Hardly Strictly headliners honor John Prine, Grateful Dead

While San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is generally a mellow and joyous affair, the festival set aside time on Sunday to mourn the passing of those lost over the past few years. Among others, the “Fare Thee Well” celebration honored folk legend John Prine, festival benefactor Nancy Bechtle and alternative country scion Justin Townes Earle.

A Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner beloved by everyone from Brandi Carlile to Bob Dylan, John Prine is considered one of the greatest American songwriters of his generation. Prine died due to complications of COVID-19 during the very early days of the pandemic. As this was the first Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival to take place since the onset of the pandemic, it was an apt time to honor Prine, Bechtle, Earle and anyone else who passed during the past two and a half years. 

Country musician Steve Earle, Justin Townes Earle’s father, was the main performer during the tribute, but he was joined throughout the set by other artists, including two of the festival’s headliners. 

Emmylou Harris, who would perform her own headlining set later in the day, was the first superstar to take the stage for the tribute. Harris performed a song written by Nancy Bechtle, the philanthropist known as the face of the Hardly Strictly who died last year. Bechtle’s brother Warren Hellman founded the festival in 2001 and Bechtle was a constant presence at Hardly Strictly throughout the years. 

Emmylou Harris was also a frequent collaborator with John Prine. 

Elvis Costello, coming off a main stage set at the festival on Saturday, was the second festival headliner to make an appearance at the tribute. While he also wanted to honor Prine, Costello admitted that every time he plays a a Prine song, “it just sounds like John Prine karaoke.”

Elvis Costello performs on the Towers of Gold Stage at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. 

Chris Partin/Special to SFGATE

Instead, Costello played “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead, in addition to covering several Dead songs during his Saturday set. Hearing a song from the local legends was a treat for the San Francisco crowd, many of whom were already dressed in Dead apparel. “Brokedown Palace” also features the “Fare thee well” lyric for which the tribute was named.

The final song of the set was dedicated by Steve Earle to his late son Justin Townes Earle.

Like his father, Justin Townes Earle was a respected name in folk music, winning Best New & Emerging Artist of the Year at the 2009 Americana Music Awards. 

Earle died in August of 2020 from an accidental overdose. 

“When we lose children, our pain is their legacy. It’s supposed to hurt,” the elder Earle told the crowd on Sunday.

Steve Earle performs at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. 

Steve Earle performs at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. 

Chris Partin/Special to SFGATE

Steve Earle played a cover of his son’s song, “Harlem Street Blues.” 

The lyrics to “Harlem Street Blues” are acutely haunting given Townes Earle’s tragic fate:

“Tell my mama I love her, tell my father I tried
Give my money to my baby to spend

“’Cause Lord, I’m goin’ uptown to the Harlem River to drown
Dirty water gonna cover me over
And I’m not gonna make a sound” 

After the tribute, one of the festival MCs came out to declare, “That may have been the most incredible hour and a half in my 20 years at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.”

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