Anyone in Bluegrass knows two remarkable Bay Area legends, Laurie Lewis and Warren Hellman. For the last several years, they’ve collaborated to bring people together for good music and a good cause by helping to organize Bluegrass for the Greenbelt at the Dunsmuir-Hellman Historic Estate in Oakland.
Laurie Lewis is a Grammy-nominated artist, an accomplished fiddler, singer, and songwriter. A native of Berkeley, she spends a lot of time on the road with her musical partner Tom Rozum and her band, the Right Hands, and is perhaps the best-known bluegrass artist California has ever produced.
Warren Hellman, a financier descended from early California pioneers, took up playing banjo later in life and has made it his mission to share his love of old-time and bluegrass music in his hometown of San Francisco by sponsoring the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park.
The fifth annual Bluegrass for the Greenbelt benefit concert on June 5 has a great lineup. Along with Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands and Hellman’s band, the Wronglers, the event features Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen and numerous other acts, and activities for kids.
The series began in 2006 when Lewis was contacted by Greenbelt Alliance to put together a lineup of bluegrass artists. In keeping with Greenbelt Alliance’s spirit of “open spaces and vibrant places,” the first concert was at Coventry Grove, a 300-seat amphitheater and a stage under the redwoods,” Lewis recalled. The concert was a hit and soon outgrew this intimate venue.
In 2008 the event moved to the Dunsmuir-Hellman Estate, long owned by the Hellman family. Bluegrass music is a natural companion to the bucolic setting.
Linking bluegrass music with open spaces is no stretch for Hellman. “Music… resonates with a human being the way scenery does,” he said, recalling a serendipitous moment on a family backpacking trip in Yosemite.
“I heard this beautiful sound and I looked and it was a ranger sitting under a tree playing a banjo. And I said ‘Can I listen to you?’ And he said, ‘Sure, why not.’” The combination of the natural beauty of Tuolumne Meadows and the rustic, homemade music of the ranger’s banjo was a revelation. “I thought this is as close to heaven as a human being can possibly get.”
The low-tech, do-it-yourself nature of bluegrass and old-time music also makes sense from an environmental perspective.
“I think what we’re trying to not just raise awareness but have an event that helps people have a good time in a beautiful open space,” said Lewis. “It’s acoustic music. It wouldn’t be the same if you had to truck in big stacks of amps and drums. We’re trying to do a low-impact, very light footprint type of event. I think that’s one of the reasons that it works.”
As Bay Area natives, both Lewis and Hellman enjoy the amazing variety of local recreational opportunities and appreciate the region’s wealth of open spaces.
“The East Bay Regional Parks saved my life when I was a kid,” Lewis said. “I would just take the bus to the top of Spruce Street and get off and just go in the hills. And then when I could drive I’d go over to West Marin. What could be more beautiful than Mt. Tam?”
“Everything from Muir Woods to Point Reyes and the East Bay,” Hellman said. “We’re just ringed with treasures.”
~ Chuck Poling, California Bluegrass Association