Golden Gate Park's biggest musical event, the always-free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, returns this weekend with another impressively rich and varied collection of roots music. While maintaining the festival's core spirit — a classic Bay Area combination of generosity and creativity — organizers are going bigger and bluesier in this ninth year, adding a sixth stage and welcoming artists who might have found a stage at the cancelled San Francisco Blues Festival.
Heavy on legends and local favorites — including the perennial headliner Emmylou Harris, Doc Watson, Lyle Lovett, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, Del McCoury, and Earl Scruggs — the lineup has 81 acts, spread across six stages. Organizers say about 750,000 people attended over the course of three days last year and, weather permitting, they expect at least as many this year. (Full lineup, schedule, artist biographies, and festival map at HardlyStrictlyBluegrass.com)
"There's a vein of music that if you're turned on to, you're going to like, it's just a matter of being exposed to it," said Dawn Holliday, who books the festival. "By the eighty bands we chose, there's going to be a similarity that's going to flow through that crowd. Last year was a perfect example. People who love Steve Earle and Emmylou got to hear Iron & Wine and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, and people who love them got to hear Earl Scruggs."
The festival's lone sponsor, financier and banjo picker Warren Hellman, started the festival in 2001, with twelve bands on two stages. "Warren wanted to do a bluegrass festival in the park and we booked Hazel Dickens first," Holliday said. "I said I think we better hire Emmylou, or we'll have thirteen people there. He called it Strictly Bluegrass music to begin with, to try and shame Emmylou into doing bluegrass. I was booking songwriters and Americana and Cajun music and diversifying every year, and I don't think Emmylou did bluegrass until year seven."
This year, Holliday hopes the Hardly Strictly helps pick up the slack from the cancelled San Francisco Blues Festival, another early fall fixture that had run for 36 years. "Because of the blues festival closing, I knew that Allen [Toussaint] and Mavis [Staples] and Booker T would be good acts," she joked. "We're going to have more B3s than banjos."
It's a festival known for special guests and collaborations. At one of last year's most acclaimed performances, Hardly Strictly regular Dave Alvin unveiled his new project — the Guilty Women. "They asked me last year to do something different and I said, without really thinking about it, 'An all-female band,'" Alvin said. "And within a day, everybody had agreed to do it. It was all musicians I'd more or less worked with, but a lot of them had never played together. I just kind of had the feeling it would work out — blind faith in fate."
Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women felt so good for everybody that the band regrouped a couple months later in Austin to record an album. "Everybody walked off stage pretty excited about it," Alvin said. "Everybody in the band is an amazing musician. It's a cooperative kind of effort. Even though it's Dave Alvin's band, it's not really Dave Alvin. It's not me with a backup band. It's more of a meeting of the minds."
Alvin — who will perform this year with the Guilty Women and with the Knitters — said the festival's easy-going vibe comes from the generosity of Hellman. "There's a huge audience for this type of music, but it's not very well represented in pop culture as a whole, not catered to at all," he said. "A festival like this is about traditional music, done in a variety of styles, and here's 80,000 people, 90,000 people who love it. You get a feeling of communion. You're sharing a love of this music with other people. That creates a very nice vibe among the crowd. And you can't beat the location of Golden Gate Park."
Returning for his second Hardly Strictly performance, British folk-punk icon Billy Bragg said singer-songwriters flourish at the festival, a strong draw for him. "It brings people from all sorts of different traditions, but what we have in common is a storytelling aspect of what we do," he said. "It's always an honor to share the space."
Known to introduce topical updates to "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards" — from his 1988 Workers Playtime album — Bragg said a 2009 version is in the works. "I'm sure there'll be something local and up-to-date that I might want to sneak in," he said. "That's the good thing about that song — you can shape it for so many different reasons."
English singer-songwriter Nick Lowe is back at the festival for the fourth time, saying that despite its growth in popularity, Hardly Strictly has remained sociable. "It's real fun to walk around and it's very friendly without being a hippie weird-out."
"I make no secret of my love for American popular music, of course that includes many folk stylings as well, folk and blues and so on," he continued. "I love it. Being British, we tend to feel that we have carte blanche to jumble the stuff up as we see fit."
In addition to playing a solo set, Lowe will join James Cotton, Austin de Lone, Buddy Miller, Derek O'Brien, Wes Starr, Jimmie Vaughan, and Jack "Applejack" Walroth in Boz Scaggs' Blue Velvet Band, put together specifically for the festival. "It's wonderful to get the opportunity to play with these great musicians," Lowe said. "There isn't really a great live music scene in the UK anymore, and there really isn't a place where you can just turn up and play away."
Texan Jimmie Dale Gilmore is another Hardly Strictly veteran, playing this year with longtime friends and collaborators Butch Hancock and Joe Ely as the Flatlanders, the on-again, off-again band that released Hills and Valleys earlier this year. "I've told a lot of people that it's probably my very favorite festival," Gilmore said. "To me there's an aura around the whole thing. What it boils down to is there's a love for the music other than a love for the profits and you can just tell. It comes out in so many different ways."
The Flatlanders will introduce some of the band's new album to the Golden Gate Park audience, but are also planning for a loose, spontaneous set. "Working with Butch and Joe, anything can happen," Gilmore said. "We all have a real experimental streak in us. As the Flatlanders, we never were pushing any kind of a commercial career. It's purely been the love of the music. We have to blend that with the fact that we have our own separate careers and we have to make a special place to work as the Flatlanders, but it's something we really enjoy a lot."
For her part, Holliday shuns the backstage friends and family section, preferring to spend her time in the audience to take in all the music she can. "The highlight of the day for me is the end of the festival and Emmylou is singing 'Red Dirt Girl' and the sun's going down," she said. "I could stay in that moment forever."
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