“The closest I'll ever get to heaven” is how the 76-year-old investment banker and bluegrass fanatic Warren Hellman describes his annual free music festival, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which turns 10 this weekend. Begun as an actual bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park, in the last decade it has transformed into a sprawling three-day music orgy that invites artists from a variety of genres and draws up to 750,000 fans from across the planet. This year's lineup features female punk pioneer Patti Smith, British rock icon Elvis Costello, and maturing emo troubadour Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes fame) among its 80 acts. But even as its lineups have expanded in size and focus, Hardly Strictly has retained its reputation for booking some of the best bluegrass and American roots music bands around, thanks partly to the curiosity and taste of the man who foots the bill. The festival is an obsession for the eccentric billionaire, who plays in a bluegrass band himself. To understand why Hellman has bought the world a free weekend of music for 10 years, we spent an afternoon in his downtown office, listening to him wisecrack about his favorite new bands, joking about how much pot gets smoked over one weekend, and trying not to get distracted by his panoramic views of San Francisco Bay.
So you're personally reviewing all the scheduling and everything?
But you keep your eyes on the schedule, at least.
Yeah, I mean, I do. I'm very interested in it, and I argue about stuff that I don't really know anything about. As you know, we have a [bluegrass] band, and wherever our band goes, somebody comes up to me and goes, “Gee, I have a mother/daughter/son/mistress/husband/horse that plays in a bluegrass band, and they'd really love to play the festival — what do we do?” I always say, “Well, take this card, this is the woman who books it, and just call her.” And then at the end, “Turn the card over.” [The back of the card reads, in large bold type, “Warren has no authority.”]
When do you start working on the next year's festival? How do you pick the bands that play?
It finishes on [Oct. 3] this year, so we start on the fourth. I get around, our band goes to these little festivals, and occasionally there's somebody who's just off the charts, at least in my opinion. And they do not get to come because they say, “Gee, we'd really like to come to your festival.” They get to come because they're exotic, or maybe people would not have heard of them. They're unique. You see that pile over there? Those are all CDs I haven't listened to yet.
So does the lineup get bigger every year?
I think so. There's no way to measure it. I mean, the cops always make estimates, and they estimated last year it was 750,000. They estimated the year before, alternatively 300,000 or 700,000. I know that we've never had a day as crowded as it was [on] Saturday last year. That was almost human gridlock.
A piece of advice for people, if you want me to pontificate: People always say, “Well, God, you can't get from stage to stage to stage, and it's impossible to walk around.” I always say, “Okay … don't try to go from stage to stage if it frustrates you.” I think people get all tied up in, “I've got to see so-and-so.” And it's just hard to get from stage to stage with that many people. So why not just relax and say, “Oh, I'm going to go to a festival and I'm going to see [he reads the lineup on a single stage from this year's festival schedule] Laurie Lewis, Dry Branch Fire Squad, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Joan Baez, David Grisman, Gillian Welch, and Steve Earle. And that's all I'm going to see.” Is that a bad day?
Do you pretty much hang out at the festival the whole time?
All three days, and all two nights.
Going back to the size — does the bottom line cost go up every year?
Do you worry about what the number is? How much does it actually cost?
Every year I say, “Thank god I can afford this.” And I sort of set an upper limit. What I can do is allow you to do the arithmetic without telling you. There are 80 bands. Let's assume that they average $2,500. So you can do the arithmetic. And let's assume that the overhead is 50 percent more than that. I didn't tell you what it was, but you can get certainly within a few gazillion dollars of the amount.
What about the politics of it? Is it such an institution now that you get through City Hall without any hassles?
The city I think started out by thinking, “This is a lot of work for us, even though Warren's paying us a pretty good fee, it's a pain in the butt, and why the hell” — you know. I actually threatened to move it to Oakland once. It wasn't exactly an idle threat, but we just couldn't find any place in Oakland that would accommodate as many people as were coming. Maybe some year we ought to do it over there. But the city has become just wonderful. And I think they love the festival — they realize what's obvious to you and me, and maybe not obvious to a bureaucrat. You know, when every hotel room in the city is already gone and has been gone for a month — the restaurants, all the services, the pot suppliers — everything is sold out. I think the city discovered in the last several years they really love that. So the city has been great. And to be fair to us, or to brag, or to be arrogant, or whatever, we've pretty much delivered what we said we would, that it would be a great event for the … well, I guess, let me be expansive: for the world.
When you started this, did you have any idea that it would become an inter-national draw?
No idea. I didn't know what would happen. We said, “Let's do a festival.” We had one or two stages, we had a dozen bands, and I called Dawn [the festival's booker] the day before, and I said, “Do you think anybody's actually going to come?” There were several thousand, maybe 20,000 people. The music has become more popular, the diversity of the bands has made it more popular. When we started, a lot of people said, “This is old people's music.” I hope that the movement that was started with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and then the Down From the Mountain tour [of artists from the film's soundtrack], has really put the pedal to the metal on this music. Maybe I'm just smoking something.
Was there a mandate to widen the range of bands playing?
The first two years it was called Strictly Bluegrass. The reason I called it Strictly Bluegrass is Emmylou Harris agreed to come. As you know, Emmylou Harris' music has moved through different genres. I really like the Nash Ramblers [Harris' onetime band], and I thought if we call it Strictly Bluegrass, maybe she'll be shamed into doing strictly bluegrass. No way. Then we thought, it isn't Strictly Bluegrass, because of course Emmy wasn't singing bluegrass in those days, so we started adding nonbluegrass acts. We saw how popular they were. And then we just decided, let's make it just a music festival. I wonder sometimes how the commercial festival people feel that we're kind of eating their lunch, and you know, I don't care. One way or another, I don't care. They should do it for free, too.