How Low-Tech Bluegrass Survives in the High-Tech Bay Area

A customer at the Lucky Horseshoe listens to the Sunday bluegrass jam.  (Photo: Kristin Scheel)

At four o’clock every Sunday, bluegrass musicians take over the Lucky Horseshoe in Bernal Heights for a jam that feels like a subtle transfer of power. People pull banjos and fiddles from under barstools, or suddenly appear, silhouetted in the doorway, carrying a standup bass.

In a city ever more digitized and on-demand, the low-tech sound of wood and wire toughs it out in venues like this, a stand-in for the living room, kitchen or porch. Like grass popping through cracks in the sidewalk, bluegrass fans square dance in bookstores and musicians jam in taquerias and on the lawn of the Google campus.

As the circle grows at the Horseshoe, jam host Frank Holmes kicks off “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues,” a song about homesickness. There is an appealing breach of context, listening to rural Appalachian music in the world’s high-tech capital. But the sound suits a city of transplants. The breach is sometimes where you find yourself.

“These emotions translate, even if you didn’t grow up in a holler, or learn fiddle on the porch of your grandfather’s cabin,” says Peter Thompson, host of KALW’s long-running weekly bluegrass show, Bluegrass Signal.

Roots in rural America

Bluegrass has its roots in the rural American experience. The “high lonesome sound,” pioneered by Kentuckian Bill Monroe, in the 1940s married traditional tunes from the British Isles with old-time country fiddling. It borrowed blue notes from African-American gospel and jazz, and gave expression to a nostalgic and sometimes fictional past during a time of rapid urbanization.

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During the urban folk revival of the 1960s, bluegrass found a second home in California. The west coast influence of improvisational rock 'n' roll expanded the genre in directions Monroe might never have imagined. Musicians like Tony Rice and David “Dawg” Grisman took bluegrass from “Scotch bagpipes and old time fiddlin’,” as Monroe put it, to the limits of jazz, psychedelic rock, Latin music and beyond, inspiring curious-named sub-genres like “spacegrass," “bloodgrass," and “weirdgrass."

“Bluegrass is a mongrel,” says Butch Waller, founder of High Country, one of the west coast’s premiere bluegrass bands. “The rules are rigid. Until you break ‘em.”

Proudly nichey

The Bay Area bluegrass scene today is proudly nichey. It’s found mostly in bars, and is by and large the province of amateur musicians who savor its down-to-earth, under-the-radar feel.

“Bluegrass will never be mainstream,” says Larry Chung, who plays banjo with the Bernal Hillbillies, a band that play gigs right down the road from the Horseshoe at Bare Bottle Brewing. “But that appeals to people here.” Two-time Northern California Guitarist of the Year, Yoseff Tucker, a regular at the open jam at Amnesia, plays in four bands. “The Bay,” he says, “has all of the bluegrass and none of the baggage.”

The mainstreaming of Hardly Strictly

Yet the genre also has a place on more mainstream stages in the Bay Area, such as the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. The late financier, philanthropist and amateur banjo player Warren Hellman started the free event, briefly named “The Strictly Bluegrass Festival” at its inception in 2001.

A sign honoring Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder Warren Hellman at Outside Lands, Aug. 9, 2015. (Photo: Gabe Meline/KQED)
A sign honoring Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder Warren Hellman at Outside Lands, Aug. 9, 2015. (Photo: Gabe Meline/KQED)

In the ensuing years Hardly Strictly has grown from one day to three, two stages to seven, and from nine bands to more than 90. And over that time, the share of bluegrass on the lineup has fallen to around ten percent. As the festival's co-founder Jonathan Nelson puts it, “the focus is on the hardly strictly.” Nelson says Hardly Strictly's programmers are interested in cultivating a community of artists and bringing bands that fit the vibe. “Whether it’s rock, blues, folk, it’s the same thread,” he says.

This year’s event, which runs from Friday, Sept. 30 to Sunday, Oct. 2 in Golden Gate Park, includes major out-of-town names playing in the traditional vein, like the Dave Rawlings Machine, the Dry Branch Fire Squad, and Berkeley’s Grammy Award-winning fiddler and raconteur Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands, whose songs pay homage to greats of the past like Lester Flatt, the Stanley Brothers, and Hazel Dickens.

The music goes on

Despite the diminished presence of bluegrass in the festival, Ted Kuster, the San Francisco representative of the California Bluegrass Association and member of local weirdgrass band, the Beauty Operators, says he’s not worried about the future of the traditional scene here. "The difference with bluegrass is the mass of participant listeners," Kuster says. "And local legends like Laurie Lewis tending the pipeline.

Earlier this month, Lewis brought the past, present and future of bluegrass to the stage at the seventh annual Bill Monroe tribute at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. With the intimacy and camaraderie of a living room jam, the band and guests took turns with an anthology that every serious bluegrass musician knows by heart.

Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands rehearsing for the Bill Monroe Tribute.
Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands rehearsing for the Bill Monroe Tribute. (Photo: Kristin Scheel)

The next generation was both reverent and inspired. Oakland’s T Sisters, channeling Emmylou Harris with their signature “three headed sound,” harmonized a woozy version of the spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger,” and 16-year-old Luke Forrest sang the traditional tune “Molly and Tenbrooks” like he was witnessing the high-stakes horse race at the center of the song first hand.

If a fictional song about a 1878 equestrian event can make you feel like something from long ago is still at stake, it is not so hard to believe that old-time music has more to offer a city that celebrates the ever new and recently updated.

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The 2016 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival runs Friday, Sep. 30 - Sunday, Oct.2, in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. More information here. And if strictly bluegrass is what you’re after, check out the All Bluegrass After Party at The Plough and Stars in San Francisco on Friday, Sep. 30. 

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Find regular bluegrass jams in San Francisco at Amnesia on Mondays; the Lucky Horseshoe on Sundays from 4; and Alleycat Books every fourth Friday. In the East Bay, head to El Taco Jam at Baja in Oakland on Mondays. The Freight and Salvage in Berkeley offers bluegrass performances and workshops, as does the Mountain View Masonic Lodge. 

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