If you were ever interested (or bored!) enough to have read my brief bio, you will have seen that, aside from blogging about a possible move to France, I’m also a musician. Like anyone with their own particular interests and/or skills, when I travel to new places, I find myself looking out for that special interest to see what the locals might have to offer. In my case, of course, that means taking an interest in all things musical. My own musical tastes are pretty eclectic mainly because, in my line of musical work, I have to produce music in a wide range of styles. That said, aside from the occasional use in film or advertising, French music doesn’t get a lot of airtime here in the U.K. so, when I first started to visit France, I had a fairly limited knowledge of the musical landscape. After accordions, a little jazz, Charles Aznavour, Vanessa Paradis and Plastic Bertrand, I was probably going to be struggling.
On our first self-catering holiday in France, my wife started tuning into French music radio just for some background noise and, amongst the UK and USA-sourced music that we were familiar with, we also got a good dose of French pop (thanks, of course, to the 40% rule, but that’s a post for another time). Like pop music the world over, some of it was good and some of it bad but, obviously, the language issue would make it very difficult for a French artist to cross over into the UK or USA while the opposite is obviously not true – lots of English-language music sells very well in France. Anyway, the bottom line here is that French pop sounds…. well, very French.
One of the other things we began to appreciate is that the French, like many countries over the last 15 years or so, have developed a fairly full calendar of live music festivals. Some of these have a long tradition (such as Glastonbury here in the U.K.) but, on the back of the success of the bigger events, has come a whole raft of more ‘local’ events. And, during a holiday a couple of years back in the Midi-Pyrenees, it was one such event that caught our attention. However, this wasn’t because we thought we might get an insight into French musical culture but simply because it seemed such an odd thing to find in a fairly sleepy part of rural southern France – the Country Music Festival in Mirande.
I’m quite a big country music fan. While it is something of a specialist niche here in the U.K., we have friends in Texas who we have visited and have therefore been exposed to the genuine article. Country is also a format that puts the songwriter up there with the performing artist in terms of importance and there is, therefore, lots that a jobbing composer like myself can learn from the way the business of country music operates. However, all that said, I didn’t expect country music to be something with a serious following in France. Anyway, having had our interest piqued, pretty much on the spur (ouch!) of the moment, we donned our best ‘music festival’ faces, and set off intending to give the world of French country music a chance for a couple of hours before doing something else with our day.
Except that that wasn’t quite what we got. While there was some French country (and, as an aside, I think some French Canadian county which is perhaps the connection I didn’t appreciate in my initial surprise at seeing the event advertised), what we actually got was some genuine, good ‘ole US of A country music that, if not at its very best (no Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw or Martina McBride, for example), was still very genuine, professional and on the money. But I’m getting ahead of myself a little….
As we drove into the outskirts of Mirande following the signs for the festival parking, we very quickly noticed lots of three things – cowboy hats, Harley Davidson-style touring motorcycles and genuine American motorcars – all of which looked somewhat out of place in what, from our experience at least, was usually a small, sleepy French town. As we parked the car, we started to feel that, in shorts, tee shirts and sandals (i.e. perfect clothes for the summer weather), we might have arrived somewhat underdressed for the occasion – no jeans, no cowboy boots, no bootlace necktie, no Stetson hats. We were not the only ‘normal’ folk present but there certainly were a lot of people who were in full ‘western’ fancy dress – and they looked great!
We picked up a programme which showed that there were two centers of activity; first a range of free performances and entertainment within the village square and, second, starting a little later in the day, the main line up which was running in the festival area itself towards the edge of the town.
As it was still fairly early in the day, we decided to wander into the center first. This was a hive of activity, with the edges of the square full of various market stalls while the center of the square, which featured a small bandstand, was where the music was coming from. The market stalls were a real mix but there were plenty of country music-themed merchandise on offer – lots of cowboys hats, leather belts, waist-coats and western-based tee shirts – all we might have needed to make it look like we really belonged at the event rather than being there as accidental tourists. My eldest son nagged us into buying him a leather cowboy hat and very cool he looked in it too, although it also was a pretty functional way of keeping the sun off his head for the rest of our holiday!
Initially, the music was of the canned-variety and some of the keener attendees were busy line dancing. While I’ve always thought of this as the somewhat tacky end of country music, it was being tackled with gusto and good humour by the ‘cow-people’ and ‘normal folk’ equally, with all ages from the youngest to the oldest taking part – and they all seemed to be having some plain and simple good fun.
After a little while, the canned music came to a halt and we were then treated to a series of short sets from a variety of live performers on the bandstand. This was all wonderfully low key and both the performers and the audience were clearly having a great time. The music was a mixture of straight county, country-tinged singer-songwriter and bluegrass. I always find it great to get up close to live musicians – it’s then that you realize just how many talented players and singers there are plying there trade on the fringes of the music industry, either just playing for fun, making a little money as a sideline or trying to support themselves doing something they love. As free entertainment goes, this cocktail of country music was an excellent way to while away a couple of hours in the French sunshine.
Having taken our fill of the free stuff, we followed the steadily growing throng of people heading towards the main site. Here we had to pay for a day ticket to enter the main site but, as it wasn’t too expensive, we stumped up even though we didn’t know how long we might stay. In ‘festival’ terms, this was still pretty early in the day (mid-afternoon with a programme that suggested the music would go on until the early hours) but even so, there was a decent crowd of people gathering. Country music aside, this was more typical festival fodder but with country-themed market and food stalls doing a decent trade. There was also a car-park where all the US cars and motorcycles had been organized so that you could wander around and inspect them.
In the main performance area, there was an impressive main stage setup as well as a very organized line dancing area where the music struck up between sets on the main stage. We spent the next few hours either wandering the stalls or listening to the early acts on the main stage. The latter were an eclectic mix of the truly cheesy (very traditional country that, to most people’s modern sensibilities, might have grated a little) to the truly excellent. Lots of big hats, pointy boots, Fender Telecasters and bluegrass fiddles and a crowd that continued to grow as the evening drew on. The atmosphere was gentle and good-humoured and everyone – young and old – seemed to be having a great time.
Had we heard of any of the acts? Nope, but it was still very entertaining and, while we hadn’t planned to, we found ourselves still there as the evening rolled around, the acts got better and, unfortunately, our young offspring eventually decided they had had enough and wanted their beds. We wandered slowly back to our car in the fading light with the sound of twanging guitars still filtering through from the main stage.
This has to qualify as one of the stranger days I’ve spent in France – Sud Ouest meets Wild West – a totally unexpected combination. On paper, it shouldn’t have worked. Somehow though, because of the willingness of those involved to suspend disbelief for the duration of the four-day event, it did.
It was only after our holiday, when we recounted our experience to friends – and their genuine disbelief – that I did a little further research. The festival was created in the early 1990s by Mirande-local Alain Ribaut. He established the Mirande Country Music Association and, in 1994, the first festival event took place, lasting 3 days and attracting over 30,000 people. By 2005, it was a 5-day event with over 160,000 visitors. And, of course, it will all roll out again this year so, if you are near Mirande between the 12th and 15th of July 2012 – and if you either like your country music or are open-minded enough to enjoy a genuinely surreal experience suitable for all the family – then give the Mirande Country Music Festival a shot. Suspend your own disbelief and have a great family day out – after all, when else are you going to have an excuse to pack your Stetson hat and Justin boots for a French holiday?