by: Thom Duffy
“They know now, after 27 years, that we weren’t kidding,” said Willie Nelson, chatting aboard his biodiesel-fueled tour bus, backstage at Farm Aid 2012 in Hershey, PA. “There really is a serious problem out there.”
The 27th annual Farm Aid concert Saturday packed the 30,000-capacity Hersheypark Stadium with a bill topped by the organization’s indefatigable foursome of artist activists — Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews.
“These artists are just like farmers; they never give up,” said Carolyn Mugar, executive director of Farm Aid, in comments that preceded a four-hour live “Farm Aid Backstage” webcast of the day. “They’re stubborn, they’re clever, they’re strategic and it’s because of them that this organization has been effective.”
Timing added even more energy to this year’s show. Young was touring with Crazy Horse for the first time in eight years. Matthews, accompanied by guitarist Tim Reynolds, was celebrating the chart-topping debut on the Billboard 200 of the Dave Matthews Band album Away From The World. And joining them on the bill was Kenny Chesney, fresh off one of his Brothers of the Sun runs with Tim McGraw, one of the hottest tours of the summer. Powerfully rounding out the day’s performances: ALO, Dale Watson,Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real, Pegi Young and the Soul Survivors,Jamey Johnson, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and Jack Johnson.
But backstage, Nelson wasn’t focused on charts or boxscore records. He talked instead about, as Grace Potter called it, “this goddamn drought.”
America’s farms have been scorched in a year marked by severe conditions. One-third of the nation’s counties, across 29 states, have received federal disaster area designation. Perhaps Nelson thought intervention by a higher authority would help; he opened Saturday’s concert by singing The Lord’s Prayer.
Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar shares a moment with Farm Aid co-founder Willie Nelson after the event’s press conference. (Photo: Ebet Roberts)
Nelson acknowledged during his tour bus interview that Farm Aid had been conceived 27 years ago as a one-off event. Thatwas during the era of the mega-benefit. On July 13, 1985, the Live Aid concerts for African famine relief were staged simultaneously in London and Philadelphia. From the stage in Philadelphia, Bob Dylansaid to the crowd: “Wouldn’t it be great if we did something for our own farmers right here in America?”
Dylan’s remark had “everything” to do with the subsequent launch of Farm Aid, Nelson recalled Saturday. “I didn’t realize there was a problem until Bob Dylan said that. Then I started talking [to farmers] and found out he was absolutely right.
“So we decided to have the first Farm Aid in Champaign, Ill. and unfortunately, we still have to do them,” said Nelson. “The mission is the same. We’re trying to get young farmers out on the land, and trying to save the ones who are out there.” Farm Aid has raised some $40 million to help keep American family farmers on their land.
In a press conference Saturday that preceded the day’s performances, Farm Aid’s fellow board members echoed Nelson.
“We were all young men when we started this,” said Mellencamp. ”We’ve helped a lot of people. I’m proud to be here every year and stand up for family farmers.”
Young also weighed in, saying “We have to convince kids that the real future of America is to be a rebel, to be a farmer. It’s a mission from God.”
Matthews later described Farm Aid’s cause as “near and dear to my heart.”
The music business star power at Farm Aid could be found backstage as well as onstage. Nelson’s manager Mark Rothbaum was spotted with Young’s manager Elliot Roberts, Matthews, Mugar and Glenda Yoder, associate director of Farm Aid.
The event is produced with Live Nation, under Geoff Gordon, president, mid-Atlantic region, and John Stevenson, director of production, mid-Atlantic region.
Touring pros from three of the nation’s top concert production firms guide the sound, look and feel of the show: John Hudleston of Upstaging Lighting; Bob Brigham of Nocturne, the video screen company; and Troy Clair of Clair Sound, the internationally renowned sound company headquartered in the small Pennsylvania town of Lititz, PA., just southeast of Hershey.
Farm Aid has established its own unique network of sponsors who support its cause including, this year: Giant Food Stores, Anvil Knitwear (which created the t-shirts with organic cotton from the Texas Organic Marketing Cooperative), Chipotle Mexican Grill, Horizon Organic, Weis Markets, Organic Valley, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, Silk Soymilk, Amy’s Kitchen, Bell & Evans Air Chilled, Martin Guitar, Messina Wildlife’s Plotsaver (a barrier system for protecting crops and gardens) and the UNFI Foundation, which promotes organic and sustainable food.
Exhibits from sponsors, farming groups and environmental organizations could be found just outside the stadium in the collection of tents called Homegrown Village, which is now a staple of the Farm Aid experience. While it began as a response to a specific crisis in the mid ’80s, Farm Aid since has been in the vanguard of the Good Food Movement, which promotes locally grown food and sustainable farming practices.Farm Aid’s supporters also are looking at ways the music industry can support America’s family farmers the other 364 days of the year. The organization has already proven with Homegrown Concessions that it can serve organic food at major events, with chili sold at this year’s Super Bowl. It has begun discussions with other venue operators about increasing the availability of family-farm-grown Homegrown Concessions at live events.
Super Bowl Goes Organic Thanks To Farm Aid
On his tour bus, Willie Nelson and his wife Annie also described their work to promote the availability and use of biodiesel in the hundreds of trucks and tour businesses that transport the nation’s concert industry through organizations including the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance.
And they discussed moving beyond the use of organic cotton for tour merchandise. Nelson says he has plans to market t-shirts, in a venture with Woody Harrelson and Ziggy Marley, manufactured abroad from industrial hemp, an agricultural cash crop that is distinctly different from the marijuana plant yet still all-but-illegal to grow in the United States.
Farm Aid now also is forging connections to other environmental issues, from climate change, linked to this summer’s drought, to water contamination from the extraction of natural gas in the process known as hydro-fracking.
Farm Aid’s musical community was much in evidence throughout the day on stage. Nelson sang with Grace Potter; Potter joined her summer tour-mate Chesney during his set; and Chesney did a duet on “Small Town” with John Mellencamp. Mellencamp introduced Young and Crazy Horse, acknowledging the other musicians were backstage eager to hear this band roar once again. Nelson came out to play with Young on “Homegrown,” his battered acoustic guitar holding its own against the electric thunder of Crazy Horse. Then Young returned the favor during Nelson’s closing rendition of “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die.”
[Thank you Billboard Magazine for such great coverage. Read entire article here.]
These two guys should write a book together: Mark Rothbaum, manager for Willie Nelson and Elliott Roberts, manager for Neil Young.