If you’ve never been to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, you’ve missed out. The festival, which takes over Golden Gate Park for the first weekend of October every year, was started in 2001 by billionaire financier and banjo hobbyist Warren Hellman. It’s completely free, paid for by Hellman, and has grown in popularity every year, to the point where it draws hundreds of thousands of people to the park every year, making it one of the world’s largest music festivals. The event is so beloved that when Hellman died shortly after the festival in 2011, he left a fifteen year endowment in his will to ensure that the city would continue to put it on. The city responded by changing the name of Speedway Meadow, the festival’s main throughfare, to Hellman’s Hollow.
Obviously, a lot of people really love Hardly Strictly, but very few people love it more than I do. The only time I’ve missed it since 2007 was in 2010, when I had moved to New York a month before. I’m in New York now, of course, but you bet your ass I’m flying back to the Bay this weekend. It’s my favorite weekend of the year, in part because of the great free music (people I’ve seen at past HSBGs include Robert Plant, John Prine, Gillian Welch, Allison Krauss, Steve Earle, Merle Haggard, John Paul Jones, the Civil Wars, Del McCoury, Conor Oberst, Lucero, Buddy Miller, I could keep going…), but also because it’s usually the weekend that has the nicest weather of the entire year in San Francisco. Last year it also coincided with Fleet Week, and while music played on six stages the Blue Angels did loop-de-loops over the park.
Anyway, I’m rambling. The point is, I’m excited. And I thought I’d write a little preview. So here, in no particular order, are five artists I’m excited to see this weekend.
Justin Townes Earle
Earle is of course the son of Hardly Strictly mainstay Steve Earle. I’m a huge fan of Steve’s and at the Hellman tribute show back in 2012 I got up real close to watch him give an awesome performance (I’ve seen him on several other occasions as well). But he always closes on Saturday night, and by that point it is REALLY hard to get anywhere near a stage. So I’m looking forward a little more to watching his son, Justin, who has three pretty awesome namesakes: his dad, songwriting legend Townes Van Zandt, and me! I’m kidding, but Justin comes straight out of the hard-living, story-telling songwriting tradition of his father and Townes, and I’m really looking forward to seeing him play.
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
A confession: Even though I’ve gone to HSBG almost every year for five or six years now, I’ve never seen Emmylou there. She always closes the festival on Sunday night, and the crowd is truly a nightmare by then (remember: hundreds of thousands of people.) But this year she’s performing with Rodney Crowell, with whom she recorded an album earlier this year. Crowell wrote one of my all-time favorite country songs, Bluebird Wine, and I’ll be damned if I’m not gonna see him and Emmylou sing it on Sunday.
I’ve never seen Bragg, the great English singer-songwriter who recorded one of my favorite albums of all-time, Mermaid Avenue, on which he collaborated with Wilco to write music for fifteen songs that Woody Guthrie had left behind lyrics for. My favorite: Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key.
I covered Ryan Bingham extensively already. So just watch this and appreciate that Ryan Bingham is awesome and I will get to see him this weekend.
Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers
San Francisco–based roots rock/Americana band with instrumental chops, a smoking hot lead singer, and a song with a hook that goes “It’s a little too late to die young” (which is so awesome I’m thinking about getting it tattooed on my body)? Yes please, more please.
Man, I’m excited about this weekend.