Three days of bluegrass in the Ambazac Mountains of France

This post is a contribution from Charley Sifaoui, a bluegrass picker and enthusiast who has been active in France since the 1980s. He shared this report from a recent jam weekend among the lovely Ambazac Hills of the Limousin region in central France. Charley starts with a brief overview of the French bluegrass scene.

In Western Europe, France, like other European countries, has had a lot of grassers since this music first emerged from the hills of Kentucky. The bluegrass scene even knew golden years, in the ’70s and the ’80s just after Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Eric Weissbergs’ Duelin’ Banjos became relatively well popularized in France by the movie industry and the radio programers.

This music became so popular that every music shop in Paris was soon displaying five string banjos behind glass (mostly fine Japanese productions, but also some Gibson RB-250s). At the same time, record shops began to import albums from the USA more frequently.

The result was that some years later, bluegrass music was able to attract big audiences in France, big enough to convince local organizers to seriously consider that it would be realistic to invite our icons to tour in this country. We saw (and not just on records) Doc Watson, Bill Keith, Jim & Jesse, Tony Rice, David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Tony Trischka, Darol Anger, Jimmy Haley and Lou Reid (as Southbound), Peter Wernick, Tim O’Brien, Nick Foster, and Charles Sawtelle (as Hot Rize), Béla Fleck, Glen Lawson, Jimmy Gaudreau, Mark Schatz, Doyle Lawson, Eddie Adcock, Seldom Scene, The Bluegrass Cardinals and so on. This bluegrass flood on France was impressive!

At the beginning of the ’80s France had become a big stage with renowned festivals – the Toulouse Bluegrass Festival, Angers Bluegrass Festival, and a lot of dates in concert halls. American pickers obviously enjoyed coming to visit us. We always appreciated their musicianship and inventiveness, their friendship and their way of life. Jamming with them was natural and easy!

Nowadays, we must admit that this French bluegrass fever belongs to the past. Bluegrass stages are few, even if some festivals like La Roche-sur-Foron – which attracts huge crowds from all Europe and even from the USA in August – are the cornerstone for us from one year to another. Also, it is important to note that a continuous stream of US bluegrass artists is still active in France, even if the publicity is dramatically lacking. By the way, September 28 will see Mike Marshall & Friends at Saint-Saulve in the North of France for a day totally dedicated to bluegrass music, from workshops and expos to a public evening concert.

In fact, this decline in popularity is only apparent in the mainstream. The bluegrass blood is still running in our veins. This is a music we could not easily stop loving. We all remember with the same shiver through our spine the first banjo roll we ever heard. French historical banjo masters are still active: now located in the South of France, Jean-Marie Redon (honored by a SPBGMA Award in 1998) works regularly with his Spanish alter ego and virtuoso, Lluis Gomez; Gilles Rezard is teaching The Wernick Method in Brittany; and the fine mandolin player, Christian Seguret, to mention just a few.

But a phenomenon is emerging. Wherever there is a ’concentration’ of two of three grassers (enough to make a band), there is an opportunity to attract other grassers located in France, for a two or three day private event. We rent a place or even welcome friends at home. Within this short period of social activity, the music reigns supreme over everything. We play as many bluegrass standards as possible and, of course, the food is excellent. The atmosphere is always friendly, and these small events widely benefit those who suffer musical isolation at home the rest of the year. There will be such an event on September 28th in Vichy, and another one later on in Chambery, a French Alps metropole. This last meeting will be entirely dedicated to singing bluegrass harmony vocals.

More close to us is what has happened last weekend (September 13- 15) near Limoges in the South West of France, where the Ambazac’s hills make us think of the southwestern Kentucky curves. A decade ago, Eric Denève and his wife Edmée chose a guest house in a small village surrounded by the beautiful and peaceful nature to host the bluegrass jam get together they had been dreaming of. And every year in September, they welcome bluegrass fans to enjoy jam sessions and a friendly atmosphere. This year, we were more than 30 banjoists, mandolinists, fiddlers, dobroists, guitarists, bassists and singers on the lawn under the warm sun.

A simple and exciting pleasure to pick and get our fingers into the fire, surrounded by good fellows. Is this not a perfect definition for bluegrass music ?