September 9, 2020
As anyone living in a neighborhood adjacent to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park can attest: The annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (HSB) festival is a big deal. A really big deal. What started off as a relatively modest, regional folk-and-bluegrass gathering has blossomed over two decades into one of the largest festivals in the country, with over 750,000 attendees crowding its six stages to see 80 or more top-tier roots-music acts perform in Golden Gate Park’s sylvan environs — all for free.
This year’s event was slated to be more of the same, with returning favorites and newfound talent serenading the hordes throughout the first weekend in October — specific dates and time are still to be announced. With the massive coronavirus fly in ointment plaguing pretty much every music festival around the globe, HSB has followed the lead of other organizations and moved the celebration online.
According to the festival’s press release, the online edition will blend newly recorded performances, archival footage from fans and from the festival archives, interviews, and information about HSB’s history. Dubbing this year’s event “Let the Music Play On,” organizers have been cagey about the specific details and full lineup, but for the past three weeks they have released a little bit of info on the HSB homepage via a series of caricature sketches of a half-dozen headliners presented sans caption and inviting fans to guess each addition to the lineup.
Already revealed in sketches one and two are festival stalwarts such as Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Steve Earle & the Halfgrass Dukes (featuring Tim O’Brien and Dennis Crouch), and Alison Brown, along with Yola, The War and Treaty, John Doe, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Sierra Ferrel, and Amythyst Kiah.
Originally called “Strictly Bluegrass,” the festival started two decades back when private-equity investor, philanthropist, and old-time banjo enthusiast Warren Hellman decided to throw a party in Golden Gate Park in celebration of the bluegrass and traditional-music artists he most admired, such as West Virginia singer Hazel Dickens, to whom the festival is dedicated.
Right from the very beginning there was little attempt to enforce the “strictly” part of the moniker, and as the weekend grew in scope and more and more groups pushed the boundaries of what could be considered bluegrass, the appellation was modified to “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.” Hellman died in 2011, and although he left no specific endowment for continuing HSB, the Hellman Foundation has continued to support the event as part of its many philanthropic activities, and there are no plans to abandon the annual celebration on the horizon.
That’s a boon to thousands of “never-miss” audience members and performers alike. Emmylou Harris says, “it was always the first date I would put on my calendar. Whatever else I do in a particular year, the first weekend in October I am going to be in San Francisco at Golden Gate Park in Hellman Hollow playing Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. I’m really grateful that we’re going to carry on in some way this gift that Warren has given to musicians, and really music lovers, everywhere.”
As for the changes demanded in this most unusual of years, Buddy Miller said, “I’ve been so lucky to be able to host the Rooster Stage for the last six years or so and invite friends and acts that I just love and think people would adore, but since there’s no festival in the park this year, we’re doing the Rooster Stage from my studio with a lot of those same people.”
Audience members are encouraged to contribute to this year's online activities, too. According to a press release, “the community of music fans is what gives the festival life, and this year to incorporate the human experience of HSB, the producers have asked fans and attendees to contribute their favorite memories from years past in the form of photos, videos, stories, sketches, etc. by emailing them to [email protected], all of which will be considered for inclusion in October’s broadcast.”
HSB organizers have further acknowledged the heavy toll of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic hardship for musicians by launching the Hardly Strictly Music Relief Fund, which they describe as “a $1.5 million charitable effort which seeks to recognize, appreciate, and care for the people who lend their creativity, heart, and hard work to the American roots music ecosystem in the Bay Area.” Individual musicians, local music venues, and industry workers can apply for relief.
For more information on the individual musicians grant opportunity, visit actaonline.org/hardlystrictly.
For more information on the venue grant opportunity, visit http://www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com/2020/music-relief/
Check back with the HSB website over the next few weeks for more updated information and more fun and games with the lineup.
Artists in the sketch posted on Sept. 8 are L to R: Chuck Prophet, Los Coast, Birds of Chicago, Patty Griffin, and Shakey Graves.