Let’s be honest: San Francisco is always cold. Whether it’s winter or summer, chances are you’re probably wearing pants and toting a jacket. So how do you gauge the season if you can’t rely on meteorological changes (and for some reason don’t have access to a calendar)? You do it by figuring out what the next large-scale music festival is.
Now in its 16th year, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is our city’s annual harbinger of autumn, as thousands of people flock to Golden Gate Park to relish three days of bluegrass, folk, country, Americana, and a slew of other genres (hence, the addition of “Hardly” in the event’s name). Thanks to the late philanthropist Warren Hellman, the event is free, so we get to see big-name acts — like Cyndi Lauper and Jamestown Revival — without paying a cent.
But perhaps the best part — aside from the gratis admission and wide-range of talents — is that women dominate the lineup. Anyone who’s gone to a music festival knows that females are grossly under-represented in the festival circuit. Fortunately, that’s not the case with Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which makes it a point to keep the gender ratio of its musicians more balanced, if not stacked in women’s favor.
Let’s turn the clock back to 2006. It was a simpler time, one in which it was basically impossible to watch a movie that didn’t have “Suddenly I See” on the soundtrack, or leave your house without hearing “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.” But it’s 2016, and KT Tunstall has come a long way since her one-two punch of an American breakout. A decade on, her sixth and most recent album, KIN, proves her pulsating guitar flair and just-rough-enough contralto voice haven’t aged a day. Tunstall renaissance, anyone?
Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas
Jessica Hernandez is a bona fide whirlwind. A first-generation American raised in Detroit by a mother from Mexico and a father from Cuba, she jumped from church choir to high school theater to rock bands in college before releasing three EPs and signing with Instant Records. She dropped Secret Evil, her positively received debut album in 2014, showcasing her devilishly soulful voice across 11 whip-smart tracks. Not to be forgotten is the band’s rollicking take on Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon,” a cover as ferocious as the original and amped up with trombone and a blazing blues guitar. If we’re lucky, Hernandez and company might just grace us with it this weekend.
You’ve heard a Patty Griffin song, even if you don’t think you have. Just about everyone from Linda Ronstadt, the Dixie Chicks, Kelly Clarkson, Miranda Lambert, and Bette Midler have covered Griffin’s songs. That’s not to diminish her own accomplishments, which include nine studio albums, two Grammys, an off-Broadway musical, and being an all-around contemporary-folk legend. Her stripped-down, evocative songs have taken her all the way from the mid-’90s heyday of Lillith Fair to the upper echelon of contemporary songwriters, and that, kids, is what we call staying power.
What is there left to say about Mavis Staples? From her origins in The Staple Singers to today, Staples is an absolute legend and everybody knows it — including Bob Dylan, who once asked Staples’ father for her hand in marriage, and The Band, which featured her on “The Weight” during the group’s epic final concert. But forget those guys: Staples is one of the most iconic voices in gospel, period. She’s also the kind of badass who, upon winning her first Grammy in 2011, said, “This has been a long time coming,” during her acceptance speech. All hail.
Shannon and the Clams
The Bay Area’s influence on American popular music since 1950 is nothing short of staggering, and, because of bands like Oakland-based Shannon and the Clams, it’s ongoing. The garage punk quartet have been making waves in the indie world since the group’s 2009 debut, I Wanna Go Home, and, more recently, with 2015’s Gone By The Dawn. The band’s carefree (and thoroughly postmodern) blend of rockabilly, punk, ’60s surf, and psychedelic pop is bolstered by frontwoman Shannon Shaw’s gravelly alto and cheeky lyrics. “I loved the leather on my buns / My god, we are the lucky ones,” she sings with a wink on “Corvette.” The end product is nothing short of spectacular.
The thing about Cyndi Lauper is that everybody loves her — whether or not they admit it. Lauper is the ultimate ’80s girl power icon and the empress of teen pop, but neither of those lofty titles tell the full story. In 2010, she released a blues album that topped Billboard’s blues chart for 13 consecutive weeks, then followed it with a bestselling memoir in 2012. She further proved her decade-spanning songwriting chops by writing the score for Kinky Boots, the acclaimed Broadway musical that made a proper killing at the 2013 Tony Awards. This weekend, however, she’ll be single handedly putting the “hardly” in Hardly Strictly Bluegrass — and the whole festival will be better for it.
Her father was a legend, but it seems like timeless songwriting runs in the family. The oldest daughter of the Man in Black, Cash has been making music since the late seventies, drawing on country, pop, Americana, and blues for her signature sound (and often charting on both the pop and country charts in the process). Despite being released in 1981, her breakthrough single, “Seven Year Ache,” still resonates as a deeply felt lament of what it feels like to love a serial heartbreaker.
Elizabeth Cook is a true blue country woman, and — along with a tumultuous divorce, rehab, a devastating fire, and six deaths in her family — it’s made her tough. Don’t expect nasal odes to summer nights and pickup trucks. Cook is more interested in the darker sides of life, and it manifests in the dark humor of her expertly constructed country tunes. Her most recent album, Exodus of Venus, features songs like “Methadone Blues,” in which Cook grooves: “Don’t be a cynic / All I ever need is a ride to the clinic.” Who said country women had to play nice?
*The bison paddock in Golden Gate Park is next to Spreckels Lake. I think they like Cyndi Lauper, too.