Bluegrass Philanthropy

Warren Hellman takes S.F.'s free roots music festival into its sixth year

Most of us think we're livin' large when we head to Amoeba and blow 50 bucks on a short stack of sweet jams. But when Warren Hellman, arguably the world's richest bluegrass fanatic and amateur clawhammer banjo player, pulls out his fat wallet and lays down some green, it buys him (and us) the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. The free multiday event in Golden Gate Park annually features a who's who of roots music and Americana, including (but not limited to) Hazel Dickens, Earl Scruggs, Steve Earle, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Gillian Welch, and Ms. Emmylou Harris, the festival's “heart and soul.”

For the uninitiated, Hellman is chairman and co-founder of Hellman and Friedman, a private equity investment firm located here in San Fran. The dude is — to put it bluntly — stinkin' rich, as he's one of the United States' more successful businessmen and active philanthropists. All of which is totally obvious (even though Hellman declined to give the exact cost of the concert) when rapping with him at his swank, downtown digs at One Maritime Plaza.

“[The festival] had been a dream of mine for a long time,” Hellman explains while searching his cluttered desktop for a disc by Annie and the Vets, an anti-war, old-timey trio from the Bay Area that Hellman is currently obsessing over. “The first year was 12 bands,” he adds, “and we had 10- to 12-thousand people. And it's grown exponentially since then.”

Hellman, who graduated from the Harvard Business School back in 1959, sports a boots 'n' denim ensemble that's full on faux-Okie, and clashes with all the suits roaming the Chairman's hallways — a contrast that conjures the idea that American folk music and the power elite are supposed to be natural enemies. It's an incongruity that doesn't escape Hellman. Every year the aforementioned Dickens, a legendary, pro-working class protest singer, gives him “a hard time for an hour about being the rich man who lives on the hill.”

Then again, the historical popularity of this music is due, in part, to the fact that big business has always invested in it. Back in 1926, it was talent scout Ralph Peer and the Victor Records corporation that recorded and released the very first sides by Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, two of the foundations of folk, country, and bluegrass. And Hellman, like Peer, is a company man with a bit of that good old-fashioned maverick spirit within him. With absolutely no commercial sponsors, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass feels more like a gigantic party full of laid-back stoners than a conventional concert. Last year more than 300,000 people attended and, according to Hellman, there were only four arrests.

Plus, there just isn't another event in the country where folks can catch all this talent without having to drop hundreds of dollars for admission. That fact is even more astounding because this year's festival, the sixth one, also touts such heavies as Elvis Costello, Brit folk-rocker Richard Thompson, T-Bone Burnett, Iris Dement, Billy Bragg, Hot Tuna, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Richie Furay (formerly of Buffalo Springfield and Poco).

The festival, however, isn't just for big names. In fact, the overwhelming majority of musicians performing are either indie types (like Freakwater and the duo of Jon Langford and Sally Timms) or wonderfully talented yet lesser known acts that have a rare opportunity to blow minds on a scale that most artists traveling similar paths will never get. This goes for Hellman's faves Annie and the Vets, as well the contemporary bluegrass outfit Chatham County Line, Dobro whiz Jerry Douglas, and Oakland's Stairwell Sisters, another great old-timey group with sharp, Appalachian-fried harmonies.

Of course, there's also the nearly 40 other artists I haven't even mentioned, as Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is one massive undertaking. But that's the only way Hellman would have it. He's livin' large like that.

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