TINLEY PARK, Ill. — Back when the original Farm Aid was just getting started, Kenny Chesney was only a teenager. But Sunday (Sept. 18) at the 20th anniversary concert in the Chicago suburb of Tinley Park, Ill., Chesney was all grown up and showing all 25,000 fans he was just fine. And to the fans close enough to hold up their “We Love You, Kenny” signs, he mouthed a very genuine, “Thank you.”
As expected, Chesney made no mention of the annulment of his marriage to actress Renee Zellweger, a story that made national news last week. However, he would not allow news photographers to take photos during his performance.
Chesney’s set was packed with sure things, like “Live Those Songs,” “Big Star,” “Young” and “Anything but Mine.” He dedicated “Back Where I Come From” to everybody in the audience that had grown up in the country. “I understand the importance of keeping people close to the soil, growing up like I did,” Chesney said. “When you’re from a small town, you’ve got to band together. That’s why I’m so proud to be here.”
Chesney even thanked his friend, Farm Aid co-founder John Mellencamp, for inspiring him. “Years ago, Mellencamp told me I oughta write more of my own songs,” Chesney said. “He inspired me, and I wrote this song the very next day.” The lyrics of “I Go Back” gained a new meaning after Chesney explained what gave him the push to write about Jack & Diane — years after Mellencamp himself did so.
Fans got even louder when Chesney closed his part of the Farm Aid show with “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” How else would you end the concert meant to help the family farms that actually use a John Deere?
This may have been Chesney’s first Farm Aid, but Mellencamp has been in it for the long haul, having co-founded the nonprofit organization in 1985 with Willie Nelson and Neil Young. So when it was Mellencamp’s turn to sing, he sang his message loud and clear. He was as outspoken as ever with songs about fighting authority, life and death in a small town and discrimination of all kinds. But nothing could’ve hit closer to home for the family farmers scattered throughout the crowd than Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow.” The crowd was almost silent as he sang, “The crops we grew last summer/Weren’t enough to pay the loans/Couldn’t buy the seed to plant this spring/And the farmers’ bank foreclosed.”
Mellencamp’s compassion for those farmers was obvious in the way he sang and danced across every inch of the Tweeter Center stage — even twirling his fiddle player around for a little impromptu do-si-do. Twenty years may have passed since Farm Aid began, but he still dances like he did when he was just John Cougar: snapping his fingers, chewing gum and running his fingers through his hair.
After Mellencamp’s set, Young came out to show his commitment to the cause. He said it felt good to be bringing Farm Aid back to the stage where it all began — in Illinois. And he did it with cover hits like Fats Domino’s “Walkin’ to New Orleans” and his own classic hits like the long, long version of “Southern Man.” Emmylou Harris joined him for a new song, “This Old Guitar,” written about his Martin guitar that used to belong to Hank Williams. “So we all know where this guitar has been,” he said.
At the end of the night, and well past the venue’s stated curfew, Nelson took the stage. Like he’s done a million times before, Nelson picked up his guitar with a hole strummed right through it and sang the stuff everyone could sing along with: “Whiskey River,” “On the Road Again,” “Still Is Still Moving to Me” and “Good Hearted Woman.” Since Toby Keith wasn’t around, Nelson sang “Beer for My Horses” solo and made it all his own. Harris, Arlo Guthrie and a handful of Nelson’s Navajo blood brothers joined him for the last few songs of the night.
Harris did keep a few of the headliners company during their sets, but earlier in the day she also played a six-song set of her own. When she was done, she stood up and said what was on everyone’s mind: “God Bless Willie Nelson.”
Henry, Jojo and Ringo Garza — the three brothers that make up Los Lonely Boys — started their set as fans were still filling their seats. But their brand of Tex-Mex country, rock and mesmerizing vocal harmonies had everyone stopping dead in their tracks to listen more closely.
Kathleen Edwards and Shannon Brown were also there for short, two-song performances. They didn’t have long, but both made it clear that they were raised in small towns surrounded by farms. Their lyrics reflected that, including Brown’s new single, “Corn Fed.”
Other artists appearing at this year’s Farm Aid included Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, Buddy Guy, Widespread Panic, Wilco, James McMurty, Jimmy Sturr, Kate Voegele and Susan Tedeschi.
Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar said it best when she theorized what makes this charity event such a success.
“Artists are just like farmers,” she noted. “They never give up, they’re stubborn, they’re clever and they’re strategic. And Neil, John, Willie and Dave are the most won’t-back-down guys you’ll ever know.”