, Geneva, and the Arve Valley that leads to Chamonix and the Mont-Blanc.
Beginning in 2006 there were 24 bands and, according to Didier Philippe, the Director of the Tourist Office of La Roche and general co-ordinator of La Roche Bluegrass Festival – Howard-Williams’ closest working colleague in the management of the festival – “we were very happy and surprised to have 3,000 or 4,000 people” during what was then a two-day event. Ten years later, “we have around 15,000 people coming every year over the four days,” Philippe states with obvious pride.
He goes on to say, “Initially, there were 50 local volunteers catering for the visitors; now there are more than 220 people helping and working at the festival.”
All that said, Philippe stresses, “Nobody in La Roche knew about bluegrass music before Christopher brought it” to the compact, once medieval-stronghold. Now, “we can say that every year the people living in the region of the French Alps know more about bluegrass music because lots of them already came once in La Roche.”
Similarly of great importance as Philippe sees it, everything that Howard-Williams does for the La Roche Bluegrass Festival is for love, not for money, “Christopher is still president and artistic director since 2006 and of course he is still volunteer, which is very remarkable after 13 editions.”
The La Roche Bluegrass Festival has been nominated on three occasions, in 2012, 2015, and 2016, for the IBMA Event of The Year award, “and Christopher and his 200 volunteers are very proud of this,” Philippe insists.
The festival is Europe’s largest festival exclusively dedicated to bluegrass music … and, it’s free!
This year’s event will feature 29 bands (23 of whom are European) from 11 countries. As usual, there are eight contest bands who will play at various times during the four-day event.
The 2019 La Roche Bluegrass Festival takes place from July 31 to August 4, 2019.
So, to start … you were born in Germany to an English family; is this correct, please? Did this influence your choice to live in France in later life?
“Yes, it’s true and no, it did not influence my decision. My parents were military and I was two when they moved to Paris.
Funnily enough my sister was born in Paris and she now lives in Germany, so for some reason we swapped.
My decision to come to France had nothing to do with that. I studied French and took a one-way ticket to Paris after university. We were newly in the EU, there were little formalities and pretty much everyone in France wanted to learn English so, it was easy to get a job.”
When and in what circumstances did you become aware of music? Was this awareness passive or did it develop into active participation (and when was that)?
“I come from a musical family – but it was all classical. My brother is a professional conductor (anthonyinglis.com) and my sister became a professional ballerina, now owning her own ballet school.
I fell in love with the Beatles. My first single was She Loves You and my first album was Beatles For Sale. I graduated to the Byrds, Dylan, and later to the Band, Grateful Dead, and Little Feat. My preference was always for the American approach to rock, rather than the Cream, Led Zep, Genesis approach.
Bluegrass came through Jerry Garcia and Old & In the Way. I started playing in Paris and when I moved to Lyon in 1982, I joined the band Pony Express. This was my first serious participation in a band playing gigs.
I later founded Moonshine Bluegrass Band, still playing today as just Moonshine.
I became Chair of FBMA when no-one wanted to take on the job (2002 – 2010) and kept the association going, increasing members, and organizing two annual national meets in Spring and Winter (still going in Vichy in May and November). I also started getting involved in EBMA (serving as Vice Chair with Angelika for a short time). Dennis Schutt asked me to host his version of EWOB. I went to the Mairie and asked if the town would be interested to host a bluegrass festival and got the famous reply, ‘Why not? What’s bluegrass?’
That was 2005 and we hosted the first festival in 2006.”
Apparently, you played with Moonshine in the town square of La Roche sur Foron and the establishment of a bluegrass festival emanated from that event? Was that just a co-incidence? What was the response that you got from the Mayor and his/her colleagues?
“This concert was organized by the Tourist Office. There was someone taking pictures and I learned he worked at the town hall. In fact, he was the cultural attaché on the council. I went to see him shortly after the show and asked if he would be interested in hosting a bluegrass festival, as Dennis Schut had contacted me about organizing his EWOB in France. His immediate response was ‘Why not? What’s bluegrass?’
I explained that it was the type of music we had played with Moonshine a couple of weeks before. He suggested I go and see Didier Philippe, head of the Tourist Office. Didier and I immediately got on well, and have built a strong friendship since then over the years.”
How have changes to the ‘establishment’ at La Roche affected the continuance of the bluegrass festival? Either way, how do you value the continued support from the city?
“The first mayor we worked with, Michel Thabuis, was a musician. He loved the festival and was proud that the little town of La Roche sur Foron (population 12,000) hosted such a successful international event. He understood the impact the festival had on the town, and enjoyed meeting the US acts every year, even though he didn’t speak English.
At the end of his second term, he was defeated in the local elections. His opponent, Guy Flammier, during the campaign, specifically told me not to worry if he won as the town would continue to back the festival, because he too understood how important the event was for the town. He continued to sponsor the event financially and to be present during the festival, especially at the opening and closing ceremony on stage. Sadly, he died while in office and his successor, Sebastien Maur, has continued the tradition of supporting the festival.
Didier Philippe of the Tourist Office is my co-organizer. In fact, it turned out that he was looking for some event to organize during the summer vacation period. La Roche is in the mountains without being a holiday destination in its own right. He wanted to attract visitors to the town. I came with bluegrass but, I’m sure he would have embraced jazz, blues, or even comedy in the same way. So, I bring the music and Didier organises the event. It is a perfect partnership of complimentary roles.
Didier, being local, knows everyone. So, whenever we have an idea or need some specific assistance, he knows who to call and has some personal relationship already. It makes it a lot easier to get things done logistically. He also happens to be a great project manager and super nice guy that you just want to like and help!
The great advantage we have is that many towns in France, and even locally, have jazz and blues festival, but we are the only bluegrass festival, and have thus been able to establish ourselves as a major event in the region.”
I was going to ask about the ‘free’ admission………..
“During our first meetings we discussed what type of festival we wanted. My initial thoughts were that we use the local theatre that seats around 250 people but gradually we came to the idea to organise something bigger, outdoors that was more than a village fête.
Then came the meeting where we discussed pricing. No-one had any idea. I was the only person who knew anything about bluegrass and I expected that maybe 300 people would turn up. Didier was the event organizer, and he saw bigger. The question was how much can you charge people to come to a music festival to see a musical genre they had never heard of.
Eventually we decided to take a gamble on making entrance free on the grounds that, if they did not pay to get in, people might more easily spend their money once inside the festival.
We therefore decided that we would take charge of all food and drink sold on the festival site. Our decision paid off as we get large crowds, most of whom do not, or did not, know bluegrass, and food and drink is now our primary source of income. Half our volunteers (220 altogether) are involved in preparing, cooking, and serving home-made food and working behind the bars. We have no outside food concessions at the festival.
People came to see what the festival was about with no financial risk. Many liked it and came back with friends and family. Even people from other countries went home and persuaded their friends to come back with them the next year.
Today food and beverage accounts for 50% of our income. The other 50% comes from private sponsors (30%) and institutional sponsors, including the town and local region (20%).”
Please would you tell me about the Festival Off (the ‘Fringe’), please? How does that work? Do these musicians/bands just come on site in the same way as others? Do they have to make a registration plea in advance to ‘book’ a spot? Or is it ad hoc? Who instigated this aspect of the festival?
“The Fringe festival works as follows.
Bands play a one-hour set on a restaurant terrace and the restaurant gives them a meal and drinks. There is no fee.
They have to register because we organize it in such a way that the shows are not close together. If two restaurants are close, they get the 7:00 p.m. slot or the 8:00 p.m. slot, but not at the same time.
It works Wednesday evening and Friday lunchtime.
We offer slots to bands playing the festival if they want it. If we find we have some open slots with no band, we will look locally for a band who may be here. As the festival starts Thursday, we often have trouble filling the Wednesday schedule.
See also the fringe page on the website. This shows the schedule and the number of bands.
Other than that, bands often organize their own sessions with the restaurants, but we don’t plug this as it is often in competition with the main festival!
There are various jam sessions on restaurant and bar terraces pretty much all weekend, non-stop.”
Tim Stafford endorses the IBMA’s decision to recognise Howard-Williams’ contributions to the bluegrass music genre ……
“When Blue Highway played the LaRoche Bluegrass festival in 2014, I was impressed by several things. One was the organizational skill and dedication of festival co-founder Christopher Howard-Williams. Christopher took his idea and ran with it, and created a true success story—one that bears repeating for the future of bluegrass festivals. Christopher could not have been more inviting and helpful, a gracious host, and marvelous wrangler and organizer of volunteers and sponsors, among his many other talents.
Hopefully he’ll keep on doing it, because we all need him. There couldn’t have been a more deserving recipient of the Distinguished Achievement Award.”
Eugene O’Brien, Chair of the European Bluegrass Music Association, hails the impact that the La Roche Bluegrass Festival has had on European bluegrass bands …
“The La Roche festival is a significant element in the growth of home-grown European bluegrass. Whether playing on the main stage or on the smaller lunchtime stage, the festival gives established European artists and bands, as well as newcomers, the opportunity to play to the largest bluegrass audience in Europe.
Also, about forty bands apply each year to enter the competition to be crowned European Bluegrass Band of the Year with this number whittled down to eight finalists that play over the four days of the festival. I have the pleasure and honour of not only having been in a winning band, but also over the past three years a member of the jury for the competition.
From this vantage point I have seen how well the festival is organised, the care that is given to have a wide representation from across Europe and the magnificent support from the town and the volunteers that make it so successful.
This year the European Bluegrass Music Association (EBMA) is delighted to have La Roche as one of our Partner members and is adding to the overall prize money for the winners, second and third place bands in the competition.”
Angelika Torrie cites one particular strength that has made the La Roche festival so successful ….
“It was great to have Christopher on the EBMA board of directors for several years. We had met years ago and then again at the second or third edition of the La Roche Bluegrass Festival. His joining the board of EBMA was a great win.
Christopher’s skill of building relationships is one of the major strengths that helped building the festival in La Roche, and it has brought and, will bring, many US bands over to Europe already, and also helps bands from across Europe to contribute to the colors of La Roche Bluegrass Festival.”