Bluegrass Beyond Borders: France’s Roots & Drive

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Based in Lyon, France, Roots & Drive maintains an ethos that’s true to their name. Formed in 2015, the band bases their sound on traditional bluegrass precepts, while adding a modern approach that infuses energy and their own originality into their particular approach. The band released their first album, Lost in the Rain, in 2017, consisting of a set of songs that boasts both covers (courtesy of Lonesome River Band, Blue Highway, IIIrd Tyme Out, Del McCoury, Jimmy Martin, JD Crowe & New South) and their own original compositions.

Joe K. Walsh was among the first to sing the debut album’s praises, declaring, “Here on Roots & Drive’s debut record, we hear an outstanding band offering up a fresh, individual take on the stringband sound. Top-notch playing and singing, great new originals, new approaches to a couple of familiar tunes, and some surprises along the way… what more could you ask for??”

That’s a pretty solid endorsement, but the band — Simon Pierre (fiddle), Dominique Putinier (stand-up bass), Patrick Peillon (vocals, guitar), Glenn Arzel (vocals, mandolin) and Frédéric Glas (banjo) — are clearly worthy of Walsh’s words. The band met while participating in weekly jam sessions that took place in Lyon at an Irish pub called The Antidote.

“The band’s name took a few days,” Pierre explains when asked about its origins. “Riverside was our first pick, but it was taken by a Polish rock band. We wanted a name that was both modern and traditional, with the sight we have of bluegrass.”

That devotion to bluegrass has its origins in the artists they cite as influences — Lonesome River Band, Bluegrass Album Band, Blue Highway, and IIIrd Tyme out. “Fred is a huge Sammy Shelor fan, playing a Huber Sammy Shelor banjo with Sammy Shelor picks,” Pierre continues. “He’s also a huge fan of Ron Block, Aaron McDaris, Steve Dilling, Charlie Cushman, Rob McCoury, and of course, Earl Scruggs. Patrick comes from the jazz/swing world and likes bossa nova, chora, and even classical. His two main influences are Django Reinhardt and Tony Rice. He also likes all the disciples: Bireli Lagrene, Angelo Debarre, Romane, Jeff Autry, Clay Jones, Bryan Sutton, and Oscar Aleman. Glenn was a young rocker until he discovered Tony Rice and then moved to bluegrass, even though he still plays a little Telecaster every now and then. His mandolin heroes are Chris Thile, Adam Steffey and Sam Bush; his vocal masters are Dan Tyminski, and Vince Gill.”

Pierre says that so far their stage experience has been limited to their native realm. They only have performed in France so far, although they did have the opportunity to play two times on the main stage at the La Roche Bluegrass festival, one of the biggest bluegrass festivals in Europe.

“Glenn is the only professional musician in the band, and schedules are complicated to synchronize sometimes,” Pierre insists. “But we hope to move around next summer. Also we hope to be able to play some gigs abroad if the opportunity arises.”

Nevertheless, various band members have shared stages with some notable musicians. “Patrick was actually a guest on guitar with Jeff Scroggins & Colorado on stage at La Roche in 2018 when they played Birdland Breakdown,” Pierre explains. “Glenn played with his uncle, Gildas Arzel, on the main stage of one of the biggest country music festivals in France at Craponne-sur-Arzon and he played Little Maggie on guitar.”

The group’s sophomore set appeared recently, Through The Years. It consists entirely of original material.

“We mostly sing our own songs in concert, but insert good ol’ traditional tunes every now and then,” Pierre suggests. “Songs like Sophronie, In the Gravel Yard, Hold Whatcha Got, and Who Needs You are a regular part of our setlist.”

It’s no surprise then, that the band has been well received from people at home. “Very nice,” Pierre responds when asked about the reaction. “We helped most of them discover bluegrass music and musicians. Even people who already knew about bluegrass were very encouraging and supportive. People who have been involved in bluegrass for several decades are very happy to see young musicians playing and singing bluegrass music.”

To that end Pierre has some definitive thoughts on why bluegrass has enjoyed such a resurgence of popularity.

“The new generation of musicians gave a huge fresh wave to acoustic music, and the taste of picking acoustic instruments instead of pressing buttons,” he muses. “Sierra Hull, Billy Strings, Chris Thile, Jake Workman, Cody Kilby, Andy Leftwich, Chris Luquette… They all show new generations that youth and acoustic music fit together just fine.”

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