10 Lesser-Known Acts to Catch at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

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a Black woman in a bright red top sings on a stage
Danielle Ponder is slated to perform at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, at 1:20pm on Sunday, Oct. 2 on the Porch Stage. (Jim Bennett/WireImage)

Returning to Golden Gate Park after a three-year pandemic-induced hiatus, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival brings a bevy of big names to San Francisco this weekend, Sept. 30-Oct. 2.

With acts on tap like Elvis Costello, Allison Russell, Bela Fleck and Emmylou Harris, Hardly Strictly has no shortage of artists who’ve earned their vaunted status as institutions. But if you’re inclined to do a little wandering between the festival's four stages, one of the prime pleasures of the festival comes from checking out unfamiliar artists, whether a rising star or a veteran performer trying out a new combo.

In many ways Hardly Strictly is more than a festival. It’s a musical weather system that sweeps over the region, and not just because of the satellite programming presented as part of Hardly Strictly Out of the Park. A spot on the HSBG roster often serves as the centerpiece for a wider West Coast run, providing strong tailwinds for the fall music season. Here are 10 acts well worth a listen.


Friday 2-2:30pm
Bandwagon Stage

At 22, Oakland-reared, New Orleans-based Satya is a neo-soul singer/songwriter with boundless promise. Her relaxed phrasing and becalmed delivery hints at the deep currents flowing through her music, which slows the passage of time with ripples of self-revelation. Her name means “truth” in Sanskrit, but Satya offers hints and clues rather than a road map, inviting listeners along as she finds her way.

Joy Oladokun

Friday 3:55-4:45pm
Towers of Gold Stage

A first-generation Nigerian-American singer/songwriter, Joy Oladokun creates music from her perspective as a queer Black woman who’s absorbed the forthright stance of artists like Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading. Raised in Arizona and now based in Los Angeles, she’s staked an early claim as one of the decade’s artists to watch with two albums that brim with confidence, vulnerability, and righteous melodic invention: 2020’s in defense of my own happiness (the beginnings) and 2021’s in defense of my own happiness.

Charley Crockett

Friday 5:45-7pm
Towers of Gold Stage

Often cast as polar idioms, country music and the blues share deep roots that the best country artists manifest clearly. With his telegraphic storytelling and dry humor, Charley Crockett embodies the blues aesthetic that hard times are best endured by turning tribulation into a communal exorcism. He’s a dauntingly prolific artist who’s released a diverse array of material on 11 albums since 2015, including a simmering new project, The Man from Waco, that feels like an homage to Johnny Cash.

Cedric Watson

Banjo Stage
Saturday 11-11:45am

Fiddler, singer, accordionist and songwriter Cedric Watson is a leading force in the revival of Creole and Acadian roots music, drawing on centuries-old songs spread by the French and Spanish empires and rhythms brought to the Caribbean by enslaved West Africans. Part of what makes Watson such a dynamic artist is that he’s both a deep scholar and a prolific songwriter who carries traditional forms into the 21st century, mixing and melding influences as he sees fit. He also performs at the festival afterparty Oct. 1 at Ashkenaz.

AJ Lee & Blue Summit

Saturday 1:30-2:10pm
Bandwagon Stage

A product of the Bay Area’s verdant bluegrass music scene, guitarist, mandolinist and vocalist AJ Lee was still in her mid-teens when she started performing with Blue Summit in 2015. Now a road-seasoned act, the band released an impressive second album last year with I’ll Come Back, featuring Sullivan Tuttle and Scott Gates on steel string guitars, fiddler Jan Purat and bassist Chad Bowen. Bluegrass is still a major source of inspiration for the group, but their sound now draws on a wider constellation of acoustic idioms, fitting comfortably under the Americana umbrella while avoiding many of the attendant clichés.


Saturday 3:55-4:55pm
Banjo Stage

Named after a creek that runs close to her childhood home in Alabama, Katie Crutchfield’s solo project Waxahatchee has become a major outlet for her songwriting in recent years. She’s released a series of trenchant, critically acclaimed albums over the past decade, but 2020’s Saint Cloud found her in particularly harrowing territory, a sojourn inspired by her determination to attain sobriety. Crutchfield returns to the Bay Area next month with Plains, her project with Jess Williamson, playing Sonoma and San Francisco.

Arooj Aftab

Sunday 12:30-1:15pm
Rooster Stage

Born in Saudi Arabia to parents from Pakistan, Grammy Award-winning vocalist Arooj Aftab applies her training in Hindustani classical music to a sumptuous array of settings for Urdu poetry. A brilliant improviser who’s collaborated with leading jazz musicians like pianist Vijay Iyer, she’s crafted her own mesmerizing sound, drawing on love-besotted ghazals and minimalist patterns.

Danielle Ponder

Sunday 1:20-2pm
Porch Stage

Since leaving her job as a public defender in upstate New York, powerhouse vocalist Danielle Ponder has emerged as a clarion artist whose songs tackle knotty territory without compromising melodic force. Steeped in gospel and inspired by blues, rock and hip-hop, she sings with sanctified authority and hard-knock knowledge gleaned from personal experience. Before Hardly Strictly she also headlines Sept. 29 at Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz and opens for Marcus Mumford Sept. 30 at the Fillmore.

DaShawn Hickman with Charlie Hunter

Sunday 1:25-2pm
Bandwagon Stage

A master of the Sacred Steel tradition, DaShawn Hickman was a founding member of The Allen Boys, a group that took the rollicking music powering Pentecostal Holiness services in North Carolina out of the church and on the road. Teaming up with Charlie Hunter, the jazz-meets-funk guitarist who contributed to influential albums by D’Angelo and A Tribe Called Quest, Hickman recorded the stellar album Drums, Roots & Steel for Little Village Foundation, a project that ushers the Sacred Steel sound into celebratory secular settings. A Berkeley native based in North Carolina, Hunter is also in town with SuperBlue, his hip-hop-inflected collaboration with jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, playing Menlo Park’s Guild Theater Sept. 27 and Freight & Salvage Sept. 30.

The Whitmore Sisters

Sunday 4:55-5:40pm
Porch Stage

Eleanor Whitmore has long been known for her work with her husband Chris Masterson in The Mastersons, but after being grounded by the pandemic she teamed up with her younger sister Bonnie to renew their musical relationship in the Whitmore Sisters. Collaborating on Ghost Stories (Red House Records), they created an enthralling collection of songs that marry voluptuous arrangements to fever-pitch themes of love, death and loss.