A Bay-Area Billionaire's Annual Gift of Music

Who's Playing When

Emmylou Harris i i

Emmylou Harris was one of the festival's charter performers when it started six years ago. Jay Blakesberg hide caption

itoggle caption Jay Blakesberg
Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris was one of the festival's charter performers when it started six years ago.

Jay Blakesberg
Joan Baez i i

At last year's festival, folk singer Joan Baez turned in a soulful rendition of a Bob Dylan song she hadn't done in years: "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall." Jay Blakesberg hide caption

itoggle caption Jay Blakesberg
Joan Baez

At last year's festival, folk singer Joan Baez turned in a soulful rendition of a Bob Dylan song she hadn't done in years: "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall."

Jay Blakesberg
Warren Hellman i i

Warren Hellman, the founder and funder of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, says he listens to all the CDs submitted by aspiring festival acts. Jay Blakesberg hide caption

itoggle caption Jay Blakesberg
Warren Hellman

Warren Hellman, the founder and funder of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, says he listens to all the CDs submitted by aspiring festival acts.

Jay Blakesberg

Sprawled across Golden Gate Park's Speedway meadow on blankets spread with picnics, 300,000 people turned out for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival last year in San Francisco.

Known as HSB to insiders, the festival's roster is a who's who of American roots music. It's all paid for by one man: Warren Hellman, a billionaire investment banker who loves this kind of music and spends his money every year to give it away to his hometown.

Hellman, 72, started the festival six years ago as a modest affair. Hellman himself is an amateur claw hammer banjo picker.

"I guess there's enough investment banker still in me that every year it had to grow, or it would be devalued or something," Hellman says.

In its first year, the fest was called Strictly Bluegrass, Hellman's first musical love. But Hellman is also an unabashed Emmylou Harris fan; he especially loved her with the bluegrass group, Nash Ramblers, which is one of the reasons he invited her to the first festival.

But Harris was touring at the time with her band Spyboy, which had a New Orleans rhythm section and was, as she says, quite loud.

"I just showed up the first year with that band," Harris says. "And instead of complaining, dear Warren changed the name of the festival to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass instead of just bluegrass."

Getting invited to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is now considered a privilege by many musicians. The pay is good, the accommodations are excellent, and the community that has sprung up around the festival makes for a lot of musical cross-fertilization — perhaps because of that "hardly" part.

The festival also gives unknown groups a launching pad. One young group that got a boost from two appearances at HSB is Old Crow Medicine Show.

"I'm there for the music and I'm there for the community that's created by the music," says Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show. "To me, the fact that Warren doesn't include all of this consumption-driven stuff, that's what it's all about."

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass begins Friday and runs through Sunday.

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