SEATTLE — Farm Aid’s annual benefit concert visited the Pacific Northwest for the first time on Saturday (Sept. 18) as Willie Nelson and his famous friends once again gave a voice — and hope — to the American family farmer.
Nelson headlined the eight and a-half hour concert at White River Amphitheater, on the Muckleshoot Reservation about 35 miles southeast of Seattle. Joining Nelson were fellow farming advocates Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews and a crop of other musicians who donated their talent to the cause. Jerry Lee Lewis, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and Trick Pony provided a country flavor to complement the newer artists’ stew of blues, pop, soul and acoustic music.
Rather than the usual choice of “Whiskey River,” Nelson opened his set with “Living in the Promiseland,” following it with a bushel of his hits, from “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” to “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Always on My Mind,” “Pancho and Lefty,” “On the Road Again” and even “Beer for My Horses.”
At a press conference earlier in the day, many of the artists spoke about the importance of Farm Aid and how they perceive the current situations facing family farmers. The hot topic of the conference was biodiesel, a fuel created from vegetable oil.
“There’s a lot of good news,” Nelson said. “Biodiesel is our way to grow ourselves out of the situation we find ourselves in. … It gives us an alternative source of energy so we don’t have to go around the world jumping on oil.” The remark was met with mighty applause from the family farmers who populated the press conference along with the reporters.
“We’re glad to be one of the folks telling you about it and hoping you spread the word,” Nelson added. “There is a light, and it’s called biodiesel.”
Both on stage and at the press conference, Young emphasized several key suggestions to helping family farmers, such as “buying with a conscience,” seeking out local and organic food and getting acquainted with nearby family farmers.
He was also quick to praise biodiesel.
“Give this stuff a try,” he said. “If you’ve got a boat, try some biodiesel in your boat. It’s perfect marine fuel. If you dump it in the water, nothing dies. If you dump it in your lawn, nothing dies.”
Then, Nelson lightened the mood: “If you back this into the garage and leave the motor running and fall asleep, you’ll just gain weight.”
Mellencamp, who lives in the small city of Bloomington, Ind., said he remembered that when Nelson called him in 1985 to take part in the first Farm Aid, communities near his own home were starting to disappear. Now, Mellencamp says, “It’s just a remnant of what America used to look like, so that’s why I’m here.”
A resident of Seattle, Matthews said that Farm Aid has “inspired and invigorated me to make this as much a part of my life, with the idea of improving our food back to where it once was or maybe even making it better than it ever has been.”
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington told the reporters agriculture is the largest employer in her state, with 37,000 farms, and that seven out of 10 of those farms have less than 100 acres. In recent years, she noted, “Farmers have fought drought, hailstorms, windstorms and unfortunately … subsidies that support large corporate farms over the small farms, and we have to change that.” Again, the room erupted in applause.
At the press conference, Earle lamented the loss of homegrown tomatoes in his hometown of Jacksonville, Texas, because the fruit had made the city regionally famous in the first place. He also recalled his grandfather’s farm there and how members of his extended family now grow Christmas trees on it just to keep from losing the property.
From the stage, however, he mainly sang about gun control (“Devil’s Right Hand”) and numerous songs about war. Like Young and Matthews, he didn’t bring his band, but he did sit in with Williams on “Concrete and Barbed Wire” and “Joy.” Williams warned the audience not to let anybody — “not even the president of the United States” — take away your joy.
Lewis played the shortest set but had folks dancing during “Great Balls of Fire,” even if it was just an excuse to warm up a little bit. With a mountain range in view and a chill in the air, lines were much longer for espresso than beer, while another popular drink was free samples of Silk Soy milk. (Nelson accepted a $100,000 from the company in the middle of the concert.)
Young singer-songwriter Kate Voegele, Memphis-fueled Kitty Jerry, progressive acoustic group Blue Merle and Canadian pop duo Tegan and Sara each performed a handful of songs early in the afternoon. Marc Broussard cancelled his performance due to illness.
Farm Aid will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2005. Organizers expect to announce a variety of special events soon to mark the occasion.