“Gonna play that shady grove, play that shady grove.” Steve Earle, “Warren Hellman’s Banjo.”
As regular, or even irregular, readers of this blog know, music plays a big part in my life. From my roots in Trenton NJ, listening to The Beatles on a cheap transistor radio, to wearing out the grooves in CSNY’s Carry On at the Jersey Shore, to catching emerging artists like Joe Pug at DC’s wonderful Hamilton, music has brought me some of life’s happiest moments. And no musical moments have been happier than the San Francisco mornings and afternoons I’ve spent with my son, his friend Greg D. and Greg’s Dad Spiros at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (HSB as regulars call it).
HSB is the brainchild of financier Warren Hellman, one time President of Lehman Brothers, co-founder of private equity firm Hellman and Friedman, and HSB’s singular benefactor. Hatched as a small bluegrass festival 13 years ago, HSB has morphed into one of the country’s premier musical happenings, on a par with Bonaroo and the Newport Folk Festival. And it’s entirely free, regularly attracting hundreds of thousands of folks who come to listen or just graze in the grass. This year’s headliners for the event kicking off Friday, October 4, will include Bonnie Raitt, Steve Martin and his Steep Canyon Rangers, and perennial closing act Emmylou Harris, this year performing with Rodney Crowell.
Crammed onto six stages over three days in the majestic urban preserve Golden Gate Park, HSB boasts a veritable who’s who of Americana, indie rock, and bluegrass acts, expertly curated by Dawn Holliday. I first attended HSB on a whim in 2005, as a father-son bonding adventure with Greg and Spiros, who I first met at the airport before boarding our jet to SF. The experience was transformative and transcendent. From the first time we entered Golden Gate park and breathed in the scent of eucalyptus and pine through the morning mist, we knew that magic was in the air.
That year, the artist I work with, Ana Egge, was on the bill, and snagged all-access backstage passes for our father/son band of four. The boys used their inside access to good use, filming interviews of everyone from Emmylou and Patty Griffen to bluegrass royalty Ricky Skaggs and Austin legend Joe Ely. The artists, too shocked and stunned by the boys nerve and pluck to object, gave candid and good-hearted quips and quotes to the enterprising young auteurs with their naive charm and handheld home video camera. Interspersing those interviews with deft concert footage, the boys created an award-winning documentary and sent a copy to Mr. Hellman. (You can watch it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfR9xzm6GqM ) Warren loved it, writing back that it perfectly captured the ethos and spirit of HSB. We’ve been invited back every year since as part of his “Friends and Family.”
With work and life taking center stage, we won’t be there this year. I’m feeling pangs of regret, but assuaging them with memories of HSBs past: Robert Earl Keen singing “The Road Goes On Forever (And The Party Never Ends) to close Saturday nights on the Rooster Stage, with its long narrow glen ending in a cathedral of tall trees rimming a natural amphitheater. Catching the world debut of Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, playing a thrilling, virtuoso set as they performed together live for the first time, with the late Amy Farris dazzling with her flaming red hair her muscular violin solos. Hearing Joan Baez mesmerize a crowd 40,000 strong, and feeling what it must have been like at Woodstock. Wandering backstage and watching from behind the main stage as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings weave intricate harmonies. Leaving the park as dusk as a chill descended, perfectly sated from wandering back and forth from stage to stage, wanting to drink in as much music as possible. Heading back to the quirky Del Sol Hotel in the city’s Cow Hollow neighborhood, running into Merle Haggard’s guitarist, Norm Hamlet, who couldn’t have been more gracious, having a wonderful moment in the early morning, sitting by the pool with a cup of coffee and waiting for the day to kick into gear, or running across the Golden Gate Bridge at sunrise, watching the fingers of the sun caress the buildings along SF’s skyline.
Warren Hellman passed away last year, and HSB stalwart Steve Earle honored him with the song quoted above. Not only was Warren a master investor, he played the banjo too. He formed a band, The Wronglers, of like-minded folks who were passionate about life and music. Each year, The Wronglers performed at HSB’s smallest stage, The Porch. Nearly every year I went to hear them, figuring it was the the least I could do for the man whose generosity made possible the whole shebang. And each year, they improved, with Warren taking delight in every note, every song. They got so good that one of Texas’s geatest troubadors, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, agreed to perform with Warren and his band. And before Warren died, he fulfilled a dream that no doubt delighted him as much, if not more, than all his monetary triumphs. He recorded an album of classic Americana tunes with Jimmie Dale on lead vocals, and they went on tour, performing at music clubs and concert halls aroung the country. They were terrific. Seeing Warren Hellman beaming on stage and thriving, when he knew he was grievously ill, said all there is to say about the power of music. And of course, Warren lives on in HSB, his legacy, his gift.
Next year I plan to be in San Francisco, to reclaim my heart.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I describe [HSB] frequently as the world’s most selfish gift. It’s a fantastically selfish gift, but it is a gift. There are hundreds of thousands of people there who are appreciating it. Just being able to do something that is completely not commercial, that is pure, hopefully, pleasure for the participants–to create a surrounding where the musicians and professionals like it as much as the crowd does. How could you have more fun than that? What the hell is money for if it isn’t for something like that?” Warren Hellman