Ebony Hillbillies string along Hardly Strictly's biggest year yet


Nine hundred thousand people and over 70 bands braved the drifting fog banks for this weekend's 10th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. With a crowd that size, you have to think logistics. So at my interview with HSB bankroller-birthday boy Warren Hellman well before the madness, I asked who were the up and comers to look out for. I chicken-danced our way through Speedway Meadows accordingly.

“The Ebony Hillbillies,” Hellman told me, chuckling over lead singer – and as the band's press kit explains, “bones” of the group -- Gloria Gassaway's penchant for abrupt audience interaction. The HSB performance would be its first in the Bay Area, and Hellman was happy to have been its means of infiltration, particularly for Gassaway's no-nonsense stage presence. “She's quite a woman,” he said.

Quite a woman indeed. the Hillbillies, hailing from Jamaica, Queens, are helping to sustain the tradition of African-American string bands that started with the genre's inception in the Appalachians in the 1920s. Black pioneers in the music can seem ironic now, particularly at events like Hardly Strictly where the audience is majority white. 

But so it goes -- and some of the weekend's most exciting shows flew from the fiddles, banjos, and diddly bows of black groups like the Hillbillies and Carolina Chocolate Drops, firmly establishing that bluegrass (and neo-bluegrass, and string bands, and jazz, blues, rockabilly, country, rock 'n' roll, everything else that falls under “hardly) doesn't have to be just for the honkies.

“I love making the audience have a good time. You come to see the show, you want to be entertained, but you also want to enjoy yourself,” Gassaway tells me when we catch up with her after the group's set on Friday. 

Sporting matching moccasins with fiddle player Henrique Prince, and with purple feathers threaded into her hair, the ebullient Gassaway exchanged my compliment on her flair with an insight into her cultural heritage. Although they were born with blood from the Catawba tribe of the South and North Carolina borderland, Gassaway's father instructed Gassaway and her siblings never to reveal the secret of their Native-American-ness to teachers at school so that they could avoid possible discrimination. 

“He told us, tell them you're from Mexico, or African-American, or something – just not Native,” she says. She says she held onto that learned denial until a trip to Europe, during which she realized the beauty of her background. Now Gassaway sports turquoise jewelry onstage while playing the string music that her Black and Native ancestors must have heard almost a hundred years ago. “I'm Native, and I wear my heritage proudly,” she tells me.

Although the Hillbillies' current configuration experienced its debut in San Francisco this weekend, it was by no means the first time individual band members had played in the City by the Bay. Bass player William Saltner recalled his last time here in the early '60s. Saltner, a two-time Grammy winner for songwriting – he wrote “Where is the Love?” and co-wrote “Just the Two of Us” – was working with Miriam Makeba, who at the time was exiled from her home in apartheid South Africa. 

“We don't play bluegrass, we play old tyme music,” Saltner clarifies backstage. “But we claim bluegrass in this crowd,” he continues with a sly smile.

That kind of genre-bending, always evident at HSB, continued throughout the three days of 2010's festival. MC Hammer kicked off the weekend at his yearly performance at the middle-schooler's show on Friday morning. Randy Newman, a newly bluegrass-friendly Elvis Costello, Robert Earl Keen, the Avett Brothers, Joan Baez, and Patti Smith all turned in stellar sets that could hardly fall into the “strictly” category. The diversity was reflected in the varying age demographics of the crowd, who for the most part eschewed the sanctity of the blanket that had reigned in years past – those faithful early risers that spread their tarps in front of stages in the small hours of the morning saw their space quickly infiltrated by standing room-only, stage-switching attendees. 

Temperatures in the high 60s did nothing to stem the tide of music fans that flooded the peaks and valleys of Golden Gate Park for the free festival, but they did threaten the Hillbillies' chances of starting up a dance party with their stomp-ready old tyme strings with their opening act at the Banjo Stage on Friday. “Are you cold?” Gassaway inquired from her seat on stage. “Because I sure am!”

The cold weather seemed to make it difficult to keep strings in shape – the action stopped a few times so that a stoic Norris Bennett could tune his diddley bow, and then later his banjo to perfection. But the challenge seemed to energize the group's firestarter. Of course, it doesn't hurt when you can pull Hellman onstage for a little unscheduled entertainment, which Gassaway managed to accomplish in a moment when she spotted the man enjoying the show from the stage's sidelines.

Perhaps he had it coming for hyping Gassaway's sass. Hellman did his best to represent the honkies though, bowing out his legs and wagging his elbows in a “broke-legged chicken” dance on her command. But for all his obedience, he's got a ways to go as far as Gassaway is concerned. A fact which she let him (and us now) know in the intro of a song entitled “Big Fat Men,” an ode to the joys of obese lovers.

Which the wiry Hellman could hardly be described as. Yet. But he's got a good coach. “I've been feeding him cheesecake,” Gassaway tells me. Blow out the candle first, Warren – number ten was a good year for Hardly Strictly.


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