Fifteen years after a comment from Bob Dylan inspired the creation of Farm Aid, the reason for doing the benefit concert remains the same, says Willie Nelson, co-founder of the initiative with John Mellencamp and Neil Young.
Appearing in 1985 at Live Aid, a concert to end world hunger, Dylan remarked that a similar effort ought to be mounted to help American farmers. Today, family farmers in the U.S. continue to face a crisis. At the end of World War II, according to information supplied by Farm Aid, there were 6 million small farms in this country. Today the number has dwindled to 1.9 million. “It was bad when we started,” Nelson said in an interview earlier this year with country.com. “It’s worse now.”
Farm Aid works with and for American family farmers, to help them maintain their livelihoods in the face of unfavorable government farm policies and overproduction of food by large, corporate factory farms.
The most visible of Farm Aid’s efforts is the Farm Aid benefit concert. This year’s event takes place Sunday (Sept. 17) at the Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, Va., just outside the nation’s capital. Hosted by Billy Block from CMT’s Western Beat, the show airs on CMT from 2-10 p.m. ET. As always, the Farm Aid benefit features an impressively eclectic lineup, this year including Alan Jackson, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, blues artist Shannon Curfman, Brazilian guitarist and singer Badi Asaad, folksinger Arlo Guthrie, Barenaked Ladies and more. The diverse group of artists reflects widespread devotion to the cause and draws a diverse audience to the concert.
Sawyer Brown will make their fourth Farm Aid appearance this weekend, and keyboardist Greg “Hobie” Hubbard looks forward to it. “It’s amazing, the crowds are at a peak absolutely every year,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “It’s overwhelming to think that there are that many people so eager to support the cause. And last year, you couldn’t have asked for a greater audience for the types of music they heard. It was some serious music! The fans respect that the artists are there to help a cause, so regardless of the musical tastes of the crowd, they hang in there with all of it, and that’s really cool to see.”
Though subject to change, a lineup for the early part of the day includes performances by Texas-based singer-songwriter Pat Green, Assad, Curfman, Guthrie, Sawyer Brown (about to release a live album), the roots-based North Mississippi Allstars, Travis Tritt (whose Down the Road I Go comes out Oct. 3) and Alan Jackson (who also has a new title on the way).
As day gives way to night, look for Barenaked Ladies (whose new album, Maroon, has just been released), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, an unannounced surprise guest and, in separate sets, hosts Mellencamp, Young and Nelson.
Many artists participating in the yearly concert remain active on behalf of farmers throughout the year. Hubbard has seen it happen within his own band. Lead singer Mark Miller raises cattle on his farm just outside Nashville. Last summer, during severe droughts that affected farming communities across the country, he stepped in to help.
“Mark and his brother were lucky enough to have more hay than they needed to feed their own livestock,” relates Hubbard. “So when the bad droughts came and left some farmers without any hay to feed their stock, they ended up sending some of their hay to some farmers in Texas and the Midwest to help out.
“That’s one of the coolest things in the farming and ranching industries, that sense of helping each other out,” he continues. “That’s something that gets lost in the shuffle of all this. These people are not only trying to help themselves, but they’re willing to pull for somebody else, too. You don’t see that a lot in the business world.”
That teamwork will be important during this election year, when the political stakes are higher. Nelson has invited presidential candidates George W. Bush, Al Gore, Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader, as well as congressional representatives, to attend Farm Aid and listen to farmers share their concerns and grievances. Tipper Gore is coming to listen to the farmers and to appear on stage with Nelson during his live performance. After 15 years of limited legislative success, Nelson remains cautiously optimistic about the prospects for change.
“I get a lot of letters from a lot of farmers, people who have lost their farms, people who have tried to help other people,” he notes. “There’s a big fight going on out there, a big war between the large and the small. There is so much opposition to family farmers and the raw producers of all kinds in this country that it’s been impossible so far to get any kind of legislation that’s really going to help the farmer.”
He’s not giving up, however. Last month, Nelson released an open letter to Americans, calling for voters to join the team effort and take their support of family farmers to the polls in November.
“I would urge the voters and the candidates,” he wrote, “that while we are including everyone in the new millennium government, and while we are planning on leaving no one behind, let’s remember not to leave the small Family Farmer behind, because I believe that they are, and always will be, the backbone of this country. I would think that whoever comes forth and supports a new farm bill could certainly make some friends with the Family Farmers this election year.”
Hubbard agrees that the election could make a big difference for farmers. “This is the heartland vote,” he points out. “Regardless of political party, this is a national issue. It’s hard to get people to give money when they have so little to begin with, but I truly believe that this is a cause that affects every single person, because it is about our nation’s food supply.
“If you ever see Willie talk about these matters, you can see he has a very real passion. For all of his laid-back style, he is so incredibly knowledgeable about the farm bills. It’s not a once-a-year thing for him. From the head down, I think there’s genuine compassion and concern that something can be done.”
So as Nelson, Young, Mellencamp and their musical guests take the stage on Sunday, a very serious concern will give way to a celebration of the whole team — artist, farmer and music fan — and the cause.
Hubbard promises that the combination will be exhilarating. “We just want to have high energy and a great time out there. That’s really what it’s about,” he says. “People just want to hear what it is that you do, to put your passion for your music out there for the cause. You can just sit there and listen, and you can tell that everybody is genuinely into being there. That makes for great performances.”