R.I.P. Warren Hellman, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Founder and Eccentric Banjo Player
Jay Blakesberg Warren Hellman at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
Warren Hellman, the billionaire banjo-picker and eccentric who founded the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass music festival, lost his battle with leukemia on Sunday. He was 77.
Hellman was a successful investment banker and beloved philanthropist who supported a multitude of local causes. But his favorite project was the annual bluegrass and roots music festival, which drew as many as 320,000 people per day over three days in Golden Gate Park.
The festival was noted each year for regular performances from some of Hellman's favorite artists, including Emmylou Harris and Earl Scruggs. In recent years, the lineup diversified considerably, adding sets from the likes of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, British punk legends the Mekons, and other decidedly less-rootsy artists.
Hellman also would perform at the festival with his bluegrass band, the Wronglers, every year. In 2011, he postponed leukemia treatment to share a stage with his musical hero, Jimmie Dale Gilmore. "The closest I'll ever get to heaven" is how Hellman described attending Hardly Strictly in an interview with SF Weekly in 2010. He endowed the festival to continue for at least 15 years after his passing.
His death came only days after the city renamed Speedway Meadow -- the main site of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass -- Hellman Hollow, after the festival's founder.