There are certain spirited traditions, it seems, that COVID-19 cannot defeat, like San Francisco’s world-renowned Hardly Strictly Strictly Bluegrass festival. Happily, it continues this year, as always, on the first weekend of October, but in a whittled-down form, and not in Golden Gate Park. The free twangfest streams from 2 to 5 p.m. Oct. 3 at www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com and www.nugs.tv, featuring a stunning lineup of regulars, from Emmylou Harris on down.
“It’s going to be virtual, and it’s already been recorded,” says one of HSB’s favorite sons, Texas troubadour Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who performs with his longtime Flatlanders bandmate Butch Hancock as a duo, and notes that the film crew observed social distancing during the session.
HSB also has partnered with Artist Relief (donate at unitedstatesartists.org/hsb/) to dispense $1 million to musicians nationwide adversely affected by the pandemic, and another $1.5 million to the Hardly Strictly Relief Fund: Bay Area, benefiting Alliance for California Traditional Arts. To contribute, visit actaonline.org.
There was so much talent committed to keeping the event alive, it begged only one question, adds Gilmore (reached by phone last week as he hiked with Hancock and their wives in Texas’ Big Bend National Park, where they had just spotted a black bear): How can they condense so much incredible talent into only three hours?
Still, the Cherokee-descended tenor, 75, had wise observations on humanity’s current snafu.
As someone who once defended advertisements for just doing their job, have you seen the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” about the hypnotic sway that cellphones and social media have over society?
My wife Janet and I watched it about three nights ago. I had already read a book called “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” and another one called “The Attention Merchants,” and they’re about advertising, that same film subject. It’s ironic, because I was so into computers early on, and then all of a sudden technology took this wrong turn. Stewart Brand warned about that in the early ‘80s, saying that this technology would explode but that — just like swords had accompanied the invention of steel and plows — it could always be used for good purposes or bad. He said that we should be prepared for somebody to figure out how to use it in a bad way. And what you find online now isn’t even disinformation; it’s no information. Maybe if people listen to more channels than Fox News, they might pick up actually pick up some information.
What do you think about how American democracy is on the brink of extinction and climate-change-affected forests burn under the leadership of a president who will do anything to win re-election?
It’s a drastic, dire situation. We are in a very strange time, and it seems like so many things are hitting us at once. I can’t believe that a single person voted for [Trump] and it might take a massive uprising to stop him. My daughter Elyse has a PR firm, and she does a lot of pro bono work for progressive causes, and she keeps up with all the serious polling. It’s clear that the majority of the country is for Biden, but because of the electoral college, there’s no guarantee, and because of all the doubt that’s been sown about the mail, it could get messy. But Janet and I studied Tibetan Buddhism and a lot of Native American stuff, and in all of these teachings, there’s the idea that sometimes it takes great suffering to bring about transformation, and eventually, the good side always wins. I think one silver lining of the coronavirus is that it’s caused a whole lot of people to have this huge shift in perspective.
What has it taught you, personally?
It’s not really new, but it’s the whole Buddhist idea of interdependence. The planet, even the universe, is built on a mutual causality, meaning everything derives its independence from many outside factors. So now, all of a sudden, humans are realizing, “Oh, you have to have grocery stores and people working in them, and truckers delivering those groceries!” The pandemic has caused this abstract idea to become very stark and tangible.
And — according to the third member of the Flatlanders, Joe Ely — the band has a new album coming?
It’s just been finalized, and it’s a new old Flatlanders, a bunch of our old favorite music from these recordings that Joe went to work on in the studio. I actually taught my annual songwriting class that I do at the Omega Institute, but by Zoom this year, and, oddly enough, everybody loved it. We were able to make the class twice as big as it is in person, with 40-something students instead of 24.
I’ve distilled the pandemic down to one existential film reference: Do you view annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson in “Groundhog Day” with Phil Connors’ initial “eww” cynicism, or with the ebullient self-content warmth he greets him with at the end?
My wife and I? Our favorite movie is “Groundhog Day.” And I’ve also read that the Dalai Lama really loves “Groundhog Day,” as well, because it actually is a very Buddhist movie.