Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid 2022

photo: Suzanne Codeiro

www.Billboard.com
by: Thom Duffy

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Willie Nelson’s greeting ahead of the annual Farm Aid benefit concert for family farmers in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday (Sept. 24) reaffirmed the organization’s nearly four-decade commitment to the men and women who feed the nation. 

This year, Farm Aid focused on the challenge those farmers face amid the climate crisis — a challenge intertwined with the nation’s legacy of racial injustice.

“Our struggle right now is beyond us. It’s cutting deep. It’s the very planet that we’re standing on that’s in peril and we’ve got to figure it out,”  said Savonola “Savi” Horne, executive director of Land Loss Prevention Project, which advocates for Black farmers in North Carolina, speaking during a gathering of Farm Aid supporters the evening before the concert. 

“And even as we figure that out, we’ve gotta find justice for the legacy issues of our lifetime — racial inequality, environmental justice,” Horne said. “We can’t just kind of glaze it over and just say okay let’s all save the planet. We’ve got to really figure out ways in which we can mend the brokenness within all of us. Because all of us are part of this.”

Since the first Farm Aid concert in 1985, the organization has raised more than $64 million to support a vibrant, family farm-centered system of agriculture in America.  

Wait… make that some $65 million. 

In a late-evening surprise appearance Saturday, Jim Irsay, owner of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts — and frontman of a band that jammed with John Mellencamp at the Colts Kickoff Concert earlier this month — joined Mellencamp onstage to present a $1 million check to Farm Aid.

From the Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek, here are 14 more inspiring things we saw and heard at Farm Aid 2022.

‘A Major Farmer Mobilization in Washington’

Due to the pandemic, this marked the first time since 2019 that Farm Aid began with a press conference to highlight farmer concerns — and it was the first time ever that the press conference was live-streamed. That livestream carried the news that Farm Aid, in partnership with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and some 35 other activist groups, planned “a major farmer mobilization in Washington” in March 2023, according to Farm Aid cultural impact director Michael Stewart Foley. “Congress needs to get the message that farmers are counting on a Farm Bill that delivers climate solutions — climate solutions that center racial justice, that address on-farm climate challenges and prioritize what works for family farmers,” Foley said.

Raising Food and Rising Stars

Every year Farm Aid showcases performers who are just on the edge of greater stardom and the honor this year went to Nashville’s Brittney Spencer and Texas-bred Charley Crockett. “My grandmother’s family is from Raleigh,” Spencer said. “But I think we’re all friends and family here now.”  In a style that edged from country to mainstream pop, Spencer sang with sweetness and honesty in the heartfelt “Sober & Skinny,” a highlight of her set. Crockett’s career has been on a slow burn ready to explode.  After six years of recording, he earned the 2021 emerging artist of the year Award from the Americana Music Association. His sound — soulful, twanging vocals backed by pedal steel and trumpet — soared over the amphitheater.

The Legacy of Music Activism 

Among those who had traveled to Saturday’s concert were Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson and the Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele, co-executive directors of the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn. They were representing one of the great activist organizations in American history, one rooted in music. Founded in 1932 as the Highlander Folk School — where Pete Seeger came to sing and mobilize — the center today works with people in Appalachia and the South in fighting for justice, equality and sustainability through grassroots organizing and movement building. Woodward-Henderson and Maxfield-Steele were embraced by one of the activists who trained at Highlander — Carolyn Mugar, who has been executive director of Farm Aid since its creation in 1985.

‘A Beloved Community

“I am a black, queer, new immigrant,” said Canada’s Allison Russell, who was returning to the Farm Aid stage for the second time after performing in Hartford last September. “It has been life-changing to be welcomed into this community. This is a beloved community and we are changing this world for the better.” Joined by Farm Aid board member Margo Price, co-headliner Sheryl Crow and Brittney Spencer, Russell brought her set to a peak with only the second live performance of “Georgia Rise,” which she performed Monday (Sept. 19) to support Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

‘The Unequal Distribution of Resources

Decton and Christina Hylton brought their message of farming, climate activism and racial justice to Farm Aid in a video message shown during the concert. “If we really want to solve the problem of climate change, we already have the resources,” said Decton Hyton.  “The issue is the unequal distribution of the resources. It is really hard for people of color to get access to loans and grants to implement the things that are necessary to make a change” in how they farm.

The Presence of Patagonia

Farm Aid has a rigorous process for vetting corporate sponsors of its concerts. The outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia passed that test — even before the announcement earlier this month that company founder Yvon Chouinard was transferring ownership of Patagonia (valued at about $3 billion) to a trust and foundation set up to combat climate change. At Farm Aid, the company was showcasing its latest venture, moving the source of industrial hemp used in its Workwear clothing line from Northern China to a small family farm in Bourbon, Kentucky. 

‘That’s Some Hard Work

“This is literally my favorite event,” declared Sheryl Crow, a repeat Farm Aid performer.  She described growing up in Missouri amid cotton farms and spending time picking cotton as a high school project. “That is some hard work!” Farm Aid is the concert that most speaks “to where I’m from. I feel incredibly humbled to be included.”  In a set packed with her own hits, Crow blew scorching blues harp on a cover of “Live With Me” from the Rolling Stones. “I’m no Mickey Raphael, I’ll say that,” she quipped, in tribute to Willie Nelson’s longtime harmonica player.

The Brothers Nelson

It is a tribute to Willie Nelson’s musical eclecticism that he and his wife Annie have raised two sons, Micah and Lukas, who have taken such disparate but rewarding musical paths. Micah Nelson, billed as Particle Kid, played early in the day Saturday with his compelling style of alternative rock that defies easy categorization.  Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real followed Sheryl Crow’s set with songs that were alternately intense, playful and wistful. Lukas Nelson welcomed Britteny Spencer, Allison Russell and Dave Matthews’s accompanist Tim Reynolds on stage to perform “Poor Elijah (A Tribute to Robert Johnson),” first recorded in the early 1970s by Delaney and Bonnie with Eric Clapton. But the crowd pleaser, of course, was his romp through “Carolina.”

Missing Neil Young

In previous years, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Year have backed Neil Young with an energy that rivals Young’s legendary sessions with Crazy Horse. This was the second year that Young, a Farm Aid board member, opted to sit out the benefit, citing concerns with COVID-19. A survivor of a life-threatening brain aneurysm in 2005 and the father of children with serious health conditions, Young has more reason than most to be cautious. But perhaps his absence was a reminder of the importance of not judging how any individual continues to cope with a pandemic that has killed more than 1.05 million in the United States alone. (Farm Aid noted before Saturday’s event it was  “staying up to date on the latest CDC guidance and industry best practices to limit the transmission of COVID-19.”)  Two days before the festival, a COVID case caused Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats to cancel their Farm Aid performance.

The Great Inheritor

Chris Stapleton himself needed to postpone shows earlier this summer after a COVID-19 diagnosis. But Stapleton showed no ill effects as he took the Farm Aid stage. The headliner of his own All-American Road Show tour this year, Stapleton graciously took a spot on Saturday’s bill just behind the four Farm Aid board members: Margo Price, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson — but he certainly contributed to the sell-out of this year’s show.  If Nelson and his colleagues in Austin in the 1970s invented the outlaw country-rock style, Stapleton’s set proved he is the soulful, driven, muscular inheritor of that great roadhouse tradition.  And his performance of “Broken Halo” offered a reminder of why the ACM in 2019 named Stapleton the songwriter of the decade.

Every Supermarket Scan Is a Vote

Margo Price, whose family lost its Illinois farm during the mid-’80s “to greed, right when Farm Aid was being conceived,” she recalled, commanded the stage as a brilliant sunset fell over the amphitheater field. “I grew up in the late 1980s and 1990s in rural America, and even though we were surrounded by farmland, I didn’t always have access to healthy food like we do today,” she said earlier. “The average consumer may not feel very powerful. But every time you scan food at the supermarket, you are voting — you are voting for local or non-local, for organic or non-organic. And there’s power in where we put our money. If Neil was here, he would say, if you see a farmer’s market, stop and pull over and support them.  So that is what I’m trying to do.”

‘That’s a Magical Thing

“I remember being a teenager, stoned, in a crowd watching his show,” Price quipped, introducing Dave Matthews with Tim Reynolds for their entrancing acoustic set. “It’s good to spend the day talking about the people who feed us,” Matthews said. Earlier in the day, Matthews spoke of the danger of industrial agriculture practices that “pump carbon into the air.  We have the knowledge to turn that around,” he said, “to have plants do what they’re supposed to do, while they feed us,” taking carbon out of the air and sequestering it in the soil. “While we’re being fed by all these magnificent farmers, we can also be feeding the earth — and that’s a magical thing.”

The Million Dollar Backstage Pass

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay asked his friend John Mellencamp what would it take to attend his Farm Aid show, with a backstage pass? How about a million dollars, Mellencamp replied. So before Mellencamp’s set, Irshay took the stage to present an oversized check payable to Farm Aid for $1 million — as stage crew spiralled footballs into the crowd. Mellencamp’s set was a greatest-hit collection, no less energizing for its familiarity, including songs like “Small Town” and “Rain on the Scarecrow,” which have become Farm Aid anthems.

A Mystical Power

Opening, as ever, with “Whiskey River,” Nelson’s set flowed like a spring freshet in the Hill Country of Texas. Seated at center stage (the only concession to his 89 years) and flanked by sons Micah and Lukas, Nelson was greeted by a standing ovation from his first note. Lukas took lead vocals on “Texas Flood,” which featured a guitar solo by Willie of astounding dexterity (and a penny whistle solo by 92-year-old virtuoso David Amram) that drew cheers.  Micah sang lead on the hilarious pandemic composition in honor of his dad, “If I Die When I’m High, I’ll Be Halfway To Heaven.”  

With Nelson’s voice strong and clear, his classics flowed on: “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,”  “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “On the Road Again,” “Always On My Mind,” “Good Hearted Woman, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and more.

“I just released my 98th album,” remarked Nelson of his new disc A Beautiful Time. “It came out on my 89th birthday,” he added, introducing Rodney Crowell and Chris Stapleton’s  “I’ll Love You Till the Day I Die,” from that new set.

Nelson welcomed his fellow Farm Aid musicians onstage for his traditional show closers, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away.”  But before the night ended, Nelson punctured any pontification about his importance with a Mac Davis cover, “It’s Hard To Be Humble (When You’re Perfect In Every Way).”

For all the artists and music that preceded his appearance on stage, Nelson on Saturday conveyed a star power that surpassed all others, a good-natured, almost mystical presence that has inspired all involved with Farm Aid for nearly four decades now.  

It is not an exaggeration to say that generations of farmers have drawn strength from Nelson’s commitment to their cause — and that Farm Aid, in promoting the importance of family farms since 1985, has had a profound influence on the culture of the nation.

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