Bluegrass music was born in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, but it has found a home away from home in San Francisco.
Each October, zillionaire financier Warren Hellman hosts 100,000 of his closest friends in Golden Gate Park at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free, three-day blowout of bluegrass and roots music that draws appearances from the likes of Emmylou Harris, Doc Watson, and Steve Earle. Local venues such as the Atlas Cafe and the Plough and Stars offer acoustic music most nights of the week, and support local artists with open-mike jams. And every February, the San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival treats attendees to music workshops, square dances, free jam sessions, kids-only shows, and intimate concerts at some of the Bay Area's best venues. This year, the event celebrates its ninth anniversary with nine days of music, featuring more than 50 bands at venues around the Bay Area and two days of film screenings at the Red Vic.
Headlining this year's lineup are festival co-founders the Crooked Jades along with local favorites Peter Rowan and David Grisman. The legendary Freighthoppers return after a five-year absence, while Spring Creek Bluegrass Band, which recently won the Telluride Bluegrass Festival band competition, makes its festival debut. But the most talked-about act on the bill may be the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a trio of African-American twentysomethings on banjos, fiddles, and jugs who are reviving traditional 1920s black string-band music. The group met at the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in April 2005 and released its fantastic debut, Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind, a year later. Recently featured in the Golden Globe–nominated Denzel Washington film The Great Debaters, the Drops bring their brand of back-porch-picking, foot-stomping good times to Berkeley's Freight and Salvage on Thursday, Feb. 7, and prove once again that the grass is blue beyond the usual geographical suspects.