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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

By Susan Marquez

F. Warren Hellman was a wealthy entrepreneur and philanthropist in the San Francisco area. He co-founded Hellman & Friedman, a multibillion-dollar private equity firm in San Francisco, and Hellman-Ferri Investment Associates, now known as Matrix Partners. A big fan of bluegrass, he started and funded the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival as a gift to the city of San Francisco. While Hellman passed away in 2011, his legacy lives on with the festival, held annually at Golden Gate Park and funded by the Hellman Foundation.

“When it first began 22 years ago, the festival was called Strictly Bluegrass,” says Chris Porter, the festival’s music curator in charge of programming. “The festival planners wanted to expand the festival with acts like Steve Earle and The Flatlanders. It became a very Americana-leaning festival, so, on a whim, they renamed it the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. That kooky name has stuck since 2003, and over time, the festival has expanded to six stages.” 

The free concert has no sponsor. “We have a few vendors on site,” says Chris, “otherwise, it is all about the music.” Chris has been in the music festival and live music business for many years. He was with the Bumbershoot festival in Seattle for 18 years before leaving in 2014. “I love to network, and over the years, I have met a lot of people. I formed my own company, Porter Productions, and I had the opportunity to meet Sherry Sternberg, the executive producer of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. I have been here ever since. I have always wanted to work in a job that gives back and have never worked on a more magical event.” 

Chris says the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and the Helman Family Foundation have been very philanthropic in helping bluegrass artists. “During Covid, there was a lot of fundraising, which continues to be an ongoing thing. Over $4 million has been distributed so far.” 

This year’s festival was from September 30 through October 2. In addition to the day’s festival is an organized “Hardly Strictly Out of the Park,” where local restaurants and bars host music events into the night. “We ask each venue to donate $1 to $2 per ticket to go towards the Music in the Schools Today program,” says Chris. 

The festival is also broadcast live on HSB TV. “That’s a whole other spin-off of the festival,” says Chris. Acts on the Swan stage and the Towers of Gold stage will be live-streamed during the concert. “The station runs full-length videos of the festival and programming, such as Come What May, which was filmed in New Orleans and San Francisco in 2021 with six artists from both cities. Viewers can also watch programs, including Let the Music Play On & On and Live from Pier 70 sets. Chris says there is also a documentary about Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in the works. 

It takes a lot to put on a festival of this magnitude. When you add vendors and security, there are twelve departments with a staff of 350 people, or up to 1.000 workers. Trailers are set up in Hellman Hollow of Golden Gate Park, in the shadows of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Workers are dispatched in 70 golf carts, and the sound of walkie-talkies fills the air before the sound of banjos, fiddles, guitars, and basses take over.

“The venue is simply beautiful,” says Chris. “It has an otherworldly feel to it. It is a large meadow, and everyone is happy. This event is always such a joy. We get great feedback from the performers about the festival. We treat them right. And this time of year, the weather is almost always really nice.” 

A “festival etiquette” list is on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass website, and it seems the festival staff has thought of everything, from bringing low-backed chairs to not selling drugs. 

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