Conor Oberst is the unwaveringly frank songwriter and voice behind Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos, and the Mystic Valley Band, sure, but he's also got another cool gig: guest booker at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. For the past three years, Oberst has had the honor of curating Friday's lineup on the Rooster Stage, as well as performing in its final slot at 5:45 p.m. This year he's chosen the Evens, a project of DIY punk legend Ian MacKaye, and First Aid Kit, a superlative Swedish roots duo, to perform on Friday, along with other friends like the Cave Singers and Jake Bellows. We recently got Oberst on the phone from L.A., where he's recording new solo material, to talk about his experiences with Hardly Strictly.
So how did you get to curate a stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass?
I played one year, and had a great time. T. Bone Burnett used to curate that stage. For whatever reason he couldn't do it one year, and so Dawn [Holliday, Hardly Strictly booker] asked me to curate it. I was obviously really flattered and excited, and gave it a shot the first year. It went really well. They keep inviting me back, so I keep saying yes.
Did you know about Hardly Strictly before that?
I hadn't been to it until the first year I played, which was 2010. But I had always associated it with my friends Gil and Dave — Gillian Welch and [Dave] Rawlings — 'cause they've played every year for years, and they always talked about it. It sounded so unique, just 'cause it's the best of both worlds: The bands get treated really well, but also it's free to the public, and it's out in the park. It's just kind of a win-win. Everyone's in a great mood out there, and there's not huge signs hanging everywhere, trying to sell you cellphones and stuff.
How do you decide whom to bring out? Is it a difficult process?
It's not only people that I respect musically. I try to find people that I have a personal connection with. Dawn asked me to bring in a younger generation of people that are in that tradition of American songwriting music. It takes a few months to reach out to people and then get down to the actual list. But it's fun every year, and it's such a privilege to be able to invite new friends to be a part of it and get to have the experience of the whole weekend.
Do you get to explore the festival, too?
During the Friday I'm usually pretty tethered to our stage, just 'cause there's people there all day, and [I'm] kind of playing host to the friends I've invited. But the other days it's great to go check out the stages and all the people that come back year after year — the Emmylous and the Steve Earles and all the different people.
Who's stood out to you over the years?
The first year I got to see a bit of Warren Hellman's bluegrass band. That was pretty cool to see the impetus of how it started and his love for the music — it started as a bluegrass thing and then expanded and now there's all different kinds of music going on. It's so much more unique and cool and laid back than your typical festival. I mean granted, it's San Francisco, so that helps, but I feel like everyone comes with a real open mind.
Last year you also played an unannounced nighttime show at the Riptide. [See our round-up of Hardly Strictly sideshows on page 36.] How was that?
It was funny. It devolved into a messy jamming situation, but that's the way it should be. That's another cool thing — everyone's in town, so there's all the sideshows, and a lot of times the people who play the festival will end up playing other shows that weekend. It makes for a three-day hangout.
Had you planned the Riptide gig in advance?
That just popped up. 'Cause you know, it ends pretty early over at the park, so there's still some hours left in the night.
You're playing a solo show at the Fillmore this Saturday night, too. Any chance we might see you somewhere else this weekend?
No plans, but stranger things have happened. I wouldn't be surprised if there's other collaborations, mixing up of different people on the stages. That tends to happen every year.