American Roots: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

It seems like bluegrass people have more great stories to tell than other musicians.
— Dan Fogelberg

San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival is like no other music festival you'll ever attend. To begin, it's absolutely free. So unless you are trying to stand in front of the girls draped in lace, carrying flower crowns and lying in wait for Conor Oberst, the vibe is amicable and harmonious. At first glance the crowd might appear equivalent to any other festival, attendees in Coachella-inspired digs and braids and daises and camelbacks filled with god knows what. But as I arrived yesterday and navigated the the crowds toward the Rooster stage I found the crowd, like the roots of American Bluegrass itself, quite heterogeneous.

Allow me to set the scene. The guy sitting in front of me is wearing a tie-dye shirt, cargo shorts filled with cold, sweating beers and a Morgan Stanley hat to round it all out. The woman next to him, presumably from Marin, is sitting in a woven lawn chair doing the crossword puzzle while Sharon Van Etten croons in the background. A gentleman who may have just stepped off his yacht in the harbor still wearing boat shoes and a blue button-up, has conveniently managed to change into cut-off khakis and is either having Woodstock flashbacks or doing something we shouldn't talk about here. There are families and tiny hippies being toted, people who want to share part of their blanket with your dusty boots and couples with backpacks that appear to have trekked here all the way from Oregon. It's the kind of place where you never know if you'll get offered Bob Hope, a refreshing white wine spritzer, a wind chime, or someone's tech startup business card. But undoubtedly, someone will have something to share, or a story to tell.

Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten's album, Are We There, has been one of my favorite releases of this year. The album cover has a picture of presumably Sharon driving a car; the window is rolled down and she has her head outside the window navigating both the space ahead and the wind that blows against her. It's a image that relates to how listening to Sharon's music feels. There is a sense of abandonment, of open spaces and storytelling that is real and raw; wind-whipped. Sharon made a joke about playing an upbeat ballad that her mom liked more than other songs because it sounded happy. Though it was a ballad, she revealed there was nothing happy about it at all. Something strange happened during Sharon's set at the Rooster stage. It was about 90 degrees in San Francisco; locals, layering experts and sunscreen novices everywhere were sweaty, thinking about heat stroke and listening to sad, beautiful songs reverberate against warm bodies. It's the kind of music made for making sense of the dark and it was strange and sweet to listen to it bathed in sunlight. It gave a whole new meaning to Every Time the Sun Comes Up. We're all in trouble here.


At one point during Dawes' performance when the crowd was cathartically singing When My Time Comes at the top of their collective lungs, I looked over to see a lady in utility cargos and a bejeweled t-shirt leaning way back and playing the air guitar. It made my year. And if I closed my eyes to get on her level, it was just like being at a Crosby, Stills & Nash concert. There's the sweetest nostalgia to be found in the music of Dawes; great stories told through songwriting and rich vocal harmonies that sound like my dad's records. The aforementioned When My Time Comes is an existential power ballad that was a great live experience, and I thought the gentleman next to me with the mystery camelback was going to pass out during A Little Bit of Everything. Personally, I was done with That Western Skyline. Taylor Goldmsith's vocals were meant to tell stories like that.

Dawes, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Dawes, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Ryan Adams

There are three important things you should know about Ryan Adams at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

1) He sounds really phenomenal live. Even from about a mile away (popular dude considering Conor Oberst, Yo La Tengo and Lucinda Williams were also playing) his perfect sub-country-rock raspy voice sounded great. He started with Gimme Something Good from his new album - Which is some of his best work yet.

2) He is a really wonderfully strange dude. I wish I could recall all of his concert commentary for you right here. But I can give you top highlights.

  • At one point he told a lady in the front row that she looked like that one woman from The Leftovers. Leaving us all to wonder which woman exactly, ponder Ryan Adams actually watching a television show and let the Leftover's induced dread creep in. 
  • He sang a quite charming, impromptu song dedicated to a man in the back of the crowd holding three balloons. At about the same time that I realized that it was actually four balloons, not three, so did Ryan changing the charming tune to, "it's not three , it's four!" I will never forgive myself for not having a recording of this. Live concert Gold, if you will.
  • At the end of the night, he thanked everyone for coming, probably apologized for cursing again by cursing and said, "Black Sabbath is on next." 

3) Considering the prolific nature of his work, Come Pick Me Up is still one of the best Ryan Adams songs, it stands out as a classic of his genre and was my personal favorite of the night.

If you have a chance this weekend, or sometime in the future do yourself a favor and go listen to some bluegrass. Go for the setting of the golden gate park with trees towering above stages; go for people watching or the festival food and awkwardly shared beverages. Go because it's free and it's in San Francisco. Go to melt in the sun and into the crowd as you listen to music built by the early settlers of this broken, tired and beautiful country - these are her sounds and her stories.

The festival continues today and tomorrow (October 4th and 5th), for the full schedule and lineup visit the website.

UPDATE: My attention was drawn to some genius who did in fact get Ryan's Adam Three Balloons on video. You can relish in it here.