Thirty years ago, the idea of a French (or any European) bluegrass guitarist recording and performing as an equal with established stars like Darol Anger and David Grisman would have seemed as out of place as watching a Saudi Arabian player scoring a hat-trick in the National Hockey League All-Star Game. But after brilliant work by the likes of Beppe Gambetta and many more, it’s apparent that the seeds of Bill Monroe’s musical tree can sprout and grow across Europe and elsewhere.
In France, the immortal Django Reinhardt will always be theguitarist. Indeed, Francois Vola is the godson of legendary upright bassist Louis Vola, who performed and recorded with Reinhardt in the rhythm section of the legendary Hot Club de France. But drawing on his unique French heritage and an abiding love of straight-from-the-stream American bluegrass, Vola has created a niche that fans of bluegrass flatpicking guitar can definitely appreciate.
Although it may wound the Gallic pride of some of his fans, Vola’s latest CD goes so far as to include an original tune called “North Carolina Is My Home,” and it comes straight from his heart and his experiences as a French expat living in Hickory, N.C., and performing at MerleFest.
Backed by Anger and bluegrass superstars Emory Lester on mandolin and Matt Flinner on banjo, as well as a talented cast of French players, the 11 tunes here are all originals. They clearly reflect his love of traditional bluegrass in general, and in particular, flatpicking guitar. Noted flatpicker Wyatt Rice singles out Vola’s “outstanding rhythm, tone, and solo work” in the liner notes. And those qualities abound on this CD.
Never flashy or overstated, Vola is a player who relishes great guitar tone, so it’s not surprising he moonlights building high-quality bluegrass guitars. The title-cut is a catchy melody that gives each soloist an inviting and playful improvisational platform, and Vola takes full advantage to show off some modern progressive guitar licks here. Similarly, “Hickory Shuffle” is an instrumental tune that could become a jam session standard with wider exposure. Vocally, Vola sings in English with a bare trace of a European accent, and the result is a charming blend of two cultures like Gambetta’s warm, inviting baritone voice. Vola, along with brilliant players like Roberto Della Vecchia, has helped create a singularly European accent to flatpicking guitar. Welcome back, Monsieur Vola! ([email protected])DJM