Fest 411: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Is ‘Home Sweet Home’ After 2 Years Online

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BACK TO THE GARDEN: After spending the last two festivals online, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass returns to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco Sept. 30-Oct. 2 with headliners Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Drive-By Truckers. (Photo by CFlanigan/FilmMagic)

It’s been almost three years since bluegrass and roots-leaning music fans have been able to put their blankets down on the lawns in front of the six stages at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the venerable free music festival that takes place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park every first weekend of October.

So for regulars, the 2022 return to Hellman Hollow – named posthumously for founder Warren Hellman – must feel like coming “home, sweet home” after two years of park restrictions.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass announced its full lineup Sept. 13 with, as in years past, headlining sets by Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris its final two nights, respectively.

HSB again boasts an eclectic lineup that includes veterans and newcomers alike in Elvis Costello, Drive-By Truckers, Rhiannon Giddens, Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Buddy Miller, Marcus Mumford, Charley Crockett, Amythyst Kiah, Waxahatchee, Allison Russell, Tré Burt, Lucious, Joy Oladokun, Seratones, S.G. Goodman and more. The original bluegrass cohort is represented by the likes of Laurie Lewis, Dry Branch Fire Squad, Alison Brown and Bela Fleck.

Two sets in particular are worth noting as HSB emerges from the pandemic, like most of us, changed.

“Fare Thee Well: Celebrating the Songs of John Prine, Nancy Bechtle, Justin Townes Earle & More,” hosted by Steve Earle, pays tribute to HSB artists who were lost in recent years. “Black Opry Revue” with Leon Timbo, Lizzie No, and O.N.E. the Duo is another curated set that reflects HSB’s increasing diversity and celebration of music in all its forms.
Curator Chris Porter says he’s especially excited about Arooj Aftab, a Pakistani singer, composer and producer. She works in various musical styles and idioms, including jazz, minimalism and neo-Sufi.

“There’s been a conscious effort [to book a more diverse lineup],” Porter says. “But I’ve been sensing this sort of change over time. Maybe it was rather slow. But this festival feels like it needs different sounding voices and different sounds in different styles that are complementary. And that includes women and people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds.”

Artists reflecting that commitment include Meklit, Jay Som, Las Cafeteras, Aoife O’Donovan, Yasmin Williams and Antibalas.

When HSB was forced out of the park in 2020, staff including Porter, Mercenary Productions’ producer Sheri Sternberg and production veteran Ryan Smith, developed a unique streaming event: “Let The Music Play On.”

New platforms and programs emerged for HSB, including philanthropic efforts, and the HSB team learned about TV production, streaming apps, social media and interactive ways to expand its footprint from the park to the planet.

Last year’s “Come What May” took place partly live, from a stage constructed along San Francisco’s waterfront, and viewers were encouraged to pack picnics and broadcast the stream from a new HSB TV app to backyard screens for that almost-in-the-park feel.
This year, there’s no “almost” about it. The theme in 2022 is “Home Sweet Home” and the sense of relief is palpable.

“We’re so psyched to be in the park and doing our thing again,” Porter says. “It was like, ‘What the hell are we going through?’ these last few years. Was that a weird, bad dream? Yeah.”

Sternberg adds, “Our first thought, on all the things that we’re doing, is very much ‘home sweet home,’ and being happy to get back to Golden Gate Park and the best backdrop, really, any music festival can have.”