They say that success is often about the right people meeting at the right time, and this was such a story.
In 2004 Moonshine Bluegrass Band (FRA) played a show in the town square of La Roche sur Foron. On mandolin and guitar that day was Christopher Howard-Williams, a resident of La Roche since 2000. A few days after the show he went to visit Roland Jobard, cultural attaché to the mayor of La Roche sur Foron, to ask if the town could be interested in hosting a Bluegrass festival.
"Why not?" replied Roland. "What's Bluegrass?"
After the split with EBMA, Dennis Schutt's EWOB event had moved to Germany and then Czech Republic. Dennis was looking for a new location to host the event. Christopher agreed to try at La Roche for two years. Roland gave Christopher a cautious green light and suggested he go see Didier Philippe, director of the Tourist Bureau.
Didier was actually looking for an event to promote in the summer months to attract more visitors into the town. He had never heard of Bluegrass Music.
A meeting was soon called with Roland, Didier, Christopher and representatives of the town's social, cultural and economic communities.
Mayor Michel Thabuis gave the group one instruction: "Make it work!"
The first question was to decide where to hold the festival.
Not expecting to get more than 200 or 300 people to come to a Bluegrass festival in the French Alps, Christopher believed the local cinema Le Parc would be big enough. In those early meetings Gérard Bugnon, with experience of organising country festivals around France, saw big and encouraged the group to imagine a large event ("we don't want to organise a village fete!" was his rallying cry). They settled on the courtyard of the local junior high school, a large, open space in what used to be an abbey. Fortunately the school principal, Sebastien Maur*, also thought it was a good idea.
The next issue was to decide how much to charge for entry. The date for the festival had been set for the first weekend of August based on other festivals and events in the region, so there would be lots of holiday makers in the area. After a lot of discussion back and forth, the committee decided to make entrance to the event free on the grounds that people may not be prepared to pay for a festival of music they had never heard of, but if it was free they may be curious enough to go and see, risk free. We gambled that if they got in for free, they may be more willing to spend money in the festival on food and drinks.
And that was it: the business model for La Roche Bluegrass Festival was born.
La Roche sur Foron has a large pool of volunteers who jump in to help out with anything the town organises and they keep the social life of the town ticking. It says a lot for the spirit of La Roche that 80 people volunteered to work for the festival that first year even though they knew nothing about Bluegrass. Christopher made it his business to introduce them to the music, its history, its culural specificities and its unique ability to mix professionals and amateurs on the same stage and in the same jam sessions.
* Sebastien Maur became mayor of La Roche sur Foron from 2016 - 2020