A hardly strictly kind of guy

Hundreds of thousands of thigh-slappers stomp to Warren Hellman's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival each year
Photo courtesy of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

It is not everyday that a San Francisco Bay Guardian culture writer finds herself going for an interview in the Financial District. Something about the fumes of avarice making poor atmosphere for the creative process. But high above the Starbucks and town cars is the banjo-packed office of a rich man who puts on the best free bluegrass festival of the year. And so, for Warren Hellman and his Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (Fri/1-Sun/3), I braved the world of name tags and extravagant corner offices.

Much has been written on the avuncular nature of Hellman. He is an ex-president of Lehmann Brothers, and as chairman of Hellman and Friedman and founding partner of his own venture capital firm, falls just shy of Forbes' 400 Richest Americans list. He's a born and bred adherent to a downtown-centric vision of the city, but counts among his buddies union activists and some of the city's well-known liberal muckrakers. 

But I guess Hellman just likes what he likes. And after I've breached the security check-in that takes place in his megalithic office building's lobby, traveled up to Hellman and Friedman's well-appointed offices, chit-chatted with his amiable receptionist, and been installed in his office to wait for the man's arrival from a meeting next door, I realize that central to this category is bluegrass music. His corner office is comfortably packed with stacks of banjos and guitars, a signed CD from Emmylou Harris that wishes him a happy birthday, a metal sculpture that wears aviator sunglasses and a white cowboy hat, thank you plaques from the Berkeley music venue Freight and Salvage, where Hellman is a keystone donor and acted as chairman for the club's fundraising campaign in years past. It's impossible to avoid the music in the room, indeed the music is the room

Hellman arrives shortly, limping slightly, but enthused at the prospect of our interview. I tell him it's great to meet you, Mr. Hellman, an honorific he doesn't cotton to – Warren it is. He's wearing a long sleeve denim button down – a look he favors, judging from photos of him taken at different shows and events.

It comes as a shock to the system in this day and age, to meet a billionaire with progressive friends (or, in my case, a billionaire at all), an older man with tattoos who likes to talk glowingly of his trips to Burning Man ensconced in his skyscraper office above the downtown grid. “There's no fights there!” he tells me of the desert art festival. “Sure, there's lots of pot, but there's no violence.” Warren perhaps falls into the eccentric rich guy archetype, but the philosophy inherent in his personal pastimes at times seep here and thre into his politics, at least sporadically. He's the kind of guy that will endorse the installation of a massive underground parking lot in Golden Gate Park, yet still support closing down the streets that access said lot so that Sundays amongst the trees and museums can be car-free affairs.

So first for the obvious question: why bluegrass, Warren? “People like to ask these ethereal questions,” the man muses in response. I realize quickly that Hellman pulls few punches, answering questions quickly before detouring into favorite stories that more or less illustrate his point. He's a good talker. “Why do you like bluegrass – why do you like smoked salmon?” 

Fair enough, but why choose to spend your birthday putting on three days of music for the riff-raff (besides the obvious PR bonanza it affords the businessman)? With this query, the billionaire's eyes alight with a thoroughly unmonetized joy. “It's the single most fulfilling thing – this is as close to heaven as I'm gonna get,” Hellman says. “To be able to give something that's really fun to a lot a people that seem to have the same love it as I do... it's just really fulfilling. And if I could hang out with anyone in my life, it would not be the president of Lehmann Brothers and Goldman Sachs.” 

Hardly Strictly seems to be at its a place that allows Hellman to mingle with people outside the financial business. He's endowed the festival to continue at least 15 years after he dies. “I'd like it to go on more or less forever,” he says. His desire for meetings of minds across ideological, professional, and personal differences is evident even in the way he conducts our interview -- which he treats as though he is meeting a friend for the first time. 

Hellman's typical routine for this weekend? “You could say what are the peaks of ecstasy,” he chuckles. He worries all week leading up to the event about the weather – this weekend's sweaty days have perhaps precluded this part -- attends the Friday morning MC Hammer (yes, Hammer's a regular performer at the event) concert for middle schoolers, and then zips around from stage to stage in his golf cart throughout Saturday and Sunday, reaping praise by the untold hundreds of thousands that come to the park to check out the six stages of tunes provided by Hellman each year. 

Oh, and there's the matter of his band's performance as well. Hellman plays banjo and sings for the Wronglers, who will be taking the stage at Hardly Strictly at 11 a.m. on Sun/3. They debuted at the festival, and now play gigs all over the country. His travels with the band bring him to bluegrass events year round – when he's not racing horses, another hobby – and into contact with some great potential acts for Hardly Strictly.

One such group, Hardly Strictly newcomers the Ebony Hillbillies, an all African-American outfit from Jamaica Queens, are Hellman's personal don't-miss pick for this weekend. He's also looking forward to perennial favorites Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Emmylou Harris.

Our time is up, and Hellman's assistant enters the room to tell him that his next appointment is waiting in the lobby, which doesn't seem to enthuse him in quite the same fashion that our interview did. Or maybe he's just good at pretending.

“Oh crap. Well, that was the most fun I'm going to have all day,” he says. Hellman exhorts me to set up another appointment with assistant to talk (“I barely got to find out anything about you!”) and insists on playing me a song about Hardly Strictly that was sent to him by a woman impelled to compose it by her therapist but finally it is time for me to vamoose. We sit convivially, tapping our feet to the beat, Warren every so often blurting out "You have to listen to this part!" Soon, he escorts me to my journey back away from the skyscrapers of the Financial District and returns to his tightly regimented meeting schedule. Moments after our parting, I catch a flat on my bike and am forced to hail a cab to bring me to a neighborhood endowed with such pedestrian things as a bike store. It's less infuriating than it would have been sans Hellman meet up -- I'm still satisfied by our morning time brush between two worlds. 


Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Fri/1 10:30 a.m.-12 p.m., 2 p.m.-7 p.m.; Sat/2 and Sun/3 11 a.m.- 7 p.m.

Speedway Meadows

Golden Gate Park, SF