Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

By Kathleen Herd Masser

Photos by Kathleen Herd Masser

morethanbluehrass_March_Kick.jpgEl Celler de Can Roca in northern Spain is said to have the best and most extensive wine list in the world, occupying three books so huge they have to be wheeled to your table on a trolley. San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, held annually in Golden Gate Park, is El Celler's musical equivalent. With 80 artists performing on six stages over a three-day run, it's an enormous auditory banquet. And it's free.

Festival founder and funder Warren Hellman calls bluegrass and other forms of Americana artistry "simple tunes played by complicated people." The first festival, 10 years ago, was a birthday gift from Hellman to his wife. The gift keeps on giving.

What started in 2001 as an afternoon of strictly bluegrass (performers included Emmylou Harris, Allison Kraus, Jerry Douglas, and Hazel Dickens) has evolved into its ‘hardly strictly' moniker. This year's bill of fare was a fusion of traditionalists -- Hazel Dickens, Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Jerry Douglas, The Flatlanders -- and the unexpected: Exene, Patti Smith, Jonathan Richman.

San Francisco native and current Larkspur resident Lois Wise has attended the festival each year since its beginnings. She says the inaugural concert in 2001, which attracted about 3,000 fans, "was like discovering an incredible musical secret. I knew this was going to be another sea change in the San Francisco music scene. And I was so grateful to be there."

morethanbluegrass_JerryDouglas.jpgSea change indeed. By the second year, 10,000 people enjoyed two days of music on three stages. After that, Wise says, "it just exploded." Attendance figures aren't in for this year's 10th anniversary celebration, but early estimates are in the 900,000 range.

Through the years, guests have reveled to the sounds of Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Lyle Lovett, Boz Scaggs, Steve Earle, and all the greats of bluegrass. For many, including Wise, the best part is "the opportunity to hear many forms of Americana music at one venue -- bluegrass, folk, country, country blues, rhythm and blues, gospel, and jazz -- and to see and hear a few new artists every year. It's like a treasure hunt for music lovers."

It's impossible to take in every act, but how do you choose? Some of this year's highlights . . .

. . . Patty Griffin and Emmylou Harris blending their exquisitely heartbreaking voices, backed by Buddy Miller on guitar.

. . . Elvis Costello's surprise appearance with Jenny (Lewis) & Johnny (Rice).

. . . Warren Hellman and his band, the Wronglers (with Hellman's wife Chris on vocals), opening the Saturday morning show at the Porch Stage.

. . . Dr. Ralph Stanley's faithful-to-his-roots rendering of Man of Constant Sorrow, as the Clinch Mountain Boys strummed and picked and plucked alongside the 83-year-old legend.

. . . T-Bone Burnett and the Punch Brothers rocking Zombieland and Rye Whiskey.

morethanbluegrass_TBone2.jpg . . . Joan Baez materializing on stage without an introduction. All of a sudden, she was just there, guitar at the ready. The boisterous crowd went instantly silent as the veteran folk artist eased into her set, including an impassioned delivery of Woody Guthrie's Deportee song and a soaring House of the Rising Sun.


. . . the Ebony Hillbillies and the Carolina Chocolate Drops introducing African-American old-time string band music to a whole new audience, with CCD's Dom Flemons setting down his banjo to execute "a Negro jig performed by a genuine Negro," adding, "I said it, so you don't have to."

. . . the Marchfourth Marching Band, some on stilts, some high-kicking, snaking through the grounds, a big brass jam punctuated by energetic percussion.

. . . Trombone Shorty reaching for and hitting those impossible notes, in his distinctive New Orleans jazz/funk/hip-hop style.

Like the performers, festival organizers deserve a standing ovation. Shows started on time. Technical glitches were rare. If there were ‘incidents,' they weren't evident. And Warren Hellman deserves, well, if not a statue in the park, the eternal gratitude of thousands of music fans. He won't say how much the event costs him, but it's surely in the millions.

Along the paths between stages, Hellman pays particularly poignant tribute to his grandfather, Isaias, the banker credited with saving Los Angeles financial institutions from ruin in the panic of 1893. Volunteers at hand-cranked penny-stamping machines hand out souvenir pennies to festival attendees. Hellman even provides the coins (this year it was dimes, to commemorate the 10th anniversary).

Bluegrass purists may grouse about the direction the festival has taken, lamenting the integration of other musical forms. But just as this country is a palette of many hues, so is its music. Every artist on the HSB stage represents a shade of Americana. Simple tunes, complicated people.


Festival tips:

  • Parking is limited. Buses run from other parts of the city to the park, but they get very crowded very early.
  • Food is available and there are vegetarian options. No alcoholic beverages are sold on site, but you can bring your own.
  • A tarp and/or folding chair are essential.
  • Dogs are allowed if kept on a leash.
  • Overnight camping is not permitted.
  • If you’re overly sensitive to human gridlock or pot smoke, stay home.

For more information, visit the website www.strictlybluegrass.com.

Kathleen Masser is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. She previously served on the staff of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and as producer of the Oregon Coast Music Festival.