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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Today an unusual music festival begins in San Francisco. For starters, it's huge, with 60 bands playing on five stages. The concert is called Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and it features some of the biggest and smallest names in country and bluegrass music.

It's all free. The shows are a gift to the Bay Area from a music-loving native son. And as NPR's John McChesney reports, thousands of people will be there this weekend as they have been in years past.

Ms. ALISON BROWN (Musician, The Alison Brown Quartet): We'll send this tune out to Doc. It's one named after his hometown. It's called Deep Gap.

(Soundbite of song “Deep Gap”)

JOHN MCCHESNEY: The Alison Brown Quartet took the stage at last year's festival dedicating the tune Deep Gap to the legendary Doc Watson. Sprawled across Golden Gate Park's Speedway Meadow on blankets spread with picnics, 300,000 people last year turned out for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

It's known as HSB to insiders who come to hear pickers and singers from the who's-who of American roots music. And it's all paid for by one man: Warren Hellman, a billionaire investment banker who loves this kind of music and spends gazillions every year to give it away to his hometown.

Mr. WARREN HELLMAN (Founder, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival): Some Texas oilman said money is like manure - I'm sure you've heard the statement - that if you spread it around, good things grow; and if you pile it up in one place, it just smells bad.

So the idea of doing this as a gift to a city that's given everything to my family for, you know, 150 years just was very appealing.

MCCHESNEY: Hellman is talking in his downtown San Francisco office with a grand view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the blue bay. He's a slender man, runs ten miles a day, is 72, doesn't look it, and his talk is punctuated by anecdotes and self deprecation.

He started the festival six years ago as a modest affair.

Mr. HELLMAN: First year we had one stage, I think, 12 or 14 bands, but we did have Emmylou Harris and Hazel Dickens. We had a great lineup. And then I guess there's enough investment banker still in me that every year it had to grow or it would be devalued or something.

MCCHESNEY: That first year it was called Strictly Bluegrass, Hellman's first musical love because he's an amateur claw hammer banjo picker. Which brings us back to that word hardly.

Hellman is an unabashed Emmylou Harris fan and he'd loved her especially with the bluegrass group, Nash Ramblers - one of the reasons he invited her to that first festival. But at the time, Harris had a band called Spyboy, which had a New Orleans rhythm section and was, as she says, quite loud.

Ms. EMMYLOU HARRIS (Musician): And that was my touring band, and I just showed up I think the first year with that band. And instead of complaining, dear Warren just changed the name of the festival to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass instead of Strictly Bluegrass. I'm going all the way for Warren this year, all the way back.

MCCHESNEY: All the way back means reuniting John Starling, Mike Auldridge and Tom Gray, former members of the Seldom Scene, the group that in the 1970s spearheaded a revival of bluegrass music.

(Soundbite of song “Gardens and Memories”)

SELDOM SCENE (Bluegrass Group): (Singing) Yesterday, yesterday from sunshine and rain...

MCCHESNEY: But the festival is also sticking with the hardly label this year, as it did last year when it presented headliners like Rosanne Cash.

(Soundbite of song “Burn Down This Town”)

Ms. ROSANNE CASH (Musician): (Singing) Sky is falling with ash and mud. We gotta make the promise, yeah, blood to blood...

MCCHESNEY: And folk singers like Joan Baez, who turned in a soulful rendition of a Bob Dylan song she hadn't done in years.

(Soundbite of song “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall”)

Ms. JOAN BAEZ (Musician): (Singing) Ah, but I'll know my song well before I start singin', and it's hard, and it's hard, and it's hard, and it's hard. It's a hard rain is a-gonna fall...

MCCHESNEY: 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 sprung up around the festival makes for a lot of musical cross-fertilization, perhaps because of that hardly part.

And there's another function of the festival: giving unknown groups a launching pad. Again, Warren Hellman:

Mr. HELLMAN: I get, oh god, probably two or three CDs a day - and we listen to all of them.

MCCHESNEY: Hellman gestures across his office.

Mr. HELLMAN: Pretty much that entire pile are CD's that have come over the transom.

MCCHESNEY: That's a pretty big pile, by the way.

Mr. HELLMAN: Yeah, but those have all been listened to.

MCCHESNEY: One young group that got a boost from two appearances at HSB is Old Crow Medicine Show.

(Soundbite of song “Wagon Wheel”)

OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW (Music Group): (Singing) Runnin' from the cold up in New England. I was born to be a fiddler in an old time string band. My baby plays the guitar, I pick a banjo now. Oh, north country winters keep a gettin' me and I lost my money playing poker so I had to up and leave. But I ain't a turnin' back to livin' that old life no more. So rock me momma like a wagon wheel. Rock me momma any way you feel...

MCCHESNEY: Ketch Secor plays with and speaks for Old Crow. He says the non-commercial character of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is very important.

Mr. KETCH SECOR (Musician, Old Crow Medicine Show): I'm there for the music and I'm there for the community that's created by the music. And to me, the fact that Warren doesn't include all of this, like, consumption-driven stuff, that's what it's all about. That's one of the things that really makes this event so special is that you're not bombarded with signage.

MCCHESNEY: There's a rule that bands can only appear at HSB every five years, but don't believe it.

Mr. HELLMAN: We honor that kind of - hardly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MCCHESNEY: The best news for festival fans is that it looks like it will go on for many more years, even after Warren Hellman is not around.

Mr. HELLMAN: My kids and I were having a - and my wife - a meeting about what charitable stuff do we do - do they want to continue after we die. So we went through the various stuff that we do. And my son Nick(ph) said, what about the festival? And I said, up to you guys. He said, gone. I said: That was dumb; you just endowed it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MCCHESNEY: John McChesney, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song “Gardens and Memories”)

SELDOM SCENE: (Singing) Sun shadow and memories in the rain...

INSKEEP: You can find a schedule of this year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and take in some of the sights and sounds of last year's concert at npr.org.

And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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