by Scott Waltman
Willie Nelson will step onto the stage tonight at the Brown County Fair as an undisputed legend of American music who has released more than 200 albums, 15 of which have topped the charts.
He’s a seven-time Grammy winner and a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
He’s the writer of Patsy Cline’s smash “Crazy” as well as many of his own hits, including “On the Road Again” and “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time.”
He’s sold more than 40 million albums in his home country alone.
He’s recorded with Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Paul Simon, Sinead O’Connor, Johnny Cash, Ray Price, Waylon Jennings, Wynton Marsalis, Norah Jones, Snoop Dogg, Sheryl Crow and countless others.
He’s sold Bibles, spent a stretch in the Air Force and been in trouble with the law for failure to pay taxes and lay off marijuana.
He’s a fifth-degree black belt in the martial art of GongKwon Yusu and sometimes lives in a green community in Hawaii in a home that gets its energy from solar panels.
And he’s a vocal advocate of rural America, family farms and biofuels, issues that bind him to the residents of the corn-covered Dakota prairies almost as much as his iconic music.
Chuck Beck, director of communications for the Sioux Falls-based American Collation for Ethanol, said it’s nice for the biofuel and ethanol industry to have a proponent as popular as Nelson.
“It’s very helpful when you have advocates like Willie Nelson who have a broad stage and are well-known throughout the world and can talk about their (support) of biofuels,” Beck said.
The ethanol industry would like to expand in southern markets, in places such as Texas, Alabama and Louisiana, where country music is king. Nelson’s chatter about biofuels could be a boon to that endeavor, Beck said.
In 2012, under an agreement between Nelson and Pacific Biodiesel, a biofuel called BioWillie was made available at a retail pump in Maui, Hawaii. A previous Nelson-themed biofuel endeavor wasn’t particularly successful, but it didn’t cool Nelson’s support.
“Biodiesel seems to answer a lot of our prayers,” Nelson wrote in his 2007 book “On the Clean Road Again: Biodiesel and the Future of the Family Farm.”
“Not only can it help the U.S. economy, our unwanted dependence on foreign oil and the gasping environment, it could also help the family farmers out of this tragic dilemma they have found themselves in through no fault of their own,” he wrote.
“We hope his endorsement doesn’t go up in smoke,” Beck quipped.
Ah, yes. Consider that an acknowledgement of Nelson’s vocal support of the legalization of marijuana — a cash crop, of sorts.
While South Dakota will likely be one of the last states to ease marijuana laws, 21 states and the District of Columbia have, as of April 22, legalized pot in some way, mostly for medical use, according to the websitegoverning.com. It reports that Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana for both medical and recreational use.
Not a big drinker nowadays, Nelson doesn’t hide the fact that he regularly smokes marijuana.
“Cigarettes killed my mother, my dad, half my family, so don’t tell me about health when you’re talking about legalizing marijuana, because it’s not dangerous health-wise. I’m the canary in the mine, and I’m still healthy. Had I stayed with alcohol, I would have been dead or in prison somewhere today,” he said in a 2012 story published in The Guardian.
Nelson is also commonly quoted talking about the health benefits of medical marijuana and how legalizing pot could be a revenue stream for the government.
That might not be the type of talk that will garner tons of favor with South Dakota farmers and ranchers. But as a founder of Farm Aid, Nelson’s ag credibility is safe. And it’s not lost on ag-industry organizations.
Mike Traxinger, a Claremont-area native, is the corporate attorney for the Aberdeen-based Wheat Growers cooperative. He’s previously worked for South Dakota Farmers Union and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is a fifth-generation South Dakotan.
Given Brown County’s strong history of farming, it’s nice that the fair’s featured performer is an advocate of family farms and rural issues, Traxinger said.
His new job has given Traxinger the chance to return to the family farm. Without events like Farm Aid, that’s an opportunity that might not be available to many people, he said.
Traxinger said he might go to tonight’s concert. He said his parents, who farm near Houghton, are going.
Nelson appeals to multiple generations of music fans, many of whom make their living on the farms that feed the nation, Traxinger said.
That’s a point that doesn’t seem lost on Nelson, who also understands the importance of agriculture beyond rural states like South Dakota.
“The fight to save family farms isn’t just about farmers,” Nelson is quoted as saying on the Farm Aid website. “It’s about making sure there is a safe and healthy food supply for all of us. It’s about jobs, from Main Street to Wall Street. It’s about a better America.”
States that have legalized marijuana in some measure:
• New Hampshire
• New Jersey
• New Mexico
• New York
• Rhode Island