Is anything truly sacred in San Francisco anymore? Iconic Victorians are gutted of their distinctive moldings. Friends and bands are constantly lost to the greener and slightly cheaper pastures of Los Angeles. Heck, even Elbo Room’s days are numbered. Every day, we’re faced with the realization that the San Francisco we first fell for just ain’t the girl she used to be and we’re left to wonder what’s even left to give from this increasingly barren ground.
Maybe that’s why it’s so comforting to see the hundreds of thousands of concert-goers consistently gathered peacefully in Golden Gate Park each October for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (HSB) festival. Generally speaking, HSB seems like a pretty simple concept: a free three-day concert with an eclectic lineup of impressive names – a true festival for the people. However, in a town where money speaks louder than ever and even the most beloved of institutions find themselves under constant threat, one can’t help but wonder how long the magic can really live on.
Initially, the backstory incites a bit of skepticism: back in 2001, a billionaire Wall Street investor with a penchant for bluegrass pulled together a festival on his own dime with hopes of getting his favorite singer-songwriter, Hazel Dickens, to perform. However, the investor, as all good San Franciscans know, was Warren Hellman – a man who never appeared on a Forbes “wealthiest” list due to a healthy obsession with philanthropy. Before Hellman’s death in 2011, he was frequently quoted as calling his festival “the world’s most selfish gift.” Today, that gift to the city is honored with Hellman Hollow, a portion of the park where HSB continues annually (formerly known as Speedway Meadow.)
Now in it’s sixteenth year, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass isn’t just a cultural institution for San Franciscans, but an immensely personal mission for the Hellman family. Hellman’s son Mick says that before his passing, his father was adamant about the family making an honest commitment to HSB’s future.
“He needed an affirmative decision that we would care for it. He was conscious of the fact that he didn’t want it to be a burden,” says Hellman. “We’re now five years since his passing and we’re absolutely carrying it forward. The love for this thing is universal throughout Warren’s kids and grandkids. We’ve made the decision that we’re in it for the long term.
Of course, that’s contingent on community wanting it, because it is a community project. But, we’re all in… It’s all we think about from May through October.”
Despite his hearty adoration for his father’s creation now, Hellman readily admits that initially, the festival wasn’t exactly his scene.
“My kids dragged me into it… They came home listening to all this music that I hadn’t heard much before and I was blown away… Once I got drawn in, it was irresistible,” says Hellman.
“My family got involved in music themselves because of it. We have four or so family bands. That’s the power of music. I doubt any of those things would’ve happened if my dad hadn’t started this festival. It changed the course of my life.”
Originally dubbed “Strictly Bluegrass,” the festival amended the name with “Hardly” in 2004 to be more inclusive of all genres. Since then, musicians like Dolly Parton, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, and Ryan Adams have all graced HSB stages. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and John Paul Jones have been known to make surprise appearances (respectively), and mainstays like Emmylou Harris, Nick Lowe, Conor Oberst, and Steve Earle tend to perform most years. This year’s roster is slated to include Cyndi Lauper, Chris Isaak, Mavis Staples, Jim James, Rosanne Cash, and Cake. Both fans and artists are seemingly dedicated to the unusually harmonious fest.
“I think there are a couple of things attributed to the success. First, the nature of it being free – maybe it creates more self-sufficiency with people. If you attach a price, you have to cough up the resources. People become entitled to expectations and rightly so,” says Hellman.
“Second, it’s intended to be an artist’s festival… We want an atmosphere where they’re getting something other than just money and can play and socialize off-stage. That’s something that was really important to my parents. When you consider which artists to bring back and which to let slide, sometimes it comes down to ‘did they just show up, get on stage, play and then leave?’ That’s not what we’re looking for. We like the ones who get there early and show up at other sets. There’s a community feeling. The artists create that environment.”
Hellman also largely credits HSB’s laid back vibe to the help of festival volunteers, San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, and the stellar bookings of Dawn Holliday of Slim’s and Great American Music Hall – a partnership happily born from Warren Hellman’s assistance with a financial bind Slim’s found themselves in years predating the festival. He also adds that Holliday has an unwavering stance on easing any concerns of the festival’s neighbors in the Sunset and Richmond districts, meeting with neighborhood associations and establishing a hotline for questions and complaints.
“It’s a complicated city, so there are a lot of ways for this train to derail… We try and keep minimal friction,” says Hellman.
Evidently, the feeling is mutual for the city. In an e-mailed statement, a representative for San Francisco Recreation and Parks said, “In working with Hardly Strictly Bluegrass for nearly two decades, this festival has established itself as a foundation of San Francisco’s culture. Being able to provide music of this caliber for free in our beloved Golden Gate Park makes it an experience of a lifetime. We’re extremely grateful to the late Warren Hellman and his family for their generosity in supporting San Francisco parks, and for making the arts within them a priority.”
All of that love and generosity comes with one hell of a price tag, of course. Following Warren Hellman’s passing, rumors circulated – and were even confirmed by various local publications – that the philanthropist had established a hefty endowment that would carry the festival for years to come. Though organizers have stayed typically mum on the topic, Mick Hellman acknowledges the regularly reported misinformation and was quick to shed some light on the festival’s financial future.
“I know that there are literally quotes from my father about an endowment, but he didn’t actually endow it by the legal definition. He put forward enough funds to cover about five years,” says Hellman.
“He left all of his estate to charity. There are funds for it, there are resources, [depending on what]will go to other charities or other important projects… it’s not technically endowed, but it’s secured for a long time.”
Although an easy solution, Hellman also negates the idea of sponsorships or a ticketed event – something his father was fiercely passionate about avoiding.
“The conclusion is that [ticketing and sponsorships]are inconsistent with the spirit of what my folks wanted for the festival and we don’t have any interest in going down those routes. We certainly hate the idea of ticket sales – you might as well not do [the event]. It just wouldn’t be what it is. It’s got to be free,” says Hellman.
Keeping that same spirit and energy that his parents embodied has been the biggest challenge yet for Hellman. He says that the fear of dropping the ball on the cherished event is always in the back of his mind. Despite his own busy career as the founder and managing partner of investment firm HMI Capital, he says that he’s fully committed to keeping HSB’s magic alive.
“We will kill ourselves to keep this thing going. I can’t say it any stronger. It’s not eloquent, but that’s how we feel about it.”
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass comes to Golden Gate Park September 30 – October 2.
Laura Braun is a San Francisco-based writer whose work has appeared in She Shreds, Thrillist, Venus Zine, Fest 300 and more.