THROUGH THE LENS: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2020 Lets the Music Play On
T Bone Burnett - Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2017 - Photo by Peter Dervin
As the festival season winds down, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass celebrates its 20th anniversary with a virtual event titled “Let the Music Play On” on Saturday, Oct., 3 from 5-8 p.m. ET. As with all previous editions it is free and open to all comers. Full details and complete lineup can be found here.
In addition to well-known names such as Emmylou Harris, Rhiannon Giddens, Yola, and Buddy Miller, we’ll be treated to the Black Banjo Reclamation Project, Sierra Ferrell, and some exciting duos I like a lot: Jon Langford & Sally Timms, Kieran Kane & Rayna Gellert, Laurie Lewis & Nina Gerber, and The War and Treaty, among others.
HSB has a special place in my heart, as urban legend has it that West Virginia native Hazel Dickens was Warren Hellman’s inspiration for creating the festival. Dickens, whom I knew slightly, performed at every HSB until her death in April 2011.
In anticipation of what promises to be a wonderful three days of music and celebration, I asked HSB veteran Peter Dervin to share with us his memories and photos of previous years. At the end of the column are links to Peter’s previous coverage for this column, including a slew of photos, most of which have never been featured before.
Peter Dervin’s Look Back at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
2020 celebrates 20 years of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival founded by Warren Hellman. It all began as the Strictly Bluegrass Festival on Oct. 27, 2001, in the lovely Speedway Meadows of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The initial lineup featured Emmylou Harris, Hazel Dickens, Alison Krauss and Union Station with Jerry Douglas, Dale Ann Bradley and Coon Creek, Blue Highway, The Crooked Jades, Road Oilers, Batteries Not Included, and Keystone Station.
By its fourth year, the event changed its name to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass as the lineup became more eclectic and diverse. I started to hear about Hardly Strictly in about year 8, as this little homegrown free festival was becoming one of the biggest community festivals on the West Coast. I’m calling it a community festival because, well, it really is. Open and free to the public, festival founder Warren Hellman once called the gathering a “selfish gift,” one that he, the musicians, and the community could all enjoy.
First Time at the Fest
I was finally able to attend HSB in its tenth year, and what an introduction. Catching 7 Walkers with Bill Kreutzmann, George Porter Jr., Papa Mali, and Matt Hubbard was certainly one of the best ways to feel the vibe of this truly organic happening. I was also able to catch The Dukes of September featuring Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Hot Tuna Electric, the songwriter circle featuring Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, John Doe & David Olney, Buddy Miller, Steve Earle & the Dukes, Hazel Dickens, Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women, Rosanne Cash, Nick Lowe, and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. After that weekend I was hooked. Upon my return to the Northwest, I had already started planning my return in 2011.
Warren Hellman and Hazel Dickens
In 2011, Hazel Dickens passed away, and her presence was missed at HSB. That year’s festival, the 11th, was dedicated in her honor. Also featured that year was Bill Kirchen, Seldom Scene, David Bromberg Quartet, The Del McCoury Band & The Preservation Ball Jazz Band, John Prine, Robert Plant & The Band of Joy, Jimmie Dale Gilmore & The Wronglers (Warren Hellman’s band), and Robyn Hitchcock. I tried to catch Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard and it was packed, and I was only able to hear and see a glimpse of the two classic country songwriters.
That is when I realized that to see so much music you need to be strategic in getting from stage to stage. I also realized that I really enjoyed catching some of my favorites every year, including sets from Steve Earle & the Dukes and Emmylou Harris on the Banjo Stage.
In December 2011, the HSB community learned of the passing of Warren Hellman. The founder of this unique festival had built a legacy that made a lasting impact within this music community. The 2012 HSB would become a tribute to Hellman for his many contributions to his beloved Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. The debut of the The Go to Hell Man Clan featuring Jimmie Dale Gilmore and The Wronglers was a moving tribute.
I have continued to attend Hardly Strictly Bluegrass every year with the exception of 2018, but was back at it in 2019, when Tanya Tucker, Margo Price, and Adia Victoria made their HSB debuts. As the entire country and music communities survive and work through the COVID pandemic, the organizers of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass are keeping the community-minded tradition going with virtual festival “Let The Music Live On.” Hope you enjoy a look back at some of my favorite Hardly Strictly memories.
Previous years of Peter’s coverage of the fest for this column can be found at these links:
2016 (also includes coverage from Holly Horn): https://www.nodepression.com/the-hardly-strictly-bluegrass-music-festival-2016-in-san-francisco/