Banjos, Billions, and Blueberry Pancakes Memories of Warren Hellman

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I’m glad I got to know Warren Hellman as well as I did. I met him in 2002 at the second annual Strictly Bluegrass Festival. The “Hardly” was added the following year. My wife, Jeanie, and I and our band performed on the stage reserved for local acts, and Warren, who could have spent all day with the big stars at the main stage, made a point of meeting as many of the musicians as possible.

When we played on Saturday, I schmoozed with him backstage and we established our bona fides as native San Franciscans. I did my best to impress upon him just how much it meant for lovers of American roots music to have such a patron as him. Beyond the insanely generous material support he provided, he gave so many of us a feeling of validation that learning and playing this music is worth all the time and effort we put into it.

Since that time, I’d see Warren a few times a year and would chat with him. He was always very friendly and very genuine. If it seemed odd or eccentric to some that the billionaire descendant of California pioneers took pleasure in playing obscure folk tunes on a banjo and hanging out with a motley collection of professional and amateur musicians, Warren couldn’t have cared less. He was a having a good time doing what he wanted to and didn’t feel the need to impress anyone.

Warren’s old-time string band, the Wronglers, provided him with a musical outlet and an opportunity to perform. The band was formed by fellow students of Bay Area folk-music guru Jody Stecher, along with Colleen Browne, Warren’s executive assistant and a veteran bass player of several rock bands. Warren’s wife, Chris, was also in the group for a time.

I emceed a number of shows featuring the Wronglers and never passed up an opportunity to rib Warren a bit. “Ladies and gentleman,” I’d announce, “please welcome five very talented musicians – and a banjo player.” He loved it! Warren had more than a little bit of the ham in him plus a self-effacing sense of humor that made him the perfect foil.

It was a few years later that we got to spend a good bit of time with him and really got to know him. In April of 2010, Jeanie and I took a three-week road trip through the Southwest. Our ultimate destination was Austin, where we planned to attend the Old Settler’s Music Festival in Salt Lick, just outside of Austin.

It was an ambitious trip for us that required a lot of planning and an equal amount of flexibility. Because we like music festivals, we did some research on what the Lone Star State had to offer. Old Settler’s seemed like our kind of deal – a tasty mixture of country, rock, bluegrass, blues, and folk. While perusing the lineup, we noticed that the Wronglers were playing. Great, we thought, we’re going anyway and it’ll be just be that much better to see some hometown faces around.

Before we left, I contacted Colleen to see if she could arrange backstage passes for us. I’m always trying to get backstage, because that’s where the stories are. Colleen did us one better and provided not only backstage passes, but put us on the guest list as well, saving us a chunk of change.

We arrived at the Ben McCulloch campground on Thursday, the first day of the festival. The skies were cloudy and rain was predicted, but no one seem too concerned. We found a nice spot and quickly set up our camp close to Onion Creek, which winds through the campground.

For the first two days the rain didn’t come down in torrents, or in great, gullywashing waves. The rain wasn’t trying to rout us with a spectacular frontal assault. No, the rain was fighting a steady war of attrition. It knew that the campers were there for four days, and it wasn’t about to unleash all its artillery in one cataclysmic barrage.

But down it came, heavily and steadily. Our camping spot, which had looked so inviting when we set it up, became a tributary of Onion Creek. Two to three inches of water flowed briskly through our camp kitchen, and, while the popup shelter and tarps kept the rain off us, it made preparing a meal a challenge. We arranged several large stones to step upon so we could get in and out of our van, thankful at least that we were not sleeping in a tent pitched in the streambed of a now incessantly babbling brook.

On Friday morning we set out looking for Warren and company and found that they had wisely rented a couple of trailers. The trailers were equipped with nifty little kitchens and all the necessary pots, pans, utensils, and dishes. Unfortunately, they didn’t include any food. The Wronglers thought they could snag something to eat from local vendors, but both the backstage food and the concession stands were located about half-mile away at the Salt Lick Pavilion.

Suddenly, an idea popped into my brain. We had food – they had shelter. “OK, Mr. High Finance Hellman,” I said, “we’re going to revert to the ancient barter system here.” So for the next two days, I cooked blueberry pancakes for the Wronglers’ breakfast. Warren made such a fuss over my pancakes, you’d have thought that the recipe came from Julia Child instead of Aunt Jemima.

Warm and dry in the trailer, Jeanie and I enjoyed the company of all the band members. There’s a deep bond of friendship among this crew, forged by endless hours of rehearsing and the shared love of the music. Talking with Warren was always fun. He had a zest for storytelling and loved to hear tales of other folks’ adventures. If you didn’t know who he was, you’d just think he’s some nice old banjo picker with some funny stories.

Occasionally, we’d be reminded just how wealthy and influential he was when he made an offhand remark about a politician (“He’s so vain about his hair.”) or a trip he took (“Have you ever been on a Lear Jet? The aisle is really narrow…). But when he was hanging around musicians, Warren just wanted to be one of the guys and was in every bit as starstruck by artists like Emmylou Harris and Hazel Dickens as any of their other fans.

A couple of months later, Warren was our breakfast buddy again at the CBA summer music camp. He and Jeanie were in the same banjo class and he spent a lot of time at our campsite, playing, sharing meals, and talking. We brought Warren along to our friend Lou Felthouse’s camp for a memorable feast. The other dinner guests were thrilled to have the opportunity to tell Warren how much they loved Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. He clearly enjoyed the attention and graciously answered questions and listened to comments and suggestions.

One of the best parts of music camp are performances by campers and instructors. Warren asked us to help him perform “End of the Roll Blues,” his epic tale of finding, then losing, than regaining his prized Whyte Laydie banjo. He’d even written new verses that included a response from his banjo asking why he’d dumped her in the first place. The first line began “Loser, loser, why did you leave me….”

We quickly rehearsed the song and Jeanie sang the new verses. Warren was kind of nervous about performing without his regular band, but we assured him we’d be fine. When we hit the stage, we made it through the first half of the song perfectly. When her turn came, Jeanie momentarily stumbled on the first words and I frantically shout-whispered “loser, loser” to prompt her, and we all three started giggling hysterically. We never made it to the end of the song.

Warren laughed his assets off and we had to laugh at ourselves. Ever since then, we tried to find a chance to perform the song again and get it right. We never did get that opportunity, but I don’t feel too bad about it. We were very fortunate to have been as close as we were to him and we are just two of thousands of people whose lives were enriched by knowing him.

A couple of months ago we saw Warren playing his banjo at a rally supporting a public employees pension reform initiative. The rally was sponsored by several unions that had worked with Warren on the compromise plan. He gleefully plunked along with Colleen on bass and Nate Levine on guitar and got the crowd singing with him on choruses.

I cornered him after his performance and said, “Warren, you are the sorriest excuse for a capitalist I’ve ever seen. What kind of titan of finance plays banjo at a union rally, for crying out loud?” He laughed and replied that putting the crowd through his performance was the price they had to pay for his involvement in pension reform.

I saw Warren one more time after that – at an event at UCSF where he was also receiving treatment for the leukemia that was to eventually take him. Frail, but game, he played a couple of songs. He left shortly after his performance, but there was time for us to exchange a few words – just small talk. I wondered when I’d see him next.

The memorial service was one of the most touching ceremonies I’ve ever witnessed. The governor, the mayor, a senator, and many other civic and business leaders came to pay their respects. Emmylou, Ron Thomasson, Heidi Clare, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore were among the many musicians there, and the Wronglers played the original “End of the Roll Blues.” A particularly poignant moment came when Warren’s twelve grandchildren sang “I’ll Fly Away.”

I’ll miss Warren Hellman. He was the best friend bluegrass music ever had in San Francisco and a good friend to me. His life is an inspiration to all of us to reach out and share what we have with others. You may not be a billionaire, but you have something to give, whether it’s teaching someone a G-run or working the gate at a festival. Let’s all remember Warren’s spirit of generosity and neighborliness as the new year begins, and do our best to give just a little bit more.

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