Skip to main content

San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival is totally free.

The totally free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park presents major acts as well as relatively unknown but worthy ones.

By Bruce Sylvester

A three-day totally free festival with major acts – plus very cool ones that aren’t so well known! Sounds too good to be true. Check the 11th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park Friday, Sept. 30, through Sunday, Oct. 2 (, 11 am to 7 pm each day.

Friday’s lineup includes Robert Plant & the Band of Joy, South Memphis String Band, the Mekons, the Del McCoury Band with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (meaning hard-core bluegrass with horns?), John Prine, Southern Culture on the Skids, Bill Kirchen and more.

Among Saturday’s many choices are Steve Earle & the Dukes (and Duchesses) (obviously including Allison Moorer), Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Earl Scruggs, Kris Kristofferson & Merle Haggard, Robyn Hitchcock, Reckless Kelly, the Flatlanders (featuring Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Gilmore), Irma Thomas, Guy Clark & Verlon Thompson, Seamus Kennedy, the Band of Heathens and Patti Griffin.

Sunday’s options include Dr. John & the Lower 911, the Low Anthem, the Civil Wars, Dr. Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, the Devil Makes Three, Bob Mould, Emmylou Harris, Justin Townes Earle, the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Jayhawks.

Yes, Scruggs and Stanley (both past 80) still belong on a stage, based on what I’ve seen of them in the past year.

With six stages, you may have to make some tough choices about whom to see and whom to miss. It’s a hard life.

Incidentally, there's also a kids program on Thursday with MC Hammer & P.M.W.

So (besides major acts like Steve Earle, Ralph Stanley, and the Mekons), is there one single less known act I’d recommend in particular? Yes. The post-punk neotrad Devil Makes Three.

And who’s footing the tab? Warren Hellman, a wealthy investment banker and huge music fan. Yes, he’s the banjoist in the Wronglers. (Recent Heirloom Music by Jimmie Dale Gilmore & the Wronglers is quite a respectable disc.)

Judging by the festival's web site, this year's event is dedicated to Hazel Dickens, the voice of Appalachia, who performed there numerous years and who died, at age 75, on April 22.