When they helped organize the first Farm Aid concert in 1985, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp had no idea they’d still be hosting the annual event more than two decades later. Kenny Chesney and Jamey Johnson were just two of the musical guests when Farm Aid 2008 took place Saturday (Sept. 2) at the Comcast Center near Boston.
“The first year, I thought, ’We’ve put on a show. A lot of people came and the word is out, so no more problems,'” Nelson told CMT Insider during Saturday’s concert. “And, of course, here we are 23 years later.”
Nelson, Mellencamp and Neil Young founded the Farm Aid organization to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on their land. Dave Matthews joined them on the Farm Aid board of directors in 2001.
“I think we all believe the same things that we believed 23 years ago,” Mellencamp said. “Did we think we would still be doing this 23 years later? I don’t think we had a clue. I don’t think any of us had enough vision to think about that.”
At this point, Mellencamp says he, Nelson, Young and Matthews routinely schedule a time each year for the Farm Aid concert.
“We’ve raised something like $40 million and helped a lot of people in crisis, and I think a lot of information has been exchanged,” he said. “Willie deals with it every day on where the money goes. And so, yeah, I think we’ve helped a lot of people.”
Even today, Nelson says the plight of the American farmer is overshadowed by other stories covered by the news media.
“It’s always hard to get the word out because there’s always so many stories that seem to get on the tube a little quicker than the old farmers,” Nelson said. “We’ve all known for a long time they need help, but they kind of get put on the backburner. … It’s the farm and the small family farmer that’s the backbone of our whole economy.”
The number of family-operated farms continues to decline each year.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, we used to have 50 million, 60 million,” Nelson said. “Now we’re down to less than 2 million, 3 million, losing hundreds every week. And when that happened, the bottom rung on that economic ladder collapsed, and everything fell in from the top because our agriculture went to hell and we didn’t take care of our family farmers. So when five family farmers go out of business in an area, one business in that town goes under. So it’s a domino effect. That’s why all these towns out in the countryside … are empty. All these places where there used to be great farms, all the people had to move into town because the farmer didn’t make it. We just need to put the farmer back on the land, and that will be a good first step to bringing our economy back.”
This year’s Farm Aid event called attention to the message while offering a day of exceptional music provided by the organization’s four board members, along with Steve Earle, Jerry Lee Lewis, One Flew South, the Pretenders, Arlo Guthrie and others. Chesney, who co-produced Nelson’s recent album, Moment of Forever, was joined onstage by the Country Music Hall of Fame member to help sing “Ten With a Two” and “The Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning.”
Saturday marked Jamey Johnson’s first visit to Farm Aid.
“I’ve seen clips of it here and there, but I’ve never even been to a concert,” he said. “I was wondering, ’How long am I going to be in country music and not go to Farm Aid?’ It seemed like one of those things I needed to do — whether I was playing it or not. And then out of nowhere, this year, the opportunity came up. They said, ’You wanna go do a set at Farm Aid?’ And I was like, ’Well, yeah. Who wouldn’t?'”
Johnson says he was honored to be there.
“Willie’s a statesman to the country — not just a musician,” he said. “His music is important, but his character is important. It’s the trait of the old great American cowboy that needs to be passed down more in this country. It’s honesty. It’s integrity and respect for one another and love and compassion, and it’s everything that’s good about life.”
Johnson hopes to attend more Farm Aid concerts in the future.
“Farm Aid is something I’m going to look forward to every year,” he said. “I’m not saying I demand to be invited back or anything like that at all. I love this organization. I’m gonna keep reading about it and keep learning more about it. We have the same heart for the American farmer, so I’m going to keep coming back and checking it out.”
Editor’s note: CMT Insider producer Terry Bumgarner conducted the interviews used in this story.