Hardly Strictly Ordinary

When people talk about the biggest festivals in the U.S., the names Coachella, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits come to mind. But one festival that folks outside of Northern California may have never heard of drew comparisons to Woodstock October 1-2 when it drew more than 325,000 music fans to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which just completed its fifth annual run, is not your father’s – or even your kids’ – music festival. Completely underwritten by billionaire financier and bluegrass fan Warren Hellman, the free festival has grown from two stages and about a dozen performers in 2001 to five stages and more than 60 artists. Despite a crowd of more than 200,000 for the final day, only two arrests were made during the event – both for public intoxication.

There are no festival sponsors – and no distracting sponsor signage – to be found. Even vendor booths are limited to non-profit organizations such as bluegrass societies and local non-commercial radio stations along with food and non-alcoholic beverage sales, according to Slim’s booking manager and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass organizer Dawn Holliday.

Despite the sheer size of the festival, there are no mega-promoters behind HSB. The event is produced and organized by Hellman, staffs of the Slim’s and Great American Music Hall nightclubs and a crew of about 140.

And like many of the artists performing HSB’s stages, its staff is fiercely independent.

“Why would we have [a major promoter] support us? We’re promoters,” Holliday told Pollstar, chuckling. “A lot of us worked for Bill Graham Presents for many, many years but … we are the promoters.”

Holliday and Hellman team up with a core staff that includes Jonathan Nelson and independent producer Sheri Sternberg, a longtime associate of Slim’s and the GAMH. Her Mercenary Productions counts the summer and winter X Games along with HSB as major annual projects.

Many promoters and producers might cringe at the thought of a billionaire investment banker working in such a hands-on manner as Hellman does, but the founder of Hellman & Friedman LLC is no ordinary financier.

He was a ubiquitous presence around the park – introducing artists, appearing with Poor Man’s Whisky outfitted in a police costume, playing his own set (he’s taken up banjo lessons with Bay Area picker Jody Stecher), and walking among the crowd in jeans and a denim jacket.

“I think it’s lovely,” Holliday said.

She consults with Hellman but has the final say on artist bookings.

“I think that I’m in a wonderful position that I can basically book what I’d like and have support from someone who truly, truly loves music. And I’m not relying on sponsorship and sponsorship needs.”

“I just adore him,” Emmylou Harris told the San Francisco Chronicle. “So many people are the beneficiaries of his passion, his love for this music. I don’t think there’s another festival like this in the world.”

And it could only happen in San Francisco, Holliday insists. While HSB does do some advertising, much of its promotion comes simply from word of mouth. And it gets a boost from unlikely sources.

“San Francisco has always had a strong support for roots [music],” Holliday said. “All the (radio) stations … announced it even though it’s not in their format. San Francisco’s always been a market that can support Green Day and Hot Rize at the same time, the same fan. It’s one of the reasons … it’s an island unto itself.”

More than 60 artists performed across the five stages including bluegrass traditionalists like Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, the Del McCoury Band, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, and festival inspiration Hazel Dickens.

They were joined by renegade country and contemporary folk artists like Dolly Parton, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Dave Alvin, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Rosanne Cash, Patty Griffin and Joan Baez – who literally had fans hanging from the trees at the overflowing Rooster Stage.

Best reflecting the “hardly strictly” vibe of the two-day festival were decidedly non-traditionalists like The Knitters, The Austin Lounge Lizards, Todd Snider, Wake the Dead, Rodney Crowell, The Legendary Shack*Shakers, and Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven.

Hellman, who has footed the bill for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass since its inception, told the Chronicle the outsized hootenanny was his “selfish gift” to San Francisco. And the city showed up, from small kids to pierced and tatted teenagers to 90-year-old folk godmother Faith Petric, who took in Harris’ finale.

Despite more than tripling attendance in 2005, Holliday insists there will be no scaling back of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass next year.

“I don’t see any reason that we would do that. The trees were full, but nobody told me they were uncomfortable. If anybody was, I’d be happy to refund the ticket!”

– Deborah Speer