The Late Warren Hellman's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Wisdom
This year will be the first Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival missing the presence of Warren Hellman, the late billionaire investment banker and banjo aficionado who founded it. Hellman passed away of complications from leukemia last December, at the age of 77.
Jay Blakesberg Warren Hellman at Hardly Strictly
Back in 2010, just prior to Hardly Strictly's 10-year anniversary, we got to interview Hellman at his top-floor office overlooking San Francisco Bay. In a two-hour conversation, the ebullient Hellman spoke at length about what goes into the festival, his advice on how to enjoy it, and the philosophy behind its booking. Hellman will be remembered this year in a special "Warren Museum," which is open from Oct. 3 to Oct. 10 at 1479A Folsom St between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Also as a tribute to the festival's founder -- and a sort of guide to this year's edition -- we've collected some of the best nuggets from our 2010 interview with the man here. Also check out our guide to 11 unmissable artists performing at Hardly Strictly this year. Now here's Hellman:
On how long it takes to put the festival together
Let's see it finishes the third this year, so we start [working on next year's festival] on the fourth. [Laughs] And it just builds and builds and builds. As you know we have a band, and wherever our band goes, somebody comes up to me and goes, "Gee, I have a mother/daughter/son/mistress/husband/horse that plays in bluegrass band, and they'd really love to play the festival, what do we do?" I always say, 'Well take this card, this is the woman who books it, and just call her," and then at the end, "Turn the card over." [The back of the card reads, in large bold type, "Warren has no authority."]
On the cost of putting on a free festival
Every year I say, thank god I can afford this. And I sort of set an upper limit. What I can do is allow you to do the arithmetic without telling you [how much it costs]. So there are 80 bands. [Ed. note: Nearly 90 this year.] Let's assume that they average $2,500. So you can do the arithmetic. And let's assume that the overhead is 50 percent more than that. So I didn't tell you what it was, but you can get certainly within a few gazillion dollars of the amount.
On how to attend the festival
People always say, "Well, god, you can't get from stage to stage to stage, and it's impossible to walk around..." I think people get all tied up in, "I've got to see Patti Griffin, and I've got to see Buddy Miller, and I've gotta see so and so." And it's just hard to get from stage to stage with that many people. So why not just relax and say, "Oh, I'm going to go to a festival and I'm gonna see, Laurie Lewis, Dry Branch Fire Squad, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Joan Baez, David Grisman, Gillian Welch, and Steve Earle?" Is that a bad day?
On the festival's relationship with the city of S.F.
The city I think started out by thinking, this is a lot of work for us, even though Warren's paying us a pretty good fee. It's a pain in the butt. But the city has become just wonderful. And to be fair to us, or to brag, or to be arrogant, or whatever, we've pretty much delivered what we said we would, that it would be a great event for the -- well I guess, let me be expansive -- for the world. A guy comes up to me last year and said, "You know we chartered a 747 from Japan to fly all of us to the festival." I think the city likes having this audience. And from the standpoint of the police department, there's very little criminal activity.
On widening the range of music beyond bluegrass
The first two years it was called Strictly Bluegrass. The reason I called it Strictly Bluegrass is Emmylou Harris agreed to come. As you know, Emmylou Harris' music has moved through different genres. I really like the Nash Ramblers, and I thought if we call it Strictly Bluegrass, maybe she'll be shamed into doing strictly bluegrass. No way. Then we thought, but it isn't Strictly Bluegrass, because of course Emmy wasn't singing bluegrass in those days, so we started adding non-bluegrass acts. We saw how popular they were. And then we just decided, let's make it just a music festival. I wonder sometimes how the commercial festival people feel that we're kind of eating their lunch, and you know, I don't
care. One way or another, I don't care. They should do it for free, too.