Farm Aid

VH1 Behind the Music
Willie Nelson
Clint Richmond

The saying “He’s generous to a fault” could have been coined for Willie Nelson.

Anyone who knew anything about Nelson over the years was aware that he was a sharing man who helped out family, old friends, and new, and sometimes strangers in need of a hand up.  He had been down plenty of times himself.  Even in the past he had often stretched his own thin income to help out when he could barely help himself or his growing family.  His newly acquired wealth only made it easier for Willie to help others.

Everyone around him admits that Willie knew very little about his own wealth, entrusting his finances to a cadre of promoters, accountants, and advisors.  And if he knew little about the financial side of his growing empire, he couldn’t have seemed to care less, often saying it only gave him the wherewithal to do his music the way he knew it should be done.

“He wants to take care of everyone.  His family and everyone else in the world,” sister Bobbie says.  “He would, too, if he could.”

Willie admits that he has a soft spot for the underdog and the downtrodden.

“Whenever anyone sees an injustice being done they have to decide either to do something or do nothing,” he says.  “Since I’m basically a troublemaker, I like to jump into things and see ‘what’s going on here’ and how I can help, what I can do.”

At this peak in his career, Willie saw a major industice going on all over America, and especially affecting a large segment of his loyal audience.  American farmers and their families were suffering in almost unnoticed silence.

By 1985, family farms were being obliterated by tee tens of thousands.  Farm commodity prices were so low that farmers could no longer pay back thier loans.  farmland values soared, as big corporations gobbled up rural real estate as fast as they could force lending institutions to foreclose on family farms.  In less than one generation, from the early 1960’s, farm population declined by two-thirds in the Great Breadbasket of the plains states.

Willie had a “sweat of the brow” kinship with this rural population. His own childhood was spent living in poverty in a farm community.  Whenever he was on tour, he witnessed firsthand the scenes of the farmers’ demise:  overalls-clad men, young and old, standing on ramshackle farmhouse porches, watching agents in white shirt and tie auctioning off their lives and livelhoods.  Willie was deeply affected.

He was much too busy at this time in his life to take on anything else, but he was determined to do something beyond simply whipping out a personal check to ease his conscience.

“I was watching a tv show called Live Aid and I heard Bob Dylan say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if some of that money stayed here in this country for our farmers?” Willie recalls.

The solution hit him.  Why not something similar to the internaitonal famine aid benefit, but staged primarily by country musicians in America’s  heartland for American farm families?

Farm Aid was born, with the slogan:  Keep America Growing! Willie was on the phone immediately calling his outlaw friends and thier outrider music contacts.

“Willie is one of those guys who doesn’t ask for things frivolously,” says Kenny Rogers about the call he received from Willie.  “When he asks for something you know it’s improtant.”

On September 22, 1985, Willie stood on a stage in the pouring rain to launch a phenomenal benefit that has been repeated for a decade and a half and raised millions of dollars for farm families.

He opened the musical extravaganza with the shout that has echoed through the farm belt ever since:  “Welcome to Farm Aid, the concert for America”!

Over the years, Farm Aid has grown from a giant concert, televised coast-to-coast, into a year-round movement.  Joined by John Mellencamp and Neil Young, Willie continues to work on their benefit by bringing in hundreds of entertainers who donate thier time, talent and money to give something back to the rural communities that raised many of them.

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