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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, 2019

Donald Teplyske  |  October 8, 2019

I'm old.

I'm okay with being old. I 'celebrated' my fifty-fifth birthday this past spring, and I am entirely fine with my age, with the extra grey hair and the creaking knees, and even with the additional puffiness around my eyes and my cheeks.

I'm at the age where I am entirely comfortable admitting that I don't care for things for which I don't care, and even more happy to bask in the things I do enjoy.

And I did a lot of basking this past weekend. San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, three days of groovy vibes, large dogs, and hazy clouds of exhaled vapours, was outstanding in so many different ways. This was my second trip to the free festival in Golden Gate Park, and it was just about everything I hoped it would be.

With a significant exception.

I got to see-for the first time-long-time musical heroes (Michael Nesmith with his First National Band and The Long Ryders-four of the nicest Americana pioneers I've ever had the pleasure to encounter) as well as singers I have more recently come to appreciate: Yola (absolutely amazing, by the way) and Margo Price, to name two.

I also got to hear and reconnect with folks I have long admired, but haven't spent time with in for too long-Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands (regrettably, just a few songs at the end of their set), Mary Gauthier, Dry Branch Fire Squad, and The Infamous Stringdusters, while encountering an unexpected pleasure whom I had not previously heard: Adia Victoria. Killer.

I also realized one hasn't fully lived until you've heard Bill Kirchen give a live riff-filled history lesson via "Hot Rod Lincoln," or had Bettye Lavette take you to soul school, or Will Kimbrough provide a literal lesson with "Alabama (For Michael Donald.)"

I've listened to The Waterboys and Chuck Prophet for a long, long time, but never thought I would see them. Glad I was wrong, and Emmylou Harris never disappoints.

Altogether a great weekend of roots music. I navigated the Muni like a local, the sun was blazing, the amenities were great, and-despite the burning of my thigh tags-the festival was worth every dollar of the over-priced food and beverages purchased.

What you may have noticed is that outside The Infamous Stringdusters (maybe the strongest overall set aside an absolutely epic performance from The Long Ryders), Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands, and Dry Branch Fire Squad, I didn't mention bluegrass bands. The reason being, this edition of Hardly Strictly was distinctive for its lack of bluegrass: strictly hardly bluegrass, perhaps.

And it wasn't just me who noticed. I spoke with others who observed the same, and near every article I've read about the fest mentioned the same point: there was less bluegrass at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass than ever before.

And that is a troubling trend, if you ask me. (I realize you didn't.)

I appreciate Hardly Strictly Bluegrass mainstays such as Hazel Dickens, Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson-himself not hardly strictly bluegrass-and Earl Scruggs have moved on, but there is no shortage of amazing groups worthy of being showcased.

If bluegrass is a big tent, Americana is even more expansive. Performers like Hot Buttered Rum, The Punch Brothers-I caught their soundcheck-and Sierra Hull are bluegrass and bluegrass adjacent, but this year's fest didn't have too much for those of us who appreciate bluegrass every bit as much as we desire the rock 'n' roll.

I experienced too many superficial, unimpressive noisy boys with beards and a lack of memorable melody on the Hardly Strictly stages this weekend, and each time I did I imagined the enjoyment I could have been getting from a high-quality bluegrass band. A group like Sister Sadie, Della Mae, The Po' Ramblin' Boys, High Fidelity, John Reischman & the Jaybirds, Balsam Range, or Larry freakin' Sparks' would have kicked the uninspiring asses of Rayland Baxter, Robert Ellis, and St. Paul & the Broken Bones every which way possible.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was around long before I discovered it, and has been doing just fine in the years since I first attended. With the Hellman Foundation behind it, I sincerely hope and expect the event continues and gets even stronger. The city deserves it.

But I also hope the organizers realize what they are missing by minimizing and marginalizing bluegrass within its lineup. Yes, allow the festival to remain hardly strictly bluegrass, but if you are going to portend being bluegrass-encouraging, the bluegrass ante needs to be significantly increased.

I'm old.

One of the few advantages that come with getting old is being allowed to articulate opinions that may be unpopular with the cool kids.

Consider my opinion on Hardly Strictly Bluegrass' current path expressed.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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