The brainchild of major fan and semi-pro banjoist Warren Hellman, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is a gathering of today's best bluegrass talent — stars and upstarts — but it also features performers drawing from a wellspring of roots music. Figurative fathers and mothers (New Lost City Ramblers) will play in proximity to their progeny (The Knitters, Mekons), in some cases with the offspring lending a hand to their sires (Boz Scaggs & the Blue Velvet Band featuring Buddy Miller, Jon Cleary, Ricky Fatar, Dennis Crouch, and Greg Leisz).
Now in its seventh year, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass continues living up to its name, offering multiple musical tributaries that overlap and feed into one another. Not to knock other fine gatherings around the country (such as Colorado's Telluride Bluegrass), but our local series lines up something for the rebellious disciples, the diligent, and the old-schoolers alike.
Of course, the righteously stern aren't always receptive to innovation. They'll say Nickel Creek and Alison Krauss aren't "real" bluegrass because their vocal harmonies aren't like the Stanley Brothers (that high-lonesome, almost piercing style), or they use instrumentation apart from the standard lineup (i.e., acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass), and they don't play the requisite breakneck tempos.
As with virtually every other type of music, intolerance for diverging from the mainstream approach can cause concert rosters to narrow. Brian Abrams, guitarist for Canadian intergenerational progressive bluegrassers the Abrams Brothers, says the issue of authenticity rears its hoary head more often in modern times. "In the '70s, there was more of a sense of innovation, with bands like Country Gazette and musicians like Sam Bush and [pre-electric] Bela Fleck, and it was accepted. Now, some people, especially younger bands, are backpedaling to what they see as a 'traditional,' Bill Monroe–type sound," he says. The Abrams Brothers have a strong grounding in the bluegrass tradition but have little interest in living in the past. Their repertoire includes classics by the Stanleys and traditional Canadian fiddle music, and their next album will be a tribute to Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan, featuring not only bass and drums but horns as well.
For some performers, bluegrass is country music's cousin, as each has influenced the other while remaining distinct. Charlie Louvin was half of harmony duo the Louvin Brothers, one of the greatest brother-harmony groups in country music history. They were a major influence on the Everly Brothers, who in turn were the cornerstone in rock 'n' roll harmony singing. In 1965, Ira Louvin passed away, and Charlie went solo, earning two top-10 country hits. "If you had to put a label on what we, my band and I, do," says Louvin, "it'd be 'traditional country,'" which includes some electric instrumentation. "But I've never had a problem playing at a bluegrass festival." Louvin's new disc, Charlie Louvin, features contributions from Nashville aces like Reggie Young and admirers Elvis Costello and Will Oldham. Louvin has even shared the stage with Cheap Trick ("The loudest band in the world ... but a nice bunch of fellows," says Louvin), joining them in their rendition of the Move's "California Man."
A portion of Hardly Strictly's lineup embraces bluegrass as a point of departure. Local mutant string band Hot Buttered Rum emerged from the Northern California tradition of experimentation. Says multi-instrumentalist Erik Yates, "We were inspired by Peter Rowan, Mike Marshall, Bob Weir, people like that, who have very eclectic approaches." While Hot Buttered Rum kicked heinie at the Newport Folk Festival as well as Wintergrass in Tacoma, Wash., Yates adds, "We haven't been invited to play any of the Deep South festivals. But we have had more traditional-leaning people tell us that they liked us after thinking they weren't going to." Fueled by punk and prog as well as by folk and bluegrass, Yates refers to his Rum-ies as "progressive Americana ... and our approach changes with the venue. We can be loud, for a string band!"
It remains to be seen whether Hardly Strictly Bluegrass will push other national festivals to approach the music in modern, genre-mixing terms. A lineup this varied has the greatest chance for success in larger urban areas, though, where wide-ranging notions of traditional music are quite often eagerly embraced.
HSB picks rejecting any categorization:
Ned Sublette — Sublette grew up around Lone Star country. His last album, 2003's Cowboy Rumba, featured a meringue version of the standard "Ghost Riders in the Sky." He wrote the brilliant "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly," a song about repressed western sexuality recorded by Willie Nelson. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival is his West Coast debut.
The Mekons — Pound for pound, the greatest English-speaking band in the world. They draw upon Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, spirit of '77 punk rock, and the Band for a sound completely their own.
Allison Moorer — A cross between Amy Rigby and the Searchers, between Carole King and Neil Young & Crazy Horse.
The Sadies — Eclectic Canadians, heirs to the Band's throne, from a world where Syd Barrett hangs with Merle Haggard.
Alison Brown and David Grisman — Both are instrumental in the fusion of jazz and assorted acoustic genres.
Doc Watson — God plays the acoustic guitar.
Guy Clark — One of the few songwriters who can give Townes Van Zandt and Dylan a run for their money.