A couple years ago, Warren Hellman took the Banjo Stage at the end of a bluegrass set by Del McCoury that had just electrified 25,000 people packed into a meadow at Golden Gate Park.
Before he brought back McCoury and his boys for an encore, Hellman shared a simple secret.
"If you get good at what you're doing, and you're good at what you're doing, you draw other people that are good at what they're doing, too," he said. Then he plucked his banjo with McCoury and a stage filled with stars in a stroll through "Blue Moon of Kentucky."
In his world of private- equity high finance, Hellman attracted the confidence of investors and compiled a record of success billions of dollars to the good. In his world of American roots music from bluegrass and folk to rock 'n' roll and the brassed rhythms from the back alleys of New Orleans he drew close to him the top voices and instrumentalists of Americana, to tell the stories of a nation and riff off the sound of its soul.
They gathered around Hellman for 11 years, on the first weekend in October in the glens and hollows of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. They played to hundreds of thousands of fans in Hellman's free-of-charge Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. And they'll get together again before noon today and continue until the sun goes down Sunday.
But the 81 bands scheduled to play this year will carry a sense of loss with them to the festival's six stages, over the passing of the festival's founder and two of the historic anchors of his beloved music.
Financier, philanthropist and banjo player Hellman, 77, died in December of complications from leukemia. In March, Earl Scruggs, 88, found his better home awaitin', soon to be joined in the sky, in May, by Doc Watson, who made 89.
Festival organizers will honor them all Saturday in what they're calling a "tribute to the founding fathers." The remembrace will feature Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Alison Brown, Stuart Duncan and a list of artists that appears to be growing by the minute.
"It's been hard," festival spokeswoman Tracey Buck said of the emotional difficulty of keeping the festive in the festival amid so much death.
"Not to put too sad of a cloud over the park, though," she added. "We want it to be a celebration."
For 11 years, hundreds of thousands of music fans have celebrated Hellman's creation. A couple years ago, T Bone Burnett, in a set with the Punch Brothers, the Secret Sisters, Buddy Miller and others, told the masses over and over and over again, "This is the greatest music festival in the world!"
Dave Alvin took the call on the road, traveling town to town, between Fresno and Reno before doubling back to a show last Friday in Auburn. He's slated for three separate performances at Hardly Strictly, including one with Steve Earle, Delbert McClinton, Boz Scaggs and Jimmie Vaughan, in a tribute to Doug Sahm, the late Sir Douglas Quintet frontman and roots rock legend.
Alvin plays honky-tonks from Ashland, Va., to Winters, and festivals from Austin to Chicago. He thinks Hardly Strictly is "starting to eclipse maybe" what, in his book, is the event that sets the standard in gatherings of American music, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
The nature of the music, the people who love it, the good feeling among the people who play it Alvin says it all adds up to a celebration of an art form, of a community, that exists happily beyond the listening mainstream.
"Most of these acts, in general, they're not on the radio," Alvin said.
"They're not acts that are being shoved down your throat on 'American Idol.' If you play the Palms in Winters, there are 250 people there who share your likes and dislikes and appreciation of this music. Multiply that by whatever to reach a hundred thousand. And two-thirds of them are there because they love Del McCoury and Jimmy Dale Gilmore and whoever else, and there are some other people who like that, too, and it's 'Hey, how you doing, neighbor?'
"It's that kind of vibe, and I think it creates a kind of atmosphere."
There might be music and people who love it, but Alvin said a scene can't happen without the "visionary lunatics" who bring it together. Some of their names, he said, are Ed Pearl of the old Ash Grove blues/folk club in L.A., Chet Helms of the Family Dog that helped spark San Francisco's music explosion of the Sixties and Hellman, creator and founder of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
HARDLY STRICTLY BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL 12
When: Today-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Where: Speedway Meadow, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco