Barnes on Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival for Far West Almanc
8th ANNUAL HARDLY STRICTLY BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL
By Peter H. Sheffer
He’s the millionaire with a heart of blue, Bluegrass that is. I’m talking about successful San Francisco investment banker Warren Hellman - A man who has more money than God, and has nothing better to do with it except throw huge, free festivals full of the most amazing artists in bluegrass and Americana music today.
For eight years now, in San Francisco’s beautiful Golden Gate Park, Warren Hellman has put together Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a massive outdoor music festival hosting over 700,000 music fans. They come from all over the country to hear legendary musicians like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and Ralph Stanley - For free! Hellman, a banjo player and music lover, calls the festival his gift to the city.
The festival started in 2001 with just 2 stages and 9 bands. Today there are 5 stages throughout 3 days, and so many damn bands there is no point in counting them. The lineup for this year is ridiculous! It includes such veteran artists as Earl Scruggs, Hazel Dickens, The Del McCoury Band, Loudon Wainwright III, Robert Earl Keen, Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, Riders in the Sky, Guy Clark & Verlon Thompson, Steve Earle & the Bluegrass Dukes, Iris Dement, Hazel Dickens, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss featuring T Bone Burnett, and newer roots bands like Iron & Wine, Waco Brothers, and the Gourds. They even have Gypsy punks Gogol Bordello on the bill. Now that’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass! Be sure to check out the festival’s website at www.hardlystrictlybluegrass.com for the full lineup.
Hellman decided to give festival-goers a bonus gift this year. He’s reuniting Danny Barnes, Mark Rubin, and Bob Grant. That’s right, for all you folks cool enough to know, they were once known as the Austin based, avant-folk band, the Bad Livers (www.badlivers.com). They disbanded back in 2000 just one year before the first Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. I got in touch with Bad Livers banjo extraordinaire, Danny Barnes, to ask him a few questions about their reunion show.
FWA: The Bad Livers were one of the original pioneer bands in the folk fusion movement. You took traditional folk styles and mixed them with often unexpected genres. A perfect example of this kind of experimental blend was your “Blood and Mood” album where you mixed bluegrass and electronica. The Bad Livers were also known for your interpretations of covers. You didn’t mimic the original songs, but rather re-interpreted them in the same way the jazz greats have reinterpreted standards for years now. What inspired you to blend genres in your music?
DB: That's a good question. I think driving around the US for years, trapped in a van with a bunch of freaked out music dudes is what did that. We very passionate about music and got way into it, researching and grooving and gobbling up anything new and cool we could find. Also the original idea for the band was to have a small ensemble that could play anything, so that was part of the job description so to speak.
FWA: Ralph White, the original fiddle and accordion player for the Bad Livers, left the band back in 1996, because he (as it is stated in the Bad Livers’ bio) got “fed up with the legion inequities of playing live music for living...” He was later replaced by off-and-on member Bob Grant. Life on the road can often be stressful and discouraging. How do you deal with the strains of living life as a musician? Do you have any advice for folks aspiring to have a career in music?
DB: If you mean during the travel phase, here are some ideas. These were learned by trial and error, which is messy because there's the error part: try to eat right and don't drink or do drugs. Exercise. Read good books. Have a circle of positive people in your corner. Don't worry about the money, worry about making something good with the music. Realize your life is a work in progress. Practice your faith. Get plenty of rest.
FWA: After a decade of touring and recording, the Bad Livers never received their much-deserved commercial success. Do you think the world just wasn’t ready?
DB: The folks that I emulate never stopped learning. I still take lessons and study. If you keep growing and put the focus on the music, instead of what you are or are not getting out of the deal, that will help everyone around you. Deals need to be win/win. Win/loose is ultimately loose/loose. If you work a part time job or teach to make ends meet, so what? If you make music that is important, you win.
FWA: The Bad Livers have a reunion show scheduled for this year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco. What lineup should we expect?
DB: Me, Mark and Bob Grant, plus maybe a special guest or two.
FWA: Why did you guys choose Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival for your reunion show?
DB: They were very interested in having us so that kinda fired us up to play. That's one of the coolest festivals going, so that was encouraging to us.
FWA: Is this reunion show a sign that maybe the world is finally ready for the Bad Livers, or are you just teasing us?
DB: I'm not sure, if folks want to hear us I suppose we can't resist playing some stuff. It's nice to be recognized for the tremendous effort that went into that project. Mark and I are really the only ones that know the magnitude of that statement. It was basically our every waking thought for ten years. That kind of stuff takes so much work; words fail you to explain that. But we were glad to do it, in the end, when all was said and done.
My friend Dave, from Yonder Mountain String Band said we were like the Velvet Underground of bluegrass. We only sold a few thousand records, but every single person that bought one started a band.
Get your asses to San Francisco this October 3-5 for the 8th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival for the greatest musical experience of you life. Hell, it’s free! Make sure you check out the Bad Livers and give them plenty of love. Maybe you’ll get inspired and start your own band.