BY JIM HARRINGTON
The San Jose Mercury
It all began on a ski trip.
San Francisco venture capitalist Warren Hellman was out on the slopes with an old pal, Jonathan Nelson, a former sound man for Bill Graham Presents. And “I said to him,” Hellman recalls, —‰’I've always had this fantasy of putting on a bluegrass festival.’
“So, he said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ I said, ‘I don’t have any idea how to do it.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ve got two friends “… ‘ ”
Those two friends were Dawn Holliday, who books the music at San Francisco’s Slim’s and Great American Music Hall clubs, and Sheri Sternberg, who handles production work for many major local events. Over lunch, not long after the ski trip, the quartet made plans to put on the inaugural Strictly Bluegrass festival.
“I was positive that we could do it,” Holliday says. “There was no reason on earth that we couldn’t do a free festival in Golden Gate Park.”
Holliday was right, and the event debuted in 2001 to rave reviews from the estimated 13,000 fans in attendance. No one could have predicted, however, how the festival has grown over the years.
This weekend’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass — the name changed in 2003 to reflect the inclusion of multiple music genres — is expected to draw upward of 500,000 people to Golden Gate Park’s Speedway Meadow, about what it did last fall. That makes the festival one of nation’s largest annual music gatherings — far bigger than, say, Southern California’s Coachella or the Bay Area’s own Outside Lands.
Beyond the size of the crowd, the scope of this event is just enormous. The 2009 lineup will include some 80 acts, ranging from bluegrass titans Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury to banjo-playing comedian Steve Martin and ’60s rock icon Marianne Faithfull, performing on six stages this Friday through Sunday.
Compared with the event that fans will enjoy this weekend, the inaugural one-day Strictly Bluegrass festival was a modest affair. Held Oct. 27, 2001, the concert lasted six hours and featured just two stages and nine acts, most of which were indeed “strictly bluegrass.”
The 75-year-old Hellman, a self-described “sucker for old-time music or traditional music” and a very wealthy man who cofounded the investment of firm Hellman & Friedman, has underwritten the free festival since its inception.
The first year, though, Hellman had no idea how many people would show up — even for a concert headlined by Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and bluegrass legend Hazel Dickens. “The day before the festival,” he says, “I remember saying to Dawn, ‘Do you think we will get four or five thousand people?’ ”
Yet, the timing was right to start a bluegrass fest.
Thanks to the huge success of the 2000′s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” film soundtrack, “old-timey” music had suddenly and unexpectedly become the coolest thing on the charts. Certainly, the fact that Harris and Krauss were featured on the “O Brother” CD factored into Hardly Strictly being able to draw more than 13,000 in its first year.
Seeing all the fans — not to mention hearing all the great music — was such a rush, Holliday remembers, that Hellman began talking about the second annual Strictly Bluegrass before fans had even left the first.
“We all had such a wonderful experience,” Holliday says. “He got on stage, and unbeknownst to us, announced, ‘How about we do this again next year?’ Then, he came off stage and said to us, ‘I guess we are doing this again next year.’ ”
Strictly Bluegrass 2 was bigger in every way. It featured some 30 acts, including Steve Earle, Hot Rize and Peter Rowan. At that point, the label “strictly bluegrass” was really no longer accurate, and it became Hardly Strictly in 2003.
Over the years, Holliday, who books the festival, has used that loophole to full advantage and has conjured some fascinatingly eclectic lineups. “Now, it’s almost more ‘hardly’ than ‘strictly,’ ” Hellman says. The music “does, to a certain extent, all hang together. It’s certainly far more acoustic than electric. And lively — we have very few maudlin performers. We have some mediocre performers, like my band.”
This year, Hellman will take the stage to pluck a little banjo, quite admirably, with his band, the Wronglers, at 11 a.m. Saturday, and each year, no one seems to have more fun at the festival than the guy who writes the checks. Hellman won’t say how much it costs him to put on the event — it has to be a substantial sum — but Hellman says it is well worth it.
“I guess I enjoy giving this to people more than I would enjoy buying some fancy painting or a house in the Bahamas,” Hellman says. “God, what else can you ask for? I keep calling it the world’s most selfish gift.”
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