The Hardly Any Strictly Bluegrass Festival

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Does anybody besides me think the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival has kind of jumped the shark?

Looking at the festival web site I count 86 separate acts from October’s show. There are some names (well, quite a few actually) I don’t recognize, but I am pretty current on who is playing bluegrass these days, and my best guess is there are about thirteen bluegrass acts, maybe a few more depending on if you count people like Alison Brown and Natalie Maines.

HSB maintains an extensive web site. Going back to the very first year, 2001, when the show was a one-day affair billed as “Strictly Bluegrass,” Alison Krauss and Union Station, Hazel Dickens, Dale Ann Bradley and Coon Creek, Blue Highway, the Crooked Jades, the Road Oilers, Batteries Not Included and Keystone Station were on the bill. That’s nine bluegrass or old-time acts, plus Emmylou Harris. I give a pass to Emmylou as she plays with Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas a lot, and she is one of the great country-roots voices of this or any other era.

In 2002 the festival was still “Strictly Bluegrass,” and I recognize 23 of the 33 acts as being bluegrass, old-time, or classic, acoustic country. They had a Hot Rize reunion, Steve Earl’s band was called “The Bluegrass Dukes” (this year they are just “Dukes” — I didn’t see their set, so can’t report on what they sounded like), the Lynn Morris Band was there, and there was a band billed as The Bluegrass Homecoming that featured Laurie Lewis, Butch Waller, Herb Pederson, Todd Phillips, Roland White and Gabe Witcher.

The third year the festival went to three days and there was a “Hardly” scratched in front of the “Strictly Bluegrass” on the logo. There were 43 acts, still mostly bluegrass and old-time, although Willie Nelson brought his electric country band.

Looking back through the web pages, things were still pretty bluegrassy in 2006, and 2007. In 2008, an unusual bluegrass act called MC Hammer (!) was there, plus things like the Global Drum Project with Mickey Hart and Zakir Hussein, Elvis Costello, and a bunch of names I do not recognize.

As the years have gone by, the festival has become more “hardly” and less “bluegrass.” If you measure success by crowd count, the event is a total triumph: reports are that something like 500,000 people jam into the park to see it. But I submit that Warren Hellman’s original vision is being diluted beyond recognition. Remember, the original impetus for the festival was Warren’s fondness for the music of Hazel Dickens and Emmylou Harris.

I wish the current management would start moving back to a simpler festival, with performers who are, or at least were, in the bluegrass or old-time world. Plus Emmylou, of course.

If they only got a quarter-million people, would that be a disaster?

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