Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Returns With Jason Isbell, The Church, John Doe Folk Trio And More Among Early Lineup Reveals

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Day 1
A general view of the banjo stage during the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival at Golden Gate Park on October 4, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by C Flanigan/FilmMagic)

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass returns to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park Sept. 29-Oct. 1 for its 23rd edition and, as has become tradition, teased its 2023 lineup including Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, The Church, John Doe Folk Trio, Valerie June and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. The July 25 tease, in the form of a “medley” released on HSB’s mobile app, coincides with founder and benefactor Warren Hellman’s birthday.

Also included in the first lineup release are Leyla McCalla, John Craigie, Neal Francis, Bahamas, and Gaby Moreno. It’s likely just the tip of the iceberg – three additional “medley” releases are scheduled in the coming weeks. The festival annually books some 70 artists over six stages.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2023 marks a homecoming of sorts after a longish absence for Jason Isbell, who last performed there in 2014. He returns on the heels of an acclaimed documentary, appearance in Martin Scorsese’s latest film “Killers of the Flower Moon,” and possibly the most acclaimed album of the former Drive-By Trucker’s career, Weathervanes.”

”Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is as good as a music festival gets, in my opinion,” Isbell says. “The location, the weather, the lack of corporate signage, the opportunity for beautiful and unique musical moments to happen – I love it all. This is one festival I always get excited about.”

Since its inaugural edition in 2001 as “Strictly Bluegrass” with nine artists on two stages for one day, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass has grown into massive celebration of music from across the spectrum: from bluegrass proto-feminist icon Hazel Dickens and festival mainstay Emmylou Harris to artists including The Meat Puppets, Ween, and Reignwolf. 

The free event has evolved over the years, not the least with the passing of Hellman in 2011, thanks to an endowment and now, its own foundation that assisted artists and venues with grant funding during the 2020-21 dark years owing to the COVID pandemic.

Founded by Hellman in 2001, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass marked the late financier/philanthropist’s gift to the City of San Francisco, offering a free outdoor festival in the historic Golden Gate Park to serve as an annual celebration of American music. Honoring the legacy of Warren and Chris Hellman, their four children, who are the directors of the Hellman Foundation, oversee Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. 

“They are guided by a very special mission celebrating American roots music and its many outgrowths in an environment that fosters joy, creativity, freedom, peace, collaboration, love of music, mutual respect, and spiritual community,” according to the festival announcement.

After two years of creative digital iterations, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass returned live to Golden Gate Park last fall in what was described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “a family reunion.”

“Coming home to Golden Gate Park was essential to our well-being” says HSB Executive Producer Sheri Sternberg.“The artist’s joy was palpable and evident with all the amazing collaborations that took place.  

“Listening to Emmylou Harris sing “Love Hurts” with Buddy Miller, hearing the Marcus Mumford and Lucius version of the Kinks “Strangers” and the rousing version of “Kansas City” by Mumford with Rhiannon Giddens, Elvis Costello and many others was soul stirring. Witnessing Danielle Ponder sing for the first time at the Swan Stage left the audience speechless and Steve Earle’s tribute to the musicians we lost over the past few years was the perfect way to wind down the weekend.  Everyone needed to have an exceptional year; the artists did not disappoint, and the audience rejoiced.”