France's incredible love affair with America's wild, wild West
There is a passion for everything Country and Western in France: country music, Western riding, line dancing, the clothes, rodeo sports and cattle ranches. But it does not stop there. Samantha David finds out why the French just love that old-style Americana - from someone who's very much in the know
A SMALL Haute-Loire village is “invaded” once a year by 20,000 country music fans – clear proof, say organisers, that 'the American dream is well established in France'.
The biggest country festival in Europe, Country Rendez-Vous, takes place in Craponne-sur-Arzon, at the end of every July and attracts nearly 20,000 country music fans, not just from France but from all over Europe, including Belgium, Holland and the UK.
The main festival runs for three days, with 25-30 different acts playing the main stage. The festival off [fringe event] runs all week in the village itself and includes films, free line-dancing classes, and non-stop music, most of it country, but some of it 1950s rock-and-roll or blues. The area is not on the regular tourist track so there is not a vast amount of hotel accommodation; most people camp in sites around the main festival field.
Delphine Magaud, one of the festival organisers, says: “The festival was founded in 1988 by a group of bluegrass musicians in Dore l’Eglise, Auvergne, more or less as a fun way to get musicians to come over from the US, but by 1993 it had outgrown the village and moved to Craponne.”
It is 'an invasion', she says. “The population here is only around 2,000 so the festival really takes over everything. It’s a peaceful invasion though, and even on rainy years it’s fun and good-tempered. The stage is under cover, so rain doesn’t stop play.
“It’s a very important event for the village, keeping it lively all summer long. It makes a huge economic difference to the whole area. We estimate it generates e3million of secondary economic activity. It has attracted second home owners, and people who come for the festival stay and or come back for other things.
“Everyone in Craponne is involved, we buy everything locally, and we have 300 festival volunteers.
“The ‘festival off’ really brings the village to life. There are concerts, a vehicle parade, a guided walk, the cinema night, plus line-dancing and music classes. So there is something for everyone, even people who haven’t paid for tickets.”
She adds: “The festival gets grants which cover around 20% of the cost of putting it on, the rest is covered by ticket sales, beer tents, sponsoring and market stalls. We try to stay independent so we can programme the artists we want and we’re proud to be popular, and attract people of all classes, and all styles. We’ve never had a security problem. The village likes it because it’s safe, it’s good for families, for children, for everyone. And that’s mainly because we only sell beer on the festival site, no wine or spirits. It just keeps things fun.
“This American dream is well established in France. Country music is growing, and the rodeo is popular.
“It’s a feeling of freedom, open spaces, and getting closer to nature. In fact, Americans who come to the festival say our countryside reminds them of Montana. They love the French countryside, the welcome they get here, and back in the States, they talk about us, so we get 400 letters a year from US bands wanting to play Craponne because it adds kudos to their CVs.
“American artists are astonished at how many people in the audience wear cowboy boots and hats. They don’t expect such interest in their culture.”
Americans love Rhône-Alpes rodeo
The EquiBlues Rodeo in Saint-Agrève in the Ardèche, attracts 25,000 people for a week-long immersion in cowboy-cowgirl life in mid-August every year.
Upwards of 200 riders compete in the rodeo ring in team and individual events, including cattle-penning, mounted shooting, barrel-racing, bull-riding, breakaway-roping, pole-bending, and rope-racing.
There are also lessons and workshops, a Miss EquiBlues contest, and of course every evening there are country bands, line dancing, American beer, a Texas BBQ and even a mechanical bull.
There is also a village of stands selling fringed jackets, chaps, cowboy boots, Stetsons, embroidered shirts, Western saddles and tack, belt-buckles, badges and all kinds of 1950s and Americana merchandise.
The founder and organiser, Philippe Lafont, originally planned the event as a one-off, but it has since grown to become the largest rodeo in Europe. He says: “I think people love it because it’s like going to the States without leaving France and it’s cheaper than actually crossing the Atlantic. Americans are astonished when they come to EquiBlues, at how authentic it is, and how much more friendly it is than in the US, how much more fun – and they love it.”
The event bills itself as being family-orientated with an appeal far beyond fans of the Country and Western scene.
“The image of a cowboy is romantic, free, close to nature, outside society, but in a romantic way. It’s a popular idea, which draws people in. There are never fights or problems,” says Mr Lafont.
Organising EquiBlues, has become a sizeable task and he now works on the event two to three hours a day from August to February and full time for the five months leading up to it.
Equiblues receives 5% of its funding from grants, the rest comes from ticket sales, food and drink revenue and merchandising sales.
Around 140 volunteers help out. Mr Lafont adds: “I used to have a horse, but I have less and less time for riding, so I won’t be replacing him, I have a motorbike instead!”