Thursday, November 26, 2009

Revelations amidst 700,000 other nuts

SAN DIEGO – This column is not about the Southwest corner or Lebanon, but about an event held the first weekend in October miles north of here.
College friends asked us to join them for the “Hardly, Strictly Bluegrass Festival” in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Cy Fraser, originally from Old Hickory, and his wife Julie took a long route from their home on Orcas Island in Puget Sound’s San Juan Islands. They had spent the summer in their family Michigan retreat and drove to San Francisco from there.

Alan Hicks, a New York City boy with East Tennessee roots, and his wife, Maren, also a Vanderbilt graduate from Atlanta, hosted us in their lovely home perched on a San Francisco hill.

The festival was a strange but successful amalgamation of diverse groups of every imaginable ilk.

Hellman’s Largesse

Warren Hellman, a director of the NASDAQ stock exchange and chairman of a successful private equity investment firm, sponsors the event. There is no entry fee. In its ninth year, the festival drew more than 750,000 people. There were six stages where 79 bands performed from Friday afternoon until Sunday night.

In the back of the crowd on Friday, we could not hear Lyle Lovett very well. So the guys went early on Saturday and Sunday, claiming a small side-hill plot with an unobstructed view.

Other family and friends joined us throughout the three days and many wandered to the other stages. Maureen and I stayed at the Banjo Stage, the main venue. The groups were just too good to miss.

Tim O’Brien and Ricky Skaggs were two Saturday highlights. Sunday, the Banjo Stage rolled out the big guns. Doc Watson, Earle Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley represented the old soul of bluegrass and country music. Emmy Lou Harris put the festival to rest as the final act.

Hazel Dickens: Crusader

Hazel Dickens, 74, stole my heart singing Appalachian hill music. To the more sophisticated, she sounded flat. To me, she sounded like good old country music. Raised in West Virginia, she was a figurehead for the unionization of the coal mines.

The festival was surreal to me.

I imagined the spirit and the crowd was similar to the famous Woodstock concert 40 years ago, but older, milder, and without the rain. The country music icons were inclined toward Southern religions and conservative politics (except for folks such as Hazel Dickens). Yet the site was San Francisco, the heart of liberalism, alternative lifestyles, and substances of the hippie movement (occasionally we would get a good whiff of secondary smoke). There were rabid country music buffs dancing in front of the stage with some of the wildest looking people I have ever seen.

Hellman has amassed a fortune. He is Jewish investment banker from New York. Yet he played his banjo alongside notables such as Earl Scruggs. He held his own, but it added to the strangeness.

Somehow it all worked.

For three days, 750,000 people had great fun without rancor except for an occasional “down in front” chant when someone blocked views. It was good times, good music and good folks, regardless of the cut of their cloth.

And we learned more about our group.

Tennessee Connections

Alan’s parents were both from Rockwood where my family and our Chattanooga relatives visited the Orr homestead.

Alan’s father, Mason Hicks, graduated from high school at 15, the University of Tennessee at 19, and became a doctor in the Big Apple at 22 after completing Columbia Medical School.

Rebecca Tarwater was a talented singer, dancer, and banjo player. She moved to New York to pursue her career and became involved with Jackson Pollock, the legendary artist who was a major force in abstract impressionism.

But the two East Tennesseans ran into each other. Then after a late night performance in Greenwich Village, Becky left her banjo at a club. Mason, although extremely conservative in nature, entered wild Greenwich Village and retrieved the banjo. The two began seeing each other and were married shortly thereafter.

Great romantic story.

On the flight back to the Southwest corner, I reflected on the weekend. With the current political rancor steaming on all fronts, it was nice to see people just being people and sharing good times with tolerance.

We plan to return next year.

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