Bristow, Va. — Farm Aid founders Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, along with a host of their musical friends, used this year’s event to remind politicians, corporations and citizens that the music is fading fast in America’s heartland as farmers fight to stay in business.
Held at the Nissan Pavilion, an amphitheater outside Washington, D.C., the nearly nine-hour marathon drew some 25,000 fans, who rocked the day away under a beautiful, sunny sky that gave way to a cloudless night. Host Nelson took the stage late in the evening, kicking off his set with his customary opener, “Whiskey River.” He rolled through “On the Road Again,” “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” and “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)” as family farmers danced in the audience holding signs that read “Thank You, Willie.” Despite the somber cause behind the benefit, the crowd seemed jubilant during Nelson’s performance, singing along and cheering wildly.
Nelson ended the televised portion of the show, broadcast live by CMT from 2-10:30 p.m. ET, with an all-star sing-along on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Tipper Gore, wife of presidential hopeful Vice President Al Gore joined Nelson on stage to play bongo drums. Nelson introduced her as a member of his band. When the broadcast ended, Nelson stayed on stage to play several more songs for die-hard fans who showed no signs of wanting to leave.
The day’s fun extended outside the venue. Perfect weather lured concertgoers to plaza areas where a street party of sorts celebrated Farm Aid 2000. The scent of hot dogs and cinnamon nuts filled the air as concessionaires sold snacks alongside radio station trucks and farm organization booths. At the CMT Truck crew members enticed hundreds of fans with T-shirts and other CMT items.
Along with Nelson, Alan Jackson, Sawyer Brown and Travis Tritt represented country music on the eclectic, 15-act bill. CMA nominee Jackson met an enthusiastic, cross-generational crowd eager to hear all the acts in the diverse lineup. The lanky Georgian stayed with the familiar, from old favorites such as “Chattahoochee” and “Summertime Blues” to more recent hits like “The Blues Man,” “Pop a Top” and “Little Man.”
“Glad to be at Farm Aid. It’s our first year,” Tritt — also from Georgia and descended from a farming family — told the crowd as he began his 20-minute set. “We’ve been trying to get to this thing for years.” His performance included two songs — “Best of Intentions” and “Southbound Train” — from his upcoming album, Down the Road I Go.
Sawyer Brown made their fourth appearance at Farm Aid. Frontman Mark Miller gyrated through a string of the veteran band’s hits. Backstage after the set, keyboardist “Hobie” Hubbard told country.com that he strongly supports the cause and likes being part of an eclectic lineup.
“I think the cool part about it is you see all types of music,” Hubbard said. “Those kids up there now, North Mississippi Allstars and Shannon Curfman, to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, you’ve got the full range of musical spectrums there. I enjoy that.”
Reflecting Farm Aid’s expanding scope, Brazilian singer and guitarist Badi Assad became the first international artist to play the event. Performing with her small group, Badi Assad Menagerie, she played flowing and exotic music based on the pop and folk traditions of her country. Earlier, Assad told reporters that farmers in her homeland also face economic difficulties, “which is why I am happy to be here to support family farmers.”
The North Mississippi Allstars, brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson and bassist Chris Chew, played some of the most interesting and creative music of the day. Rooted in the groove-based blues of their native state, the group’s repertoire draws from legends of the genre including Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Their eclectic sound hardly fits the constraints of a single label, however.
Working a different blues strain, 15-year-old blues prodigy Curfman wowed the crowd with her full-grown voice and impressive guitar skills. She shared the early part of the day with polka king Jimmy Sturr and Texas singer-songwriter Pat Green, among others.
Making his seventh Farm Aid appearance, Arlo Guthrie played a short acoustic set with members of his family. He showcased a smoky version of the blues classic “St. James Infirmary,” as well as renditions of “Coming in to Los Angeles” and “City of New Orleans.”
Canadian pop band Barenaked Ladies drew raves. With the catchy hit “One Week” and spiffy dance moves, the group had complete and utter control of the crowd from the beginning of their set. Gore arrived early enough to sneak into one of the first rows to catch the band’s set before appearing with Nelson. While Secret Service agents lurked nearby, she rocked out during a few tunes including the hilarious closing rap medley of songs from Eminem, Britney Spears, Will Smith, Celine Dion and Cher. The band also managed to work a few Farm Aid-related lyrics and the 1-800-Farm Aid telephone number into the song.
During a pre-concert press conference, artists and sponsors joined Young and Nelson to remind members of the media that the 15-year-old Farm Aid message goes beyond the festivities of the concert event. “[In 1985] Willie, Neil Young and John Mellencamp began what they thought would be a one-time fundraiser to solve the problems of farm country,” noted Carolyn Mugar, Farm Aid Executive Director. “Little did they know that 15 years later they would stand before you with an even more urgent crisis than the one that started it all.”
Wearing a red “Stop Factory Farms” T-shirt, Young clearly had Farm Aid’s central message on his mind. Known to Farm Aid audiences for his insistent and direct pleas for support, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member was no different at Farm Aid 2000. On this occasion, however, Young entreated the crowd and television viewers not only to support Farm Aid with financial resources, but also with their vote.
“You have to have a choice,” said Young. “If you think there’s nothing you can do, you’re wrong. We can’t wait forever to change things … if you have $1,000, we love you. If you’ve got $10, we love you. If you’ve got $5, we’re ready for you. Please support family farmers. We need money. You can’t send too much money.”
Playing a brown Gibson Les Paul guitar, and supported by his Stray Gators band including Ben Keith, Jim Keltner, Donald “Duck” Dunn and Spooner Oldham, Young wailed with voice and instrument on songs such as “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” and “Motorcycle Mama.” After nearly 35 years as a major rock music influence, the “Grandfather of Grunge” showed no signs of slowing down, electrifying the audience with his ragged vocal delivery and ripping guitar licks.
Switching gears entirely, Mellencamp took the stage for a rather mellow acoustic set in keeping with the recent unannounced acoustic shows he has done in cities across the country. Introduced by Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Mellencamp had only a guitarist, fiddler and Dobro player onstage with him. He said little to the crowd between slightly altered — but still intense — versions of trademark hits “Small Town,” “Pink Houses” and “Rain on the Scarecrow.” He brought out ’80s teen pop queen Tiffany for a slowed-down “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First).” No one in the crowd seemed to recognize her, even when Mellencamp said, “She sure has grown up, hasn’t she?” Vocalist Greta Gaines also joined Mellencamp for a song.
Sixties pop icon Wavy Gravy evoked memories of Woodstock as he introduced Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Making their first Farm Aid appearance in 10 years, with rhythm-section backing from Dunn and Keltner, CSN&Y meshed their unmistakable harmonies on “Love the One You’re With,” “Marrakesh Express” “Helpless” and “Cinnamon Girl.” David Crosby delivered “Almost Cut My Hair,” the highlight of the set, with surprising vocal power while Stills and Young traded guitar riffs that threw the crowd into a frenzy. The performance drew the most spirited response of the day.