Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Founder Hellman Dies

Warren Hellman, the San Francisco financier who bankrolled the massive Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival and toured the country with his band The Wronglers in 2011, died from complications of leukemia Dec. 18 at age 77. Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park, the main stage area that draws some 300,000 annually for HSB, was officially renamed “Hellman Hollow” by the S.F. Board of Supervisors in his honor just three days earlier.

HSB, originally dubbed “Strictly Bluegrass,” began in 2001 and drew a surprising 13,000 to Golden Gate Park. Within four years, the name was changed to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass to reflect the rapidly expanding roster of artists to perform on its now six stages, including Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, The Mekons, Patti Smith, John Mellencamp, Randy Newman, Broken Social Scene and Buckethead as well as mainstays Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Del McCoury Band, Earl Scruggs and, recently The Wronglers.

Hellman dabbled with the banjo from his early 20s, and began taking lessons in earnest in his 50s. He formed The Wronglers and debuted them on HSB’s tiniest stage in 2005 — and in 2011 added Texas singer and songrwiter Jimmie Dale Gilmore to the lineup, recorded the album Heirloom Music, performed on “Prairie Home Companion” and boarded the bus for a national tour with the band.

Hellman was also a backer of Slim’s and Great American Music Hall venues in San Francisco, and a major donor to the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, Calif.  The latter moved to a state of the art facility two years ago, including classroom space and educational initiatives. Hellman was on its board of directors and spearheaded a capital campaign to build the new facility.

Despite his background as an investment banker, Hellman told the San Francisco Chronicle that his greatest satisfaction came not from the money he made, but what he was able to give away. His philanthropic efforts included funding the San Francisco Free Clinic, an endowment to support aquatic sports at UC Berkeley and the fledgling Bay Citizen online journalism site.  

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass will continue despite the passing of Hellman, who established an endowment to keep the festival going for at least 15 years “after I croak,” as he announced to a 2008 festival crowd.

“How could you have more fun than that?” he told Forbes of his festival gift. “What the hell is money for if it isn’t for something like that?”