SUNDAY MORNING SOUNDCHECK
The Gods Speak Thru Emmylou
A Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Scrapbook
Every October for years we’ve been going down to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. It’s something of a family tradition that was established by my nephew Quinn when he was like six or seven. He was this adorably precocious kid with a mop of red hair who was clever and witty and interested in things that were far removed from what the other kids were into. He was one of those rare kids who’s really comfortable talking with the grownups. When he became fascinated by bluegrass, he got a banjo, learned to play, and became pretty knowledgeable on traditional American music. So Uncle Rick would take Q down to Hardly Strictly, and I would tag along.
Over 20 years the event has grown to a footprint of five stages in Golden Gate Park, drawing north of 500,000 people across a three-day weekend. As compared to Outside Lands, Hardly Strictly has always been pretty chill, despite the large crowd. It's mostly a rag tag throng of aging hippies and folkies sitting in groups listening to the bluegrass. It’s this beautiful kaleidoscope of lawn chairs and blankets and coolers spanning the large meadows of the park, with sweet banjo licks and harmonies floating across the air.
At a time when a Coachella ticket can set you back four or five bills, this event is unique among festivals in America because it is completely free. No corporate sponsors, no ads plastered all over the place. This is thanks to the largesse of one guy, the late Warren Hellman, who established and endowed the festival in 2001. He was an amateur banjo enthusiast who also happened to be a super wealthy venture capitalist. The festival was born of his purist idea, assisted by a couple producers from Bill Graham Presents. The free element, I think, keeps it more friendly and focused on the music, as compared to the shitshow that is the modern commercial mega festival.
Right at the beginning, Hellman connected with Hazel Dickens, the legendary West Virginia singer known for ballads about coal miners, union songs and standards from the Appalachian hill country. She was initially suspicious of his wealth, but they got close and she sort of became the matriarch of the festival. I remember one performance in particular, in her last years. Here’s this grandmother figure joking with the massive crowd about smelling the aroma of weed smoke. Beautiful moment.
There were the Nashville legends like Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, John Prine, Del McCurry, Doc Watson. And also the “younger” country stars: Steve Earle, Alison Krause, Justin Townes Earle (RIP), Old Crow Medicine Show, Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Dwight Yokham, the Devil Makes Three.
Per the name, the festival encompasses a much wider range than just traditional country, including indie, alternative, classic rock and many others. In this way, HSBG reflects the blur of overlapping genres that modern music has become: Elvis Costello, The Meat Puppets, Social Distortion, The Chieftains, Patti Smith, Jeff Tweedy, Boz Scaggs, Cindy Lauper, CAKE, Jonathan Richmond, Jackson Browne, Jim James, Cheap Trick, Joe Jackson, Blind Boys of Alabama, Randy Newman, Nick Lowe, Chris Isack, MC Hammer, Graham Nash, Mavis Staples, Booker T and the MGs, Los Lobos, Billy Bragg, Conor Oberst, Flogging Molly. And so many more (for a complete list see the HSBG Archive).
There are smaller stages for emerging performers, including one called the Bandwagon Stage, which is a trailer with a little wood deck tacked to the side. And more recently, for the kids they’ve added a silent disco. Hey, it’s San Francisco.
A couple years back Robert Plant came out to close the Saturday program on the main stage. Instead of playing obscure recent stuff he launched into a handful of blues-driven early Led Zeppelin tunes: Black Dog, When the Levee Breaks, I Can’t Quit you Babe, and Ramble On. Although I try to avoid aging rockers trotting out decades-old hits, this show was awesome: a great backing band and the dude had kept himself in good shape—the iconic long blond mane, and the way his voice could still hit those sustained high notes. It sounded like you remembered it, like a time capsule from 1974. Plus, there was a young gal behind him just going to town on a fiddle! Yeah, heavy blues rock ‘n roll with a fiddle!
We had a great spot for Robert Plant, maybe only twenty yards from the stage, owing to Rick’s Hardly Strictly routine of getting there very early and staking out a space with a tarp and lawn chairs. Given the polite, orderly festival ethic, people respect this method of reserving your space. Our morning routine involves walking several blocks to a cafe on Balboa called Simple Pleasures. That Outer Richmond neighborhood is a nice mix of little joints, an art house theater and a Chinese bakery where they play mahjong and sell an array of interesting custards and baos. We get back to our spot with plenty of time before the first act goes on at 11. As the crowd slowly fills in the lawn, Rick and Q play cribbage on the top of an ice chest and bloody marys are mixed. Friends stop by and everyone figures out which acts they want to see at which stages.
On Sunday morning every year we head back from the coffee shop to join maybe a couple hundred people informally gathered in front of the main stage. Right at 9 out walks arguably the Queen of Country Music herself, Emmylou Harris, wearing a beat up jean jacket, cat eye shades and sipping a cup of tea. She greets the small crowd warmly and you can tell she loves the this intimate gathering of true believers. There’s a modesty in the way she carries herself, but also a natural glamor with her long white hair and stage presence—she’s got the ease and aura of a master performer who’s been at the top of her craft for decades.
Photo by Rick Alfaro
In her low key way she’s in command, directing the sound guys, discussing with the musicians— it’s cool to get a peek behind-the-scenes at how the music is put together. She banters with the crowd, kidding that she doesn’t want to preempt the show later that evening (in which she will perform for a sea of thousands and thousands stretching far into the distance). And then she plays five or six tunes nearly in full, usually several gems from her 30-album catalog: Luxury Liner, Hickory Wind, Orphan Girl, Sin City, Evangeline, Going Back to Harlan. When she starts singing, her voice takes your breath away. You feel the high register resonate and reach to an unusually moving place.
Across a 50-year career Harris has become one of music’s most distinctive voices and songwriters, winning every conceivable award and collaborating with the likes of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, Guy Clark, and Townes Van Zandt. She sang with Robbie Robertson and The Band at the fabled Last Waltz concert.
Her defining collaboration was in the early 70s with Gram Parsons, a tragic desperado figure in the annals of country music. Parsons called himself a cosmic cowboy. He had gone solo after helping to found the Byrds, stints with his band the Flying Burrito Brothers and lots of partying with Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones. Parsons and Harris sang tight-harmony duets on his only two albums, haunting ballads that fused traditional country, rock and gospel. This was a new style of music that came to be called hippie country, and gave birth to today’s alt-country genre. The partnership was deep but brief, as Parsons died of a morphine and alcohol overdose shortly after they cut their final tracks. Emmylou has said the Gram Parsons collaboration was a defining moment that helped her find her voice.
In 1991 she recorded a live album in the old Ryman Theater in Nashville, the red brick palace that had hosted the Grand Ole Opry since the early 1940s. At the time it was abandoned and slated for demolition. There hadn’t been a performance there for 20 years. That album, which won a Grammy, made people realize they couldn’t knock down the mother church of country music. So yeah, she saved the Ryman too. Read the story.
Right near the end of the sound check, Emmylou gathers a couple bandmates around the mic stand and sings an acapella number, Calling my Children Home. It’s a moment that gives you chills, hearing this transcendent voice coming straight down from the heavens. The sun is shining and it’s a lucky Sunday morning at the church of Hardly Strictly!