In the days before the first Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in 2001, founder Warren Hellman had a recurring thought in his head: "I wondered if anybody would show up." Hellman admits this now. Admits it with a laugh that comes from knowing how differently it turned out. Thousands attended in 2001, and last year in Golden Gate Park, around three-quarters-of-a-million people thronged to the three-day festival. This year's event, which is Friday through Sunday, may be even larger. There's no other festival like it in America -- no other musical cavalcade that offers such eclectic performances in an inspired outdoor setting for free.
Singer Gillian Welch, a staple of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, has a theory that (partly) explains why musicians love performing at the festival and why Hardly Strictly audiences are so enthusiastic. "I think it's because a free festival puts (the audience) in a different head space," Welch says by phone from Nashville, before flying to San Francisco to perform this Saturday. "Nobody is trying to get their money's worth. There's no burden of expectations -- that 'I bought this ticket, and I hope I have a good time.' If you're not having a good time, you split. It's a great thing."
This year's "great thing" features (as usual) a lineup of artists that seems almost too good to be true. On Friday, it includes Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs (performing as The Dukes of September Rhythm Revue), Patty Griffin and T Bone Burnett. On Saturday, it's Welch, Joan Baez, Steve Earle, Kinky Friedman, Jonathan Richman, Richard Thompson, the David Grisman Quintet, and Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs. On Sunday comes Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and David Holt, Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, Randy Newman, and Patti Smith. More than 80 performances will be crammed into 22 hours of playing time across six stages -- a dizzying pace that, with the massive crowds, can be overwhelming to the neophyte attendee. Hellman's advice: "Don't try to go from stage to stage. Just take one stage" and stay there.
On Saturday, a stage to inhabit is the Banjo Stage, where Welch, Baez, Grisman and Earle all play. Welch, who has performed six previous times at Hellman's festival, embodies the appeal of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. She sings what could be called New American Roots Music -- music that takes the traditions of bluegrass, folk, country and Appalachian, and funnels them through contemporary lyrics, slow guitar riffs, and a voice with an unmistakable twang (even though she was raised in Southern California and went to college at UC Santa Cruz). Welch's songs are instantly recognizable, and full of narratives about relationships and feelings, good and bad. People relate passionately to Welch's albums.
"I feel like you can only talk about in a song what you're experiencing, and what you're dealing with, and what's in your head," Welch says, adding that her songs incorporate "an extreme range of emotions. My whole palette is meticulously subtle. I see things in microscopic shades . . . Someone said to me recently, 'Just have fun. I'm hope you're having fun. That's what it's all about.' While I appreciated that, that's not what it's all about. I am trying to be creative (with my work). So, I'm sorry, that's not what it's all about."
Still, Welch says she's enjoying a new phase of her career – a re-appreciation of the duet format that she forged with guitarist David Rawlings. Welch just completed a new album with just her and Rawlings, after a few years of collaborations with bigger assemblages, saying, "I really didn't think it was possible to make a slower record than I made in the past, but I may have."
At her set on Saturday (scheduled for 4:20pm), Welch says she'll likely perform songs from such previous albums as Time (The Relvelator). It's also possible that Hellman will make an appearance with Welch since he's an active banjo player -- so active that, since 2006, he has played at every Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, with his group called The Wronglers.
The musicians love Hellman ("he's an extraordinary man; I just think the world of him," Welch says) and he loves them. Hellman is someone who would have to be called a genuine San Francisco character: A Harvard-educated billionaire who co-founded an investment firm (Hellman & Friedman LLC, where he's a managing director); served as president of one of America's most notable financial companies (Lehman Brothers); and sits on the advisory board of UC Berkeley's Walter A. Haas School of Business -- yet gives away millions to pay for a festival that doesn't have his name attached. Whether that's good business sense doesn't matter to Hellman, who is in his 70s and jokes about his potential legacy.
"Would I rather be remembered for (the festival) or some initial public offering we did when I was an investment banker?" he says. "People keep saying, 'You're really a philanthropist.' I say, 'You know what that is -- it's a cross between a misanthrope and a philanderer."
Turning more serious, Hellman says he has always loved American roots music, especially banjo music. "Something just resonates, and you feel transported -- not by my music but someone like Earl Scruggs," he says of the Southern banjo player who has been acclaimed for 60 years. "I feel I could listen to that music forever."
One of the new groups that Hellman recommends seeing at this year's festival is the Ebony Hillbillies (Friday, 2pm), who bill themselves as "one of the last black string bands in the U.S." A promoter discovered the band playing for change at Manhattan's Grand Central Station terminal, and since then, the group has performed at venues around the country. "They have great energy," Hellman says.
Hellman will bring his own energy to his performance with The Wronglers on Saturday (11am), and to his speech at Sunday night's closing, when he says he'll talk about the power of music -- of a festival like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass -- to unite people of all different backgrounds, in contrast to the mid-term elections that are weeks away. "I wish the U.S. were like Speedway Meadow," Hellman says, referring to one of the spots in Golden Gate Park where the festival is being staged. "Hundreds of thousands of people appreciating each other, saying, 'We're going to treat each other with kindness.' . . . A musician doesn't say, 'Don't go to that other stage; don't listen to her.' "
Hellman, who was once a stalwart of the Republican Party and is now a self-professed decline-to-state, says his involvement with the festival helped steer him to a more undefined political position. "I've met business people and politicians I've never liked, but I've never met a musician I've never not liked," he says. "I'd rather know Earl Scruggs than the president of the United States."
The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival is Friday, October 1 through Sunday, October 3, 2010 at the west end of Golden Gate Park, between Transverse Drive and Spreckels Lake, overlapping Speedway Meadow, Lindley Meadow and Marx Meadow. For more information visit strictlybluegrass.com.