Hardly Strictly Bluegrass report

This report on the 2011 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco this past weekend comes from our friend Elizabeth Wightman with Steelbridge Insurance Services. Hardly Strictly is a completely free event, held each year at Golden Gate Park.

We arrived at HSB mid afternoon on Friday. The weather was as perfect as any San Francisco afternoon can get, the crowds were happy and the music well under way. Del McCoury and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band were playing on the Banjo (main) Stage. Del sounded a bit tired for good reason but all seemed happy to be there. After a great set of music followed by rowdy applause we made our way over to the  Star Stage to catch Chris Isaak. Not bluegrass but absolutely phenomenal! Then all the way back to the Banjo Stage for Robert Plant and the Band of Joy. And there is nothing to say about that except “Wow!” A few Led Zepplin songs, a couple of songs by Buddy Miller, a couple by Patty Larkin, one by Darrel Scott along with lots of his soulful guitar playing made for a truly special set of music.  Certainly a great end to the day and start of the weekend.

Friday evening after the music my friends and I re-visited the conversation that started before and continued during the IBMA Conference about “What is Bluegrass?”, etc. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is so true to its name (it’s hardly bluegrass yet it strictly is) and really embodies this conversation as a whole. Because it’s not just about bluegrass but rather art and music and stretching our boundaries. I think we would all agree that Del McCoury is bluegrass in every sense of the word but is that still true when he plays with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band? Certainly Bill Monroe would never have envisioned a horn section in a bluegrass band but that that doesn’t make it wrong just outside the box. Even with all its traditional roots, for me bluegrass has always had an element of newness in terms of the fact that it embodies so much creativity. I’m glad our bluegrass community is engaged in this conversation because it’s essential to the growth and evolution of the music.

All these thoughts we confirmed the next day as we made our way from stage to stage to see the veritable smorgasbord of music offered. We started Saturday morning at the Banjo Stage with Greensky Bluegrass. I’m not even sure what to say about them. They touch my soul each and every time I see them. Truly unique in their music, melodies and interpretation of the bluegrass genre.

We followed that perfect beginning with good dose of Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. They never disappoint and this was no exception. They had the crowd cheering with their rousing tunes including several Bill Monroe standards. Ricky told a great story of his mother’s fried chicken describing it as being “fried in lard, in a cast iron skillet, with the skin on.” Such loud cheers from a crowd which most certainly contained an inordinate percentage of vegetarians and vegans!

That was followed by the rest of the day at the Arrow Stage to mostly see bands out of Austin, TX. This included Ruthie Foster who sang a variety of music from blues to soul to reggae and one traditional tune where her band played fiddle and spoons! Again, traditional but not.

The music was all great. The sound was amazing. The people were generous and kind. The volunteers were helpful and diligent. I just gotta say that despite the huge crowds and the long walks between stages, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is an amazing festival. I don’t know how the citizens of San Francisco or any music lovers in attendance could possibly say thank you enough to Warren Hellman for this gift. It truly is a celebration of music, the arts and what’s best about people coming together for a common passion.

  • Jamie Holt

    Tom Ewing makes mention of a tune that Bill Monroe wrote in the book he edited, “The Bill Monroe Reader,” titled Trombolin. Monroe wrote the tune for Trombone and Mandolin. I don’t think he ever got around to recording the tune, but it would be very interesting to hear.

    • Stewart Evans

      Monroe never recorded it but Skip Gorman did – albeit without trombone. It’s on his CD “The Old Style Mandolin vol. 2 – Monroesque” which I recommend highly, especially to anyone interested in obscure Monroe tunes.