Over the course of three days in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, nearly 100 bands take the stage at the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.
The festival began when Warren Hellman, a San Francisco banjo player and investment banker, approached city officials and local music impressario Dawn Holliday with the idea of bankrolling a one-day bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park.
It has grown to include all kinds of music, yet one of the most rewarding aspects of the festival, held annually the first weekend of October, is that it brings back beloved musicians.
Organizers and fans alike call many of the regulars by their first names: Emmylou (Harris) is the “heart and soul” of the three-day festival, said Holliday, who curates the program.
Harris has been at every festival since it began in 2001 and traditionally closes it on Sunday evening.
Dave Alvin would be the songwriter laureate of California if such a position existed, Holliday said, and he’s back too.
“He is representative of California,” she said. For an older generation, “Merle Haggard was that. Dave is my Merle Haggard. He describes the lands of California, the hills, the valleys. And boy can he play that guitar.”
Hailing from Texas, Robert Earl Keen has become such a fan favorite, the festival moved him to a bigger stage this year.
“He’s a large person,” she said about Keen. “He lives large, he sounds large, and his bluegrass album last year was fantastic.”
Keen will be the final act Saturday on the Towers of Gold stage after outgrowing the Rooster stage, “so the audience can be that big too and match his energy,” Holliday said.
The first festival in 2001 was called Strictly Bluegrass and featured just a handful of bands. On the bill that year were Hellman favorites Emmylou Harris and Hazel Dickens (who died in 2011).
“We had no idea whether anybody would show up,” Hellman, then managing director of the San Francisco equity firm Hellman & Friedman, told The Press Democrat in 2010. “And there were 20,000 people.”
A couple of years later the festival expanded to include all sorts of musical styles and changed its name to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
Hellman died in 2011, just eight months after Dickens, but left a bequest that would enable Hardly Strictly to continue for many years.
He was “a truly beautiful one-percenter,” said Richard Koman of Santa Rosa, who regularly attends the festival.
Koman called Hardly Strictly “a living reminder of the spirit of the free Golden Gate Park concerts of the ’60s,” and said “seemingly a million people gather in the park without incident — it’s just a joyous celebration of the music and the city.”
There are seven stages, ranging from the capacious Banjo stage to the tiny Bandwagon platform. The Arrow stage is gone, Holliday said, because of sound bleeding over from Banjo.
Many festival mainstays who have been there since the early years “still hold the Warren feel,” Holliday said.
“It’s really important to me that Warren is still represented and loved. Emmy and Steve (Earle) and Robert Earl Keen all keep Warren in this. They have the history. They bring Warren back to the table.”
For those who suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out), Hardly Strictly poses a monumental challenge. There are so many engaging bands to see and no way to see more than a small fraction of them.
Listing bands not to miss, Holliday said: “You know what: Cheap Trick! And of course Randy Newman is going to be wonderful.”
Lucinda Williams, the poetic Southern singer-songwriter, who has only appeared once before at the festival, is coming back.
Over the course of Lucinda’s nearly four-decade career, Holliday said, “she’s grown up to be quite representative of the whole Americana (genre) which didn’t exist back then.”
She is “for women in that scene,” Holliday said. “And she is a giver, much like Dave (Alvin). She will give her time — she says yes to benefits. She’s really up to date with politics.”
Another returning festival veteran is banjo player Alison Brown, who, like Hellman, worked in finance.
“She and Warren had a lot in common. She went to Harvard too,” Holliday said. “Warren loved that she was also a recovering investment banker.”
Brown has “a beautiful tone and plays a really great banjo,” she added. “This year she’s got a very special band she’s bringing out — they always keep the bluegrass” in the festival.
Other traditional bluegrass greats attending the festival are Tim O’Brien and the duo of Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn.
Holliday said she’d like to find some younger bluegrass acts, but they all seem to be covering songs by The Who or the Grateful Dead.
New this year are spoken-word events, featuring Bay Area comic and social critic Will Durst, as well as Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins, on a small stage debuting this year called La Victrola.
For all the well-known names, there are many musicians that most festival-goers might not know.
“That’s the idea,” Holliday said. “There are a lot of songwriters this year that I like. Colter Wall is amazing. I think his voice is very Roy Orbison-like.”
Another must-see session is Ornette’s Prime Time Band Reunion, a tribute to jazz legend Ornette Coleman, who died in 2015.
Organized by Harry Duncan, Coleman’s former band manager and a radio show host on KCSM, the reunion features jazz greats who played with Coleman.
“Everybody needs to be there. I am so excited about it,” Holliday said. “It’s going to be fabulous. And it’s totally a one-time thing. This will not be redone.”
Asked how she books the festival, Holliday said she looks for bands that have roots.
“You know what I do, I walk through the park and listen to what I hear in the different meadows,” she said.
“Then I just book according to what I hear. It’s like: This is what the park sounds like to me this year. The park does give music to me — it just does.”
And from this afternoon through sunset on Sunday, the park, and all the musicians brought to San Francisco by the Hellman family, will freely give music to everyone else too.
Michael Shapiro is author of “A Sense of Place.” He writes about travel and entertainment for national magazines and The Press Democrat.