About This Festival
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is the brainchild of Warren Hellman, the co-founder of multi-billion dollar private equity firms Hellman & Friedman and Matrix Partners. Being a high-roller like that apparently makes almost anything possible, because when Hellman decided back in 2001 that he’d like to foot the bill for a free bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park, lo and behold, he made it happen. As Hellman told Forbes Magazine in 2006, “How could you have more fun than that? What the hell is money for if it isn’t for something like that?”
From Strictly to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
The first festival, which was simply titled “Strictly Bluegrass,” took place on Saturday, October 27, 2001, and had a small but impressive lineup. Hellman’s one major request was that Hazel Dickens play the festival, and again, he got his way. Hazel Dickens appeared on the Main Stage, as did Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss & Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas, and Dale Ann Bradley and Coon Creek, while a handful of other bands took to the Small Stage.
As word of the free concert got out, the crowds started flocking to GG Park each October. The concert expanded from one day to three, and the lineups grew to include other bluegrass and country favorites such as Gillian Welch, Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen, and without an ounce of egotism or much fanfare, Hellman himself, playing banjo with his band, the Wronglers. The roster soon grew to include typically non-bluegrass/country acts like Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann, Neko Case, and Conor Oberst. It was the inclusion of such non-bluegrass acts that led Hellman to add the “Hardly” to the title of the festival in 2004, and it’s been Hardly Strictly ever since.
While the festival continued to grow in popularity and size, attracting performers from around the world, Hellman stayed true to his original intent to bring bluegrass music to San Francisco for free, and his friend Hazel Dickens continued to play the festival every year, just as Hellman had hoped. Sadly, in April of 2011, Hazel Dickens passed away. The festival that year paid tribute to her life and her music, and attracted a crowd of approximately 750,000 people. Two months after the 2011 festival, Warren Hellman lost his battle with leukemia. Hellman’s generosity and spirit live on in Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, as he left an endowment that will allow the festival to continue free of sponsorship through 2026.
No Big Business for Bluegrass
Artists appreciate this completely non-commercial event, and big names continue to pack the stages each year. Hellman had been offered corporate sponsorship on numerous occasions, but he always declined, preferring to pay out of his own pocket than succumb to big business taking over the festival. This is one of the refreshing things about attending Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: you won’t be bombarded with advertising from soda companies, tech corporations or the like. What you will be bombarded with is three days of great music, thousands of people enjoying picnics in the sun, and the occasional cloud of pot smoke, lest you forget that this utopian society is San Francisco.
Also in the true spirit of San Francisco, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass endeavors to be a zero waste festival by encouraging biking to the festival (use the bike valet!), use of public transportation, recycling and composting. No booze is served at the festival, but you are welcome to bring your own beer or wine (no hard alcohol is permitted). There are food vendors scattered throughout the park, but most folks here (again, in true SF form) take their picnicking seriously, bringing artisanal cheeses, homemade pickles, cured meats and organic fruits and veggies.
So each October, when the weather is preternaturally beautiful, denizens of San Francisco and music lovers from around the globe gather in the meadows of Golden Gate Park to pay tribute to Warren Hellman’s generosity, to listen to his favorite music, to eat, drink and be merry, under the sun, in the grass…and for three days, it’s like the flower children have come home again.