Farm Aid ’97

The Show Must Go on, and Did!

The show must go on! But this one almost didn’t. Fortunately, like a desperately needed rain shower on a dying crop, Farm Aid ’97 resulted in a storm of success.

Only weeks before the annual festival, perhaps best known for its star-studded lineup of across-the-board musical talent, the event, originally slated for Dallas, Texas, was regretfully cancelled. The ticket sales just weren’t there, and it seemed that the enthusiasm that had been present throughout the twelve previous shows wasn’t there either.

It was Farm Aid founder and music icon Willie Nelson, along with co-founders Neil Young and John Mellencamp, who was forced to call the dreaded shot. It didn’t take long, however, for Nelson’s shot to ricochet throughout both the entertainment and family farm communities. Folks began to bounce back with the same enthusiasm that, in the very beginning, made Farm Aid much more than simply a show of music, but even more so, a show of heart and support for our fellowman.

“We were planning on doing it in Dallas,” Nelson told, “but that market had just been saturated I guess. Sales were low and it looked like we were going to wind up losing money. So I regretfully cancelled and that was a hard thing to do. But then within 24 hours, Jam Productions came through, and there was another group of folks that still wanted to have Farm Aid, too. They came to our rescue and it’s great that they did, because we were headed for the cellar.”

As miracles began to happen, and a strong farming community in Chicago, Illinois began to open its arms, Farm Aid ’97 was back in gear. The gears not only shifted, but shifted into overdrive. The day-long spectacular, telecast live on TNN, resulted in a 30,000-plus, sold-out crowd that packed the New World Music Theatre.

This year’s talent lineup was a packed-house as well–featuring perhaps one of the most phenomenal one’s yet. Teaming up with Nelson, Young and Mellencamp were such music greats as John Fogerty, the Dave Matthews Band, Steve Earle, Billy Ray Cyrus, the Allman Brothers, Beck (the rocker who surprised us all with his pure-country-driven performance featuring his yodeling talent and even a country duet with Nelson called “Pickin’ Peaches”), Dean Miller, Mary Cutrufello and Chris Knight. They rocked with spirit and soul; they rolled out music classics; and they turned this hillside of music-loving fanatics into a roaring machine of screams and applause.

Other celebrities enlisted to help the cause included Marty Stuart, Don Johnson of TV’s Nash Bridges and K.T. Oslin. The star-studded list of supporters also featured other personalites like Alan Jackson, Rosie O’Donnell, Tim McGraw, Ricky Van Shelton, Trace Adkins, Kathy Mattea, Emmylou Harris, Diamond Rio, John Anderson, Darrell Waltrip, Gary Allan and Little Jimmy Dickens, all of whom appeared in special Farm Aid moments to promote the event.

Undoubtedly, Chicago was the place to be on Saturday, October 4th.

“Chicago just feels great because you’ve got both the city and the country here,” Nelson explained. “There’s a whole lot of farmers in Illinois and a lot of people, in some way, dependent upon those farmers. We all eat,” he admitted, “and with that respect I think Chicago is great to have all those people here who will come out and support what they know because they live right next to the farm. I also think they are more aware of the situation that’s going on in the farm industry.”

The first Farm Aid was organized back in 1985 and its founders never imagined that it would still be around twelve years later. Both the artists and the farmers who were involved believed that if enough people were made aware of the difficulties and traumas confronting rural America, the problem would be solved. Unfortunately, those problems have not been solved. Severe weather, harmful farm policies and the incredible rise of factory farms with their chemical overkill have combined to force thousands of farmers to the brink of foreclosure.

While there’s reason to celebrate such unyielding spirit from those who truly feel that change is always possible, despite whatever struggle or experience necessary, it’s still sad to know that it takes a benefit concert such as Farm Aid to make people focus on the problems at hand. Regardless of how great the talent lineup is, and it obviously was this year, or what a fabulous show Farm Aid has proven to be throughout previous years, it’s still not all about the music. It’s about our future.

“It’s unfortunate that we ever had to do the first one,” said Nelson about organizing the first Farm Aid concert. “It’s sort of a black eye on our country that we’ve turned our backs on the small family farmers who built this country, and who fed us for decade after decade after decade with healthy food. They took care of the land because they loved the land. They ate the food that they grew, fed it to their families and drank the water from the well. It’s important to keep those people that are left on their land and help encourage other people to go back to the land. Someone has to take care of it and there’s no one who will do it better than the small family farmer.”

Since 1985 when the first Farm Aid was held, ironically in Illinois, more than 250,000 farms in the United States have folded due to such catastrophies–an average of 500 farm losses each week. Also since 1985, Farm Aid has reeled in more than $14 million for over 100 farm organizations, hotlines, churches and service agencies in over 40 states to help the struggling American farmer. As Nelson, in addition to several other family farm representatives point out, the goal of the Farm Aid organization was not designed to create something new. People were already helping each other. They simply needed more help, and today’s farmers still do.

“I think more and more people are knowing about it,” admits Nelson. “I’ve been involved in this for 12 years, and I knew about the environmental problems back then. I’m just glad to see today that all the environmental agencies in the area and all around are also very concerned about who plants our food.”

As in year’s past, each individual in this year’s talent lineup has that genuine concern about our family farms and the future they impact. Nelson will quickly vouch for that and explains that’s why entertainers and the farmers across the country have such a unique tie.

This farming couple from Oklahoma has supported Farm Aid for years
“There are certain folks out there who are so aware of what’s going on,” Nelson proclaimed. “They travel up and down the highways every day. No one knows more about what’s going on across the country than a band. They’re out there every night talking to folks, whether they’re farmers, ranchers or whatever. They knew about this situation maybe even before I did. So when they were first called on to come and help, they came by the hundreds.”

They came again this year, too, with a deep desire to entertain people like never before, but to also make them aware of what Farm Aid has always been, still is and hopefully will continue to be about–tomorrow.