SAN FRANCISCO — It was noon at Golden Gate Park and the bikers were making their move. Encouraged by their buddies, two of them, one bulbous and the other brown and stringy like beef jerky, slid between the pretty blonde and her Ken doll boyfriend. Ken laughed nervously as the skinny biker clapped him on the back and lit him a cigarette. The fat biker bowed decorously to the blonde and proceeded to kiss her hand and reach for her waist with a beefy right arm.
The scene was getting ugly and someone needed to step up, but that person was not me. I was here to see Willie Nelson, not spark an Altamont-scale meltdown. It was the beginning of the final day of San Francisco’s third annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Emmylou Harris and Nelson were slated to cap off a full weekend of performances by traditional bluegrass bands and insurgent country stars. Sure, the motorcycle madmen were out in force to make the usual free concert fruit loops ill at ease, but my sights were so set on surviving the day that I brushed aside all distractions. That is, until I watched the audience itself become the act.
My party marched through the lush landscape of beached hippies and picnic baskets toward our postage stamp of a quilt. When we arrived at our placeholder, the lead singer of Hot Rize, a Colorado-based bluegrass ensemble, informed the crowd, mid-set, that his group intended to play some gospel-tinged fare but not to worry: They would refrain from churning out old Christian standards that might impose any heavy-handed guilt on audience members who could take offense. Huzzahs erupted from the hazy sea of bobbing heads and bodies. I snorted in disgust and tripped over a baby stroller, dropped my cup of bourbon, and nearly wiped out a small band of toddlers.
Good Lord, I thought from my new perch in the patchy grass, do these people, these graying earth mothers, crunchy trial lawyers, and noodle-hipped college students really support a cheery separation of church and old-time country music? It’s an open secret that many agnostics and hardened atheists lose their unbelief if they couldn’t put on Hank Williams’
“I Saw the Light” behind closed doors.
Of course, there is such a thing as secular bluegrass. It’s often crap tossed off by goateed 30 year olds in Birkenstocks, but many of the God-free variations on the old-time and bluegrass genres are no less authentic than the traditionally mordant Jonathan Edwards-meets-RC Cola vein. Still, to strip a decidedly non-secular bluegrass performance of references to Satan, shame, and gnashing of teeth just to stretch smiles across the faces of the assembled pagans is an absurd act.
Seeing as some well-to-do liberals pay lip service to preserving in purest condition what they deem legitimate cultural artifacts, it is even more ridiculous that so many in the audience of 75,000 greeted this disappointing PC concession with applause. Judging by the scene at the festival, too many of the outspoken yuppie faithful enjoy bluegrass music because, like salsa, reggae, and other forms of music indigenous to particular cultures, it is perceived as a good time and also an earnest populist product representative of a simpler way of life. Bluegrass must inhabit a figment of the yuppie imagination where Appalachia’s illiteracy woes and criminal levels of poverty are polished to a warm glow by the timeless warbling of quaint old souls and their dutiful contemporaries. Nuggets of folksy wisdom and bittersweet heartbreak may ease the strain of that rugged morning commute to Silicon Valley, but the good times pill gets a little harder to swallow as soon as one of those old souls starts prattling on about a hussy named Eve or a day of reckoning.
What these people crave are danceable whiffs of old-time tradition, whether administered by city kids with cowboy hats or graybeards from the hills, that approximate the vaguely gothic quality they associate with expressions of an angry god, but still steer the focus from the god itself. For the fans, it is a slippery slope indeed. It reminds me of a vegetarian friend who savors the smell of bacon cooking but won’t partake of the smoky flavor, delicate crunch, and heady calories to render the experience complete. Furthermore, it’s really distressing that even lauded bluegrass traditionalists are willing to sanitize their material of vital spiritual and cultural elements to placate the political concerns of some squirrelly Californians.
I finally snapped out of this malaise when I saw Willie Nelson standing on the bright stage 50 feet away, singing a beautiful rendition of “Blue Skies” and nonchalantly picking out a sweet, repetitive lick on his weathered classical guitar. Mr. Nelson finished his set as darkness began to fall and left with a practiced wave, a move that spurred one onlooker to shout “Willie for Governor!” at the top of his lungs.
No on the recall, yes on Willie might have had a nice ring to it, I thought, pouring myself another bourbon. Soon, Emmylou Harris took the stage in a gauzy gown to the opening strains of “Sin City.” One large bearded lunatic clad in a flowing, cross-emblazoned robe leap to his feet and began to swing his arms wildly. Two yapping dogs scurried about his ankles. Smiling, I took a picture and turned back to watch the show. Now, what sort of mayor would Emmylou make?