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French Bluegrass have a rich legacy and strong support for the music today.
There are however some risks looking to the future
France has an incredible Bluegrass history thanks to some genuine pioneers - talented musicians who grew up in the 60s and found space to create and express their music, and who are still the benchmark today.
With no Internet or social media, they managed to understand the social, cultural and musical roots of Bluegrass and to reach levels of excellence rarely equalled in France. They were never out of place on festival stages in the USA or in France, and the concerts and events that took place in the 1970s are part of our Bluegrass folklore.
The three Toulouse Bluegrass Festivals (1982 - 84) marked the apotheosis of this period as they brought together on the same stage major artists from the USA, France and Europe. For many young people, who did not know the first generation, the bands seen at Toulouse became the reference for what Bluegrass should be.
After Toulouse, and still without the Internet, French Bluegrass was kept alive by the rise of free local Radio stations with specialist programmes and local venues that promoted Bluegrass bands. During this period, new initiatives sprung up that were to become the mainstays of French Bluegrass into the 2000s :
So French Bluegrass has a legitimate back story and a solid foundation on which to build with national and regional associations, top quality workshops, regular jam sessions around the country and the biggest Bluegrass festival in Europe.
Outside of the UK, culturally closer to the USA and with a longer history of musical exchange, France is the only country in Europe with an association that is active nationwide, that continues to thrive through leadership changes at the top and whose members are willing to keep it going.
France has several excellent musicians of all ages, some with first-hand experience of the American Bluegrass scene. They play in bands, teach classes, attend weekend meetings and contribute to professional music magazines.
With the worldwide popularity of roots and acoustic music, we are also seeing more and more young people in France starting to play acoustic music and form bands.
While for some of the Toulouse generation Bluegrass started with Seldom Scene and New Grass Revival, it was not difficult to go back a generation to find Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs or the Stanley Brothers (Bill Monroe even played in France at Dore l’Église in 1992).
These early bands are still very much news today across the Atlantic where Junior Sisk, Danny Paisley or Po’ Ramblin’ Boys play traditional Bluegrass with great success. It is also worth noting that more “innovative” artists continue to pay hommage: Peter Rowan recently released “Carter Stanley’s Eyes”; Jerry Douglas created the Earls of Leicester; Tony Trischka still insists that Earl Scruggs is the heart of all banjo playing; Noam Pikelny released “Noam Pikelny plays Kenny Baker plays Bill Monroe”; and the Punch Brothers regularly cover old Bluegrass classics.
However, this traditional music seems remote for the new generation in France with no Bluegrass background and raised mostly on YouTube. Their references are broad, diverse and rooted in todays music, a long way from classic Bluegrass. A band with an acoustic guitar and a banjo can tag itself #Bluegrass!
We have seen young bands like AJ Lee, Della Mae, Frank Solivan and Mile Twelve acknowledge their legacy by playing covers of the old songs. If we want to avoid Bluegrass in France getting lost in an acoustic music melting pot disconnected from its roots, we need to find a way to educate newbies without appearing elitist.
In all of our national and regional meetings, French Bluegrass musicians are always ready to help newbies learn more about their instrument, the music and its history, simply and unpretentiously through ad hoc or formal teaching sessions.
They may not all be interested to go this route and it doesn’t matter. We do not want to shut them out from the Bluegrass scene, but we do need to be ready to say what is and what is not #Bluegrass.
If you want to find out more, a good starting point would be to join FBMA to stay up to date with events in France and to find friendly and willing neighbours to play with.
To conclude this piece, here are 4 factors that I identify as being important to qualify a band as #Bluegrass. I do not include such fundamentals as the instruments played, musicianship or Bluegrass harmony singing, all of which count.
I refer to France although all countries, including native English speakers, have specific issues with some or all of them depending on their musical and linguistic background!
1. Rhythm: play on the off beat.
Our musical culture in France and Europe stresses the beat (the 1 and the 3) whereas a lot of American music, including Bluegrass, puts the accent on the off beat (the 2 and the 4).
This is what makes the song “swing” and what gives the singer and the soloist space to breathe and express themselves.
It doesn’t come naturally but it is essential if you want to sound #Bluegrass.
2. Singing: give meaning to the words.
The English language has a natural in-built musicality. You can lengthen and shorten words to fit, and even give two sounds to one syllable (time = taïm).
In Bluegrass it is often recommended to slide into a note when singing.
In French, every syllable has the same time value and we are taught to come straight in on the note.
Songwriters have given us some jewels, gorgeous little stories in 3 or 4 verses. If you are not comfortable with the language, you can sing the words by heart, phonetically but you will lose their meaning and all the emotion. Who among us thinks about the story when singing “Will the Circle be Unbroken”?
Even native English speakers can have problems singing authentic #Bluegrass!
3. Culture: gain legitimacy through the context.
Bluegrass now has a history and a culture of nearly 100 years.
Knowing about the “Monroe Style”, or playing a “Scruggs Roll” or a “Fiddle Kick Off” right, are part of the Bluegrass basics.
It’s ok to lean towards jazz, pop, folk or rock with a Bluegrass band formation, but if you can’t play the music of Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs or the Stanley Brothers, it will just be jazz, pop, folk or rock, and it will not be #Bluegrass.
4. Community: play as a “group”.
Bluegrass comes alive through interaction with everyone bringing their own contribution to serve their bandmates and the song - on stage, in rehearsal and in jams.
A band is a collective, stronger than the sum of its individual parts. If you don’t pay attention to the lyrics, there is a danger the song will take second place to individual exploits. Of course, everyone needs to know their part, but think of each solo as a short story that only has meaning when it contributes the full story of the song.
Article rédigé par Christopher Howard-Williams.
Vidéo : "Bluegrass Breakdown" 1965.
A classic Bill Monroe instrumental showing the “rock” attitude of the early Bluegrass. Note his “Bluesy” sound that he picked up from his Uncle Pen’s guitarist friend Arnold Schultz.
Also, see the young Peter Rowan on guitar!
This is the reference band for lovers of the original Bluegrass sound.
Earl Scruggs is like a metronome on the banjo. Listen to his back up play behind the vocals of Lester Flatt. Wouldn’t we all like to sing like him?
Josh Graves established the dobro as a lead instrument in Bluegrass.
Note also, the fiddle kick off of Paul Warrent (father of Earls of Leicester fiddle player Johnny). Stay for the fiddle-banjo duet at the end.
Group formed by dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas to pay hommage to the songs of Flatt & Scruggs from the 1940s and 50s.
Johnny Warren plays his father’s fiddle, himself a long time member of the Foggy Mountain Boys.
Charlie Cushman (banjo) was a student of Earl Scruggs
Shawn Camp on guitar and vocals played at Craponne in France with his country rock band!
Barry Bales (Bass) and Jeff White (mandolin).
Waiting for my bags at Nashville airport one time I bumped into Jerry Douglass (as you do) and he told me that this music is still really hard to play right, even for them!!
Video : Sister Sadie “Ashes of Love”
I love this band. They have amazing drive and they are friends. Dale Ann Bradley (guitar) has played twice at La Roche.
Looking for one of their songs on YouTube, I found this one recorded at Grass Valley in 2019. Sadly, I missed the kick off by Deanie Richardson (herself with tours with Patty Loveless and Bob Seeger under her belt), but the drive in this song is a good illustration of the role of the off beat in creating that Bluegrass feel.
Tina Adair broke her finger in a fall shortly before this show and played sitting down. She still rocked the mandolin chop and even managed a couple of breaks.
Even the younger progressive bands still play the old classics.
Here, Chris Luquette sings this Flatt and Scruggs song using all the effects of modulation and the musicality of the language to bring the song alive. Frank’s bluesy mandolin break is a wonderful hommage to Bill Monroe’s playing.
The band holds it together through the jam part of the song with the strong drive of the off beat, allowing them to come back to the melody for the final chorus.
Salty Dog Blues — A classic Flatt and Scruggs number.
Videos : I picked 4 versions to illustrate my essay.
The Flatt & Scruggs version that sets the benchmark.
For your listening pleasure, the Earls of Leicester version — the tribute band where some of today’s best pay their own respects to Flatt & Scruggs.
The Broken Circle Bluegrass Band (the song starts at 3’20)
Not an easy task to choose a counter example, but as they are all excellent musicians in their own right, I hope they will excuse me.
I thought it a shame the producers did not hire Bluegrass musicians for the soundtrack of this film as we know there are some very good ones in Belgium.
Their lack of knowledge of the Bluegrass culture is evident to my ears. The offbeat is not marked enough leaving an impression of precipitation and confusion rather than drive and clarity.
This being said, the audience loved it and their version of "If I Needed You" in the film is sublime.
Bela Flek’s Tales from the Acoustic Planet (1999) showing that it is possible to get drive and clarity on a live stage with several musicians. Listen for the off beat!
Sam Bush, Bela Flek, Bryan Sutton, Jerry Douglas, Mark Schatz and Stuart Duncan invite Earl Scruggs and Vassar Clement for this hommage. Note how Bela, for his own album, leaves the banjo playing to the great Earl Scruggs!