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."