photo: Brian Bruner
by: Mike Snider
BRISTOW, Va. — Willie Nelson and his Farm Aid family still have work to do.
The 83-year-old country music legend closed an impassioned 11-hour concert here Saturday in revivalist fashion with a stage full of musicians including Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss and Dave Matthews, all singing gospel standard Amazing Grace and Hank Williams’ I Saw the Light.
This marked the 31st year of the annual benefit, which over the years has raised more than $50 million to help family farmers. With the growth of organic farming and consumer interest in the local food movement, Nelson says he has seen progress in recent years.
Now we can get (food) from our organic farmer friends next door,” Nelson said during a pre-concert press conference. “So there is good news out there. Farmers have begun to realize that we can do this.”
Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young started Farm Aid in 1985, and held the first benefit in Champaign, Il. This year’s event, held 35 miles west of Washington, D.C., drew about 20,000. Concessions included pork chop sandwiches from Missouri and shrimp and grits from North Carolina. Attendees could visit exhibits to learn how to shop for local food and how to raise it.
Among the speakers, Chris Bradshaw, founder of Washington-based Dreaming Out Loud, told how its community-run organic urban garden serves to organize neighbors and break down class, race and gender barriers. “Farm Aid brings people together,” he said.
Over the years, Nelson & Co. have harvested new artists for the shows. Country singer-songwriter Margo Price — a Farm Aid first-timer — offered a powerful, personal performance, noting that her songs Hands of Time and newly written Heart of America were inspired by her family’s loss of its farm. “It’s something I’ve always been very passionate about and I saw how it affected my family and my community,” she said.
Fellow country singer-songwriter, Sturgill Simpson, also appearing in his first Farm Aid, delivered a rocking set, supported by an energetic eight-piece band complete with horns and a synthesizer.
Two other Farm Aid newcomers, retro-soul ensemble Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats and Alabama Shakes, led by expressive front woman Brittany Howard, each cultivated updated riffs on blues, soul and rock.
Krauss played fiddle and sang with Johnson, appearing at his ninth Farm Aid, on several songs including In Color, which invokes Depression-era farm struggles, and a slowed-down version of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land.
Mellencamp performed several poignant songs including Rain On the Scarecrow, which is about banks foreclosing on farms in the 1980s. “I grew up in a small town and … I didn’t understand why these little towns were going away,” he said. “I think It was Willie who told me, ‘Follow the family farmer and you will see the future of America.’ ”
Before Nelson closed the show, Young fired off a thundering rendition of Rockin’ in the Free World. “There’s a revolution starting,” Young told the crowd. “With people like you we’re going to make it.”