With hearts still heavy and anxiety high in the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks on America, Farm Aid 2001 took on a more nationalistic tone, though organizers Willie Nelson , John Mellencamp and Neil Young were still adamant about farmers’ urgent needs.
"It’s hard to focus on it this time because of so many other things that have happened that are tragic," Young said during his set, "but we’ve been fighting this battle for a long time."
The day-long concert, renamed Farm Aid 2001: A Concert for America, took place Saturday (Sept. 29) at Verizon Wireless Music Center in Noblesville, Ind., just north of Indianapolis, before a sold-out crowd.
"Now I’m gonna introduce a great American to do a great song, and we’re gonna help him out," Nelson said at the outset of the six-hour portion of the concert telecast live on CMT. Arlo Guthrie took the stage to sing his father Woody’s classic, "This Land Is Your Land"
Many in the audience held up American flags — some real, some printed on paper. American flags also formed the stage backdrop, along with an image of a farmer and a child on a tractor. Nelson, Mellencamp, Young, Martina McBride , Dave Matthews and members of the Doobie Brothers were among those who joined Guthrie as he kicked off the proceedings.
McBride grew up on a Kansas wheat farm and has appeared at Farm Aid four times. Nelson praised her for her ongoing support of the cause as he brought her on for an afternoon set. McBride entertained the crowd — including the throng on the sun-drenched lawn — for the better part of an hour. Her program impressed the Indiana audience and included "It’s My Time," a cover of "I Can See Clearly Now," "Wild Angels" and "I Love You." The crowd especially responded to McBride’s vocal fireworks on "Broken Wing."
Before closing with "Independence Day," McBride spoke to the crowd about the day. "With everything that’s been going on in this country, I feel, for the first time in my life, what it really means to be an American," she said. "I’m so proud of the way that we are all standing together, united and helping each other through this incredibly difficult time, and I’m so proud of you all for coming out here today and helping our farmers, because they are the heart of America. We need ’em and we love ’em."
Nelson has said in the past, "it’s a black eye on America … that we’ve not taken care of our small family farmers." This year, artists and speakers were expected to encourage the Noblesville crowd and viewers at home to support an overhaul of a program that sends half the nation’s federal farm subsidies to only 8 percent of its farmers.
But in light of recent events in the U.S., the tone of Saturday’s program was more muted than some have been in the past. "Farmers don’t really want to get up there and complain about what’s wrong with our country’s farm policy," Jim Hoyer, farm policy coordinator for the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, told The Indianapolis Star. "I think everybody wants to work together and stand in solidarity against the terrorists’ attacks."
At one point, Young sported a ball cap that read "FDNY," the emblem of New York firefighters. "I just made a new friend backstage," he said. “"Jim Lenox from Ladder 37 of FDNY is here, taking his first day off. He’s been there since the first day."
Collaborating with his longtime band Crazy Horse, Young performed a rousing, electrifying set that included "Don’t Cry No Tears," "Love and Only Love" and "Rockin’ in the Free World." Young wore a "Stop Factory Farms" T-shirt and said American family farmers are being undercut by big business.
Young introduced Matthews as "our newest member of Farm Aid Board of Directors." Playing solo, Matthews dipped into his latest release, Everyday. "I gotta try this song just ’cause I’m scared to do it, so I gotta try this song," he said before "I Did It." He also went back into his band’s repertoire for "Satellite." Mickey Raphael, from Nelson’s band, played harmonica with Matthews on Bob Dylan’s "All Along the Watchtower."
Playing to a hometown audience, Mellencamp and his band delivered ’80s heartland anthems "Jack and Diane," "Small Town," "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." and "Pink Houses," among others. Between songs, the crowd of 24,000 chanted "U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A." "As far as this band is concerned," Mellencamp told his captive listeners, "all we wanted to do tonight is try to entertain you guys and maybe make your day a little nicer."
The Doobie Brothers, including founding members Patrick Simmons and Tom Johnston, did a short afternoon set that included "China Grove," "Black Water" and "Long Train Runnin’."
Farm Aid started in September 1985 with a concert in Champaign, Ill. Just 21 days after coming up with the idea of helping America’s family farmers, Nelson had enlisted Mellencamp, Young and John Conlee to join him in the cause. The first concert played to 92,000 people. Among the 54 artists who helped were Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Loretta Lynn , Roy Orbison and Tom Petty.
In addition to this year’s hosts and high-profile main acts, the event also included performances by North Carolina’s Acoustic Syndicate, Jimmy Reyser, alternative country favorite Chris Knight, blues artist Susan Tedeschi, Chicago-based singer-songwriter Alice Peacock and Kory & the Fireflies from South Dakota.
During the telecast, viewers were urged to contribute to the Fund for World Trade Center Green Market Farmers set up to help relocate five farmers’ markets in lower Manhattan shut down by the terrorist bombings on Sept. 11.
Also during the event, Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), accepted a $25,000 check on behalf of New York workers experiencing hardships as a result of the attack. Clear Channel Entertainment and the Verizon Wireless Music Center donated the money. Patchwork Family Farms of Missouri and Farm Aid are donating 5,000 pounds of meat to the relief effort. The truckload of food is expected to reach the New York City Central Labor Council’s Support Center on Tuesday (Oct. 2).
Headlining the concert, Nelson performed a medley of his signature songs: "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Night Life" and "Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys." Tedeschi took lead vocals on "Crazy," and the entire cast of Farm Aid 2001 joined Nelson on the concert-closing gospel classics "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "Amazing Grace."
Michael Gray contributed to this story.