John Prine, the Grateful Dead, and their late son are honoured by Hardly Strictly Bluegrass headliners
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco is typically a laid-back and happy event, but on Sunday, the festival set aside time to remember people who had passed away in recent years. The “Fare Thee Well” celebration recognised folk great John Prine, festival supporter Nancy Bechtle, and alternative country heir Justin Townes Earle, among others.
John Prine, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner and a favourite of both Bob Dylan and Brandi Carlile, is regarded as one of the greatest American songwriters of his generation. During the very beginning of the pandemic, Prine passed away as a result of COVID-19 complications. Since this was the first Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival since the epidemic began, it was appropriate to remember Prine, Bechtle, Earle, and anyone else who passed away over the previous 2.5 years.
The main performer during the memorial was country musician Steve Earle, Justin Townes Earle’s father; however, he was joined by other musicians, including two of the festival’s headliners, during the concert.
The first famous performer to take the stage for the homage was Emmylou Harris, who would later in the day provide her own headline show. Nancy Bechtle, the philanthropist and former face of Hardly Strictly who passed away in 2017, wrote a song that Harris sang. Bechtle was a mainstay at Hardly Strictly over the years. Her brother Warren Hellman launched the festival in 2001.
John Prine and Emmylou Harris frequently collaborated.
The second festival headliner to arrive at the memorial was Elvis Costello, who had just finished a major stage performance at the festival on Saturday. Costello acknowledged that, despite his desire to pay tribute to Prine, every time he performs a song by the singer, “it just sounds like John Prine karaoke.”
Instead, during his Saturday performance, Costello played “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead in addition to a number of other Dead songs. The San Francisco crowd, many of whom were already decked out in Dead garb, found hearing a song by the local legends to be a delight. The song “Brokedown Palace” also includes the line from “Fare thee well,” which inspired the name of the tribute.
Steve Earle dedicated the last song of the set to his late son Justin Townes Earle.
Justin Townes Earle, who won Best New & Emerging Artist of the Year at the 2009 Americana Music Awards, was a well-known figure in folk music like his father.
Earle passed away after an unintentional overdose in August of 2020.
“Our suffering is their legacy when our children pass away. On Sunday, the senior Earle informed the crowd, “It’s intended to hurt.
“Harlem River Blues,” a song by Steve Earle’s son, was performed.
Given Townes Earle’s unfortunate fate, the lyrics to “Harlem River Blues” are incredibly haunting:
“Tell my mother I love her, and tell my dad I tried,”
Give my child my money to spend.
“Because Lord, I’m going upstairs to the Harlem River to drown, and I’m not going to make a sound,” the song goes.
“That may have been the most incredible hour and a half in my 20 years at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass,” one of the festival MCs remarked after the homage.
Editor’s note: The name of the song “Harlem River Blues” was changed in this article at 12:45 p.m. on October 3.