Ken Garcia: Trio’s labor of love is real story behind S.F. bluegrass festival

It may be a fortunate thing that financier Warren Hellman didn’t fall in love with punk rock music. Otherwise, Golden Gate Park might be the site of the world’s biggest mosh pit this weekend.

Instead, the stages will be set for the largest bluegrass festival in the country starting Friday — 72 bands in three days in the heart of San Francisco’s forested jewel. The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass event has grown so large — officials estimate more than 300,000 people attended last October — that it’s easy to forget that it was started as something of a whim among three people with disparate backgrounds whose sole connection was a lifelong love of music.

Given that nearly every big name in bluegrass flocks to the festival, they must be striking the right notes. Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton have been the big draws in the past, but this year, with an extra day added, they were looking for a headliner and their aim was true. Rock legend Elvis Costello will close Friday’s show, proving that there’s still a lot of pop in the “hardly strictly” theme.

“It gets to be more fun each year,” Hellman said of his free festival gift to The City, a sort of “fiddle-anthropy” for which the quirky businessman is uniquely suited. “And this year is going to be special for me because our group is going to be performing. Bluegrass Orgasmica — we fake it.”

Hellman is the longtime chairman of one of the country’s largest private investment firms and, often much to his chagrin, has became a major player in The City’s political scene. He has bankrolled the festival since its debut six years ago, when 12 acts played on two stages.

It was in his business role that he came across Jonathan Nelson, who is executive chairman of Organic Inc., a high-end Web site designand consultancy firm. Nelson, a dot-com pioneer and one-time sound engineer, was approached by Hellman about possibly buying Organic — an idea that did not come to fruition — but the two men became good friends.

“We went to lunch one day, and Warren told me that he had two ambitions in life — one was to get a tattoo, and the other was to throw a bluegrass festival,” Nelson told me. “I said I don’t think I can help you with the first one, but I think I can help with the other.”

Nelson used to work at Slim’s nightclub, where he was friends with the longtime booking manager Dawn Holliday. Holliday, who used to work for Bill Graham, has been booking acts at clubs here for nearly 30 years. After Hellman asked her if she would help out, the trio that oversees the free three-day festival was set, and Holliday’s booking schedule for it went from a few months to the better part of a year.

“The great thing is that each and every one of them is a band I love,” Holliday said. “It’s an amazing, wonderful experience, and I can’t believe I get to do it.”

The relationship doesn’t just end after Emmylou Harris takes her final bow to close Sunday’s show. Hellman and Nelson are also among the investors that own Slim’s and the Great American Music Hall, the other club for which Holliday finds the acts. And it seems fitting that Holliday used to be one of the booking managers for the old “Day on the Green” mega-concerts, because the amount of green space needed for the bluegrass festival makes those events seem tiny in comparison.

“The joke that we have every year when we start planning is that it means it’s another day and another stage,” Nelson said. “But none of this would happen without Dawn, because she can get so many of the acts through her own personal relationships. Warren and I really work for her.”

There are so many stellar acts that, for this weekend anyway, it looks like Nashville will be devoid of any fiddle players, banjo pickers or stand-up bass specialists. Among the headliners are Earl Scruggs, T-Bone Burnett, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, Ricky Skaggs, Robert Earl Keen, Ramblin’ Jack Ellliot, Allison Moorer and Richard Thompson. And if it needed a little shot of San Francisco, there’s Bob Weir, The Waybacks and Hot Tuna.

“The great thing about it being free is that you don’t have to think about ticket sales, and you don’t have to worry about who will be a draw,” Holliday said. “You can care less if there’s 13 people there.”

Don’t count on it — there will be 6,000 San Francisco public school students bused in Friday alone. Just be hopeful that Hellman never develops an affinity for heavy metal.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.Bay Area NewsLocalNews Columnists

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