Blues, Bluegrass, Rock and Roll: A Weekend in the Park

Image of rock and roll party.

Image by Diane Picchiottino.

I used to spend lots of my time at bluegrass festivals in the 1970s. These events were usually held on meadows in the forests of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Western Maryland. A few were at college campuses in central Pennsylvania. Back then, the headliners were mostly bands featuring traditional bluegrass players like Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson and Jimmy Dickens. Other festivals featured traditional musicians fronting electrified country rock bands. Those names included Earl Scruggs and fiddler Vassar Clements. Then there were festivals where artists such as David Bromberg and Emmylou Harris topped the bill; these groups were forerunners of the genre that is now known as Americana. Moonshine, LSD, marijuana and beer flowed freely at these affairs. Since they were usually held on private land, the only security was rented or composed of locals paid to keep an eye on things in a peaceful manner.

In September 28, 2023 I headed to California to meet up with a couple siblings and a few friends. Our goal was San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and the annual festival known as Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. It wasn’t West Virginia by any means. Then again, bluegrass music invites a much bigger audience than it ever did in the 1970s even with all those long-haired youngsters playing it and attending the festivals referred to above. I share the opinion that younger musicians who discovered the music of the Grateful Dead and from there its roots in bluegrass had a good deal to do with the genre’s increased popularity. As its name implies, Hardly Strictly features much more than bluegrass music. It’s a sunny weekend in the park and a party with thousands of others. It’s a celebration of how things should be in a world that’s not necessarily pleasant. It’s a chance to hear music from multiple genres: blues, rock, Latin, country and of course, bluegrass.

This year’s festival featured six stages. Naturally, this means one can never see all of the artists performing. I went with the goal of catching performances from Steve Earle, The Traveling McCourys, Jerry Douglas and his band, Peter Rowan with his group and Emmylou Harris. In between these groups, I caught a bluesman who goes by the name Buffalo Nichols, mandolinist extraordinaire Sierra Hull and her band, a San Francisco band known as Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the West Texas Exiles, a bluegrass outfit called the Dry Branch Rescue Squad (who did a heartbreaking version of the Seals and Setzer classic “Seven Spanish Angels,”) an all-women outfit going by the name Della Mae, Rickie Lee Jones, and a master of canciones Carrie Rodriguez.

Earle played a solo set. With just a banjo in hand, he played a set of familiar and newer tunes. Most were his compositions, although he surprised me with a rendition of Jerry Jeff Walker’s song “Mr. Bojangles.” His set ended with his ode to the moonshiners and illegal pot growers of not so long ago, the song called “Copperhead Road.” Every once in a while I caught a whiff of a legal prerolled in the hour and a half leading up to that song. I was feeling pretty mellow from a gummie consumed earlier that day. Emmylou, who I first saw in a Washington, DC coffeehouse called The Childe Harold in the early 1970s, was backed by a tight foursome who began the last show of the festival with her song Montana Cowgirl followed by the Louvin Brothers song “If I Could Only Win Your Love.” Her range may have shrunk a little, but every tune Harris sang that evening as the sun began to set was delivered as close to perfect as the songbird she is often called. Like a sympathetic vibration on a violin, one could almost hear her onetime partner Gram Parsons when she sang tunes she recorded with him in the 1970s: Sin City and Hickory Wind, to name two.

Buffalo Nichols was a very pleasant surprise. Named Carl Nichols by his parents, Buffalo stood on the stage, holding his Mavis Mule brand Resophonic guitar. At his feet were some pedals and buttons he pushed with his foot that played his harmonies, dueled with his leads and provided a rhythm section (together with his tapping foot). Singing mostly his own compositions, his songs spoke of a world that the blues is known for. Work, love good and bad, politics and the rest of the shit we live with and through. There were some moments of happiness, too. His voice resonated with song as melodically as the magic played by his fingers on the six strings of his guitar. Della Mae played bluegrass with a twist that I can’t quite explain, got the crowd moving and even played a couple political tunes, including the Neil Young classic “Ohio.” The Traveling McCourys, whose intelligent and spirited tunes brought hundreds of people to their feet to dance; a phenomenon encouraged by the presence of dozens of young people whose infectious dancing encouraged the crowd to join in. This infectiousness was further enhanced when the band played a feisty rendition of the Grateful Dead tune “Scarlet Begonias,” followed quickly by a song that took bluegrass, jazz fusion and psychedelic rock to a place few bands reach. Peter Rowan who, with an electric band that included one-time Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen guitarist Bill Kirchen sitting in, played a variety of classic tunes, including two made famous by the New Riders of the Purple Sage—“Panama Red” (which he played with the 1970s bluegrass supergroup Old and In the Way) and “Lonesome LA Cowboy”—and a couple others he played with Old and In the Way: “Land of the Navajo” and “Midnight Moonlight.”

Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express were a kick; maybe in the head, maybe in the pants, I’m just not sure. They are a really tight, versatile rock band. Their music borrowed from almost every genre besides classical and maybe bluegrass. Blues, rockabilly, rock of all kinds, jazz, soul and gospel. A bit of a sensation in the San Francisco scene, the band was dressed rather dapper and its delivery was animated and tight. Lyrically, I was reminded of many lyricists, but mostly of Boston’s Jonathan Richman and Washington, DC’s late Root Boy Slim. Hip, sardonic, sarcastic, clever and often funnier than most standup comedians, Prophet (whose first band was the 1980s punkish psychedelic group Green on Red) is an experienced and outstanding musician whose group is (of course) named after Mission Street in San Francisco. This band’s performance was one of the festival’s highlights in a weekend filled with them.

As I wandered through the meadows in Golden Gate Park where the stages were constructed and the music played, I couldn’t help but experience some deja vu. Some of the meadows were where I had heard bands play back in the 1970s when I lived in the Bay Area. Others were places I had wandered through. The crowd was friendly and diverse, the private security helpful and easygoing and the cops did not obstruct the fun. Although the weather was damp and chilly the first day of the festival, the sun shone the rest of the time. The urban location has its positives and negatives; it’s easy to get to, but, because the camping ban is enforced, it is a bit more expensive to find a place to stay if one is from out of town.

I left the park Sunday evening vowing to return to next year’s fest.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com