A Hardly Strictly Story

Irene Chen/Staff

Every year on the first weekend of October, a sea of music lovers and San Francisco locals head to Golden Gate Park for the mother of all free music festivals: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

Hardly Strictly brought thousands to the city over the weekend for headliners Conor Oberst, Yo La Tengo, Dawes and countless other performers. But it wasn’t always such a spectacle. It kicked off as just an idea in 2001 when four San Francisco-philes came together to bring live music to Golden Gate Park. It all started with a lunch meeting between Jonathan Nelson and Warren Hellman.

“We were talking about our interests in life outside of work, and we discovered we both really liked music,” Nelson remembers.

After that fateful afternoon, Nelson connected Warren with Dawn Holliday, who would become the festival’s booking agent, and Sheri Sternberg, now the festival’s producer. A UC Berkeley alum and billionaire financier, Hellman paid for the cost of the festival. He passed away in 2011, but the festival has continued in his honor.

Every year since 2001, bands from all over meet for the fall event to play tunes from a wide range of musical disciplines, from the more obvious bluegrass to reggae music — hence the crucial adjectives “hardly strictly.”

Hardly Strictly hit the Bay Area scene just as music festivals were beginning their takeover of the 21st century. Its founders set up camp in Golden Gate Park a full seven years before Outside Lands Music Festival, which occupies the same part of the park for a three-day bash every August — however, tickets are around $300, compared to Hardly Strictly’s $0 price tag.

Thirteen years later, Hardly Strictly remains free of charge, even as festivals such as Sasquatch! Music Festival at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Washington, and Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee — both founded in 2002 — continue to make a handsome profits.

But why bluegrass? Why not “Hardly Strictly Reggae” or “Hardly Strictly Merengue?” Simple: Hellman demanded it. He originally named the event “Strictly Bluegrass” to keep the music to his liking. But in 2004 the founders tacked “Hardly” to the name as bluegrass fusion bands started morphing the festival’s sound. It has grown in size and prestige every year since.

The festival started in 2001 with two stages and a two-day lineup featuring artists Emmylou Harris, Hazel Dickens and Dale Ann Bradley & Coon Creek. Alison Krauss and Union Station also performed. By 2003, the festival added another day and two more stages to the event and featured music legend Willie Nelson in the lineup of 43 acts.

And it just kept growing. By 2006, the festival featured six stages. Music icon Elvis Costello made an appearance, and Emmylou Harris performed for the sixth consecutive year. In 2009, Hardly Strictly left its bluegrass roots behind and booked rap artist MC Hammer.

Richard Elliot, 66, a spectator at the festival, said a major reason he and his family have gone out to Golden Gate Park to enjoy the festival for the past four years is because of the wide range of festivities including music, food and drinks. Vera Claire, 24, described her time at Hardly Strictly a little more romantically.

“It’s pretty magical,” Claire said. “I’m amazed by the crowd of people. It’s a truly eye-opening experience with a unique energy.”

Nelson attributes the unique mellow energy of the festival to its lack of fences.

“We never even thought of it not being a free event,” Nelson said. “We did it out of the love for the city. San Francisco comes together for three days and shares all these things; this is our love letter to the city.”