The sun has set on summer. Despite the continuing high temperatures and bright sunny days, summer is officially over. So it’s nice to be back, ruminating on life here in France.
Once the 1st of September comes around, holidays are finished, the school year starts and rural France commences the move into winter mode. The night markets and summer village markets come to an end, as do the brocantes. Our French neighbours start to wear sweatshirts and the occasional jacket, though temperatures are still in the low to mid-twenties and most of us immigrants are still in shorts and T-shirts. It’s an interesting time of year.
It has been a very hot summer throughout Europe but it seems to have been particularly warm in South West France. We’ve had no less than four officially declared heat waves in our region – in a normal year you would expect one, maybe two. We had weeks where the daytime temperatures refused to dip below 30C and were often much closer to 40C, and that was the ambient temperature – in the full sun, you could probably roast a chicken, never mind fry an egg! Rain is still in short supply and crops have been badly hit. Like most in France, we have a small potager, a vegetable garden, and while we’ve had some notable successes, particularly the potatoes and courgettes, a lot of things haven’t survived the heat and lack of water. Hopefully, we’ll have the usual wet winter for this part of the country to redress the balance a bit but it looks like climate change is starting to bite.
On a more positive note; some of you will, hopefully, have seen my recent live review of Martha Fields and her excellent band when they played our local venue, La Rhue, in Jumilhac Le Grand. It was an excellent evening with a terrific bunch of musicians and it was encouraging to discover that Americana music is making an impact here in France. I took the opportunity to chat a little with Martha herself and her very talented multi-instrumentalist, Manu Bertrand, ahead of the show and to ask them a bit about their experiences of the americana scene here in France.
Martha Fields first came to France some 9 years ago, invited over from her native U.S to see a friend. That turned into a fascination for the country that has seen her spend more and more time here year on year and she now spends more time, per year, in France than she does in the U.S. She put her current band together, all French musicians, 7 years ago now, and they are quite outstanding. I asked how she managed to find such accomplished americana playing musicians here in France and it turns out we have Walt Disney to thank for that! Disneyland in Paris boasts a replica of Billy Bob’s, the bar and music venue in Fort Worth, Texas, billed as the world’s biggest Honky Tonk. Most of Martha’s band built their chops playing in the house band at Billy Bob’s in Disneyland, Paris. The popular venue might also account for some of the increase in interest in americana here. Martha and her band play throughout France and many other countries in Europe. Apparently, there are now two major country and americana festivals here in France, Country in Mirande, which used to be the biggest festival of its kind in the country but which, it would seem, has lost ground to the newer Festival Country Craponne 43, in the Haute Loire region, which this year featured American bands like the Rhyolite Sound and Rapidgrass alongside French outfits such as The Subway Cowboys and Texas Sidestep. It also transpires that France is now host to the largest bluegrass festival in Europe, Festival Herbe Bleue, which takes place in La Roche Sur Foron, in the south east of the country and is a festival promoting bluegrass, old-time and Cajun music. All very encouraging news indeed. It seems that there’s been a big interest in line dancing in France for some time now. I’d heard about this but assumed it was either a joke or something restricted to the international community but it turns out it was a big hit with the French when it first came over here and that interest has been maintained. It’s from that slightly inauspicious start that interest in country music, and beyond into more general americana, has been steadily growing. Bluegrass has become popular partly because it taps into instruments that are already popular in France, mainly fiddle and guitar, and offers opportunities to show skills with these instruments, but also because French audiences like to see and hear good music well played. The jam scene is growing and Festival Herbe Bleue offers an opportunity for musicians to show off their skill.
On the subject of skills, I asked Manu Bertrand what had got him interested in playing americana music. It started out with him wanting to learn something about country, just because he was interested in different types of music and the instruments used. There was a music shop he used that would lend out cassettes of albums to interested customers. When he looked in the country music section there was a lot of Emmylou Harris – so that’s where he started; not a bad place to start for a player interested in the wide range of instruments associated with americana. Manu started out where many begin, playing guitar and, as a young guitar player, he was heavily into the work of Mark Knopfler. Following the “Brothers In Arms” album, he was eagerly awaiting the next Dire Straits recording, only to discover that, at that point, Knopfler decided to break up the band and turn his attention elsewhere, so what followed ‘Brothers’ was not the commercial rock music of Dire Straits but the americana drenched Notting Hillbillies and a duet album with Nashville guitar picker Chet Atkins. Manu Bertrand became a convert and that would lead him to playing a whole range of instruments associated with this genre but, most notably, dobro and lap steel guitar.
It’s encouraging that both Martha and Manu see a growing market for americana in France, but also throughout mainland Europe. The albums that Martha has recorded with Manu and the rest of the band have all been well received across the continent. In 2016 their “Southern White Lies” album was voted the number 2 album of the year on the EuroAmericana chart and their most recent album, 2021’s “Headed South”, went straight to number two in the chart on its release in July last year. And there’s a new generation of French musicians starting to embrace this music. I’m grateful to Manu for putting me on to a number of interesting French artists, including modern bluegrass band Boom Ditty (which also includes Manu Bertrand), and singers Roxane Arnal and Valentine Lambert. Valentine is particularly interesting. She is the daughter of Martha’s guitar player, Urbain Lambert, so the apple clearly hasn’t fallen far from the tree, but she’s performing her music predominantly in French. When I talked to Martha I gave my theory that one reason americana has been slow to catch on here is that the French prefer songs sung in their own language but she was quick to dismiss this theory, saying that it’s more to do with authenticity. French audiences expect to hear this sort of music sung in English (or, more precisely, American) and have been suspicious of French singers in this genre up to now. Manu feels this is definitely changing and the fact that Valentine’s quite folky take on the music sounds great in her native language suggests he may well be right. I’ll leave you with that thought and a great selection of French americana.
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