Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Unites a Community

Anjelica Gaufo, Lily Goiburn, Sabrina Norton, Tyler Smith, Emma Steinman

Contributing Writers


Walking in from behind the Swan Stage on the afternoon of Oct. 6, one of the biggest festivals in San Francisco greeted attendees with a long blaring guitar solo as Chuck Prophet and The Mission Express played their set. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, an annual free, three-day early fall music festival, brought country, folk, jazz, punk, emo and bluegrass to Golden Gate Park last weekend.


The popular music festival was created and financed by millionaire music fan and philanthropist Warren Hellman back in 2001. Hellman left money in his will to continue the festival after his death in 2011. He originally called it Strictly Bluegrass or “the world’s most selfish gift.” Hellman made his fortune in private equity and would often join his music idols on stage with his banjo. The festival welcomes acts from a range of genres performing on seven different stages throughout the park.


The park was overflowing with families, children, shirtless men, women in sequins and musicians with banjos under their arms as the festival started on Oct. 6. Even the pathways leading to the many stages were filled with people hurrying to catch the next act, particularly the day’s headliner, Brandi Carlile.


Sophomore Destiny Molinas enjoyed the scene on Oct. 7. Everyone was just down to listen to good music and to have a good time. I especially think that’s because it’s free because no one is really entitled to anything and it’s just free love and free music,” said Molinas.  


According to the San Jose Mercury News, despite concerns after the mass shooting at an outdoor country music concert in Las Vegas last week, crowds at Hardly Strictly were comparable to recent years when the festival draws about 750,000 attendees over the three days. However, this year’s festival seemed to bring about a different feel for music lovers after the mass shooting in Las Vegas.


Michael Pedro, Hardly Strictly’s historian sits in front of his temporary museum exhibit. Anjelica Gaufo/FOGHORN.


“I secretly inwardly pray that nothing will happen and I’m confident that we’ll get through the weekend okay,” said Michael Pedro, a longtime HSB attendee. “I think if someone wants to take me out at a musical festival and I’m dancing in the aisles, so be it. What a way to leave this life.”


Pedro, who said he had been coming to the festival since it began in 2001, was running a festival museum exhibit that featured a tribute to Chris Hellman, the wife of founder Warren Hellman, who died in February 2017. Chris Hellman was a celebrated benefactor and dancer for the San Francisco ballet.


Pedro also served as a historian of the event and talked about how he’d seen it change over the years. “It’s broadened, you know,” he said. “I mean a lot of the bluegrass performers have died. Doc Watson died, Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley — all those people. But they’ve incorporated some rock and roll, some blues. I think they’re still keeping the bluegrass element.”


The festival regularly attracts USF students. “I’m here now with a group of friends and we still have a few more who are coming,” said student Mo Bziz on Oct. 6. “I heard this festival is one of the biggest here in San Francisco, so I’m expecting it to be crowded all weekend.”


This festival is famous outside of the Bay Area. Jack Morris has come from Tennessee many times to hear his favorites at the festival. “I’m really excited to see Dan Auerbach, who’s the lead singer of The Black Keys,” he said.  


Incorporating multiple genres of music — Ozomatli’s activist funk, Conor Oberst’s indie folk, Howard Wiley’s San Francisco jazz, to name a few — Hardly Strictly Bluegrass lives up to its name. Junior Fiona Murphy-Thomas came with her parents, who have attended the festival since its creation. The festival has become a tradition for them. “It was definitely pretty much hardcore bluegrass with some other stuff thrown in there,” said Murphy-Thomas. “But now it’s a little bit more of a wider range of genres. Like the Brothers Comatose that played earlier have bluegrass elements but they’re not a strictly bluegrass band.”

Featured Photo: People gathered for three days of free music at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Anjelica Gaufo/FOGHORN.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.