“People should not take this as a memorial to Warren”: So says Nancy Hellman Bechtle, the surviving sister of Warren Hellman, about this weekend’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which was founded by her brother in Golden Gate Park in 2001.
“This is living and fun, and he would not have wanted this to be in any way sad,” Bechtle says. “The best way to honor him is to listen to the music, and just to have a great time. Because he always had a great time.”
In fact, just two months before he succumbed to complications of leukemia at the age of 77 last year, Hellman was up on the Rooster Stage, one of the festival’s six, strumming his banjo and singing with The Wronglers, the bluegrass-old timey band he’d recorded with earlier that year.
“It’s just heaven!” Hellman had said about performing at the festival. He practiced banjo every morning at his Presidio Heights home, not far from his sister’s, before going off to manage millions of dollars from his Maritime Plaza office.
Music and money were both part of Nancy and Warren’s heritage, going back several generations.
Their parents were involved in funding and attending the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera, but also exposed their kids to other genres.
“My mother [Ruth Koshland] used to sing country songs to us, like ‘Sioux City Sue,’” Bechtle remembers. “And in school we used to sing old-fashioned songs like ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds.’”
Bechtle wasn’t particularly surprised when her brother took up serious banjo study while launching a successful career with Lehman Brothers, back East.
“Warren was always compulsive,” she giggles. She followed her parents’ footsteps onto the boards of the symphony and opera, while cultivating an appetite for country-and-western music, which “just horrified” some of her classical music cohorts.
Aside from founding the free festival, which draws three-quarters-of-a-million fans every fall, Hellman spotted a chance to publicly showcase his musical tastes when his sibling was awarded the Arts Medallion at the Four Seasons Hotel in 2010. “He got up and sang, ‘It’s hard to be Nancy’s brother/She’s perfect in every way,’” Bechtle recalls with a laugh.
Although her brother was more into bluegrass, Bechtle believes it was her own inclination toward country music which rendered the festival “hardly strictly” and brought in such artists such as Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam and the Flatlanders, who appear this year alongside bluegrass and old timey acts such as Ralph Stanley, Jerry Douglas, and actor-singer John Reilly.
In her ad hoc advisory function, Bechtle placed country legend Vince Gill among Friday evening’s openers.
There’ll also be a Saturday afternoon “Tribute to the Founding Fathers” — namely Hellman and bluegrass veterans Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, who passed earlier this year. “But there’ll be nothing I know of that’s gloomy or morose,” Bechtle assures.