“We’re glad to be here, but we’re very sorry we have to be here. This problem should have been solved long ago.”
So said Farm Aid co-founder and President Willie Nelson at a press conference before the 27th Farm Aid concert, at Hershey Park Stadium in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The problem referenced, of course, is that family farmers are going out of business every year, while corporate farms thrive. This is a problem that Nelson and his fellow Farm Aid board founders – Neil Young and John Mellencamp – have been combating since 1985. Farm Aid always sports amazing country and rock performances, and this year was no exception. But before the music started, the three artists, along with Dave Matthews (who joined the Farm Aid board in 2001) spoke at a press conference.
Young read an emotional letter sent to him by a dairy farmer, detailing how it is nearly impossible to stay in business today, and that it will only get more difficult. Mellencamp noted that he, Young and Nelson were “young men” when they started Farm Aid, and mused that he wasn’t sure that things had gotten much better. Bryan Snyder, the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture disagreed with Mellencamp saying, “We’re all better off than we were before Farm Aid came along.”
Shortly after the press conference (which was really a panel discussion, the press weren’t invited to ask questions), the concert kicked off with brief sets by Austin country traditionalist Dale Watson, jam band Animal Liberation Orchestra, Pegi Young (wife of Neil) and Lukas Nelson (son of Willie).
(photo credit: Maria Ives)
Jamey Johnson was the first marquee name to perform, taking the stage shortly after 4 pm, to “High Cost Of Living” from his 2008 album That Lonesome Song. His set also included some classic country covers: Hank Cochran’s “He’s Got You” and Johnny Paycheck’s “11 Months and 29 Days.” The latter song was played as a smoldering blues number, with all the members of Johnson’s very tight backing band taking solos, including Johnson on his ubiquitous acoustic guitar, covered with autographs by legends like Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard. Of course, Johnson is a great songwriter in his own right, and making that point, he performed “Give It Away,” a song he wrote for George Strait. After that song closed the set, he said “Good to see y’all again. Enjoy Farm Aid!” It’s likely that Johnson has many more Farm Aid performances in his future: this was his fifth Farm Aid in a row. Johnson attended the press conference earlier in the day, sitting in the front row along with Lukas Nelson, listening attentively the whole time. It’s not difficult to imagine both artists on the Farm Aid board in the future.
Grace Potter & The Nocturnals started their show with a lot of young fans, but certainly earned a number of older ones by the end of their performance. A charismatic frontwoman with a voice somewhere between Pat Benatar and Ann Wilson of Heart, Potter is also a talented musician (playing guitar and Hammond organ) with model-like looks to boot. A full-on rock and roll band, Potter & The Nocturnals are reminiscent of groups like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers or Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band. Willie Nelson and his harmonica player Mickey Raphael joined them for “Ragged Company,” much to the delight of the audience. She would return the favor later in the show.
Kenny Chesney could easily sell out Hershey Park Stadium on his own, it’s a testament to his humility that he would return for his third Farm Aid and play beneath Nelson, Young, Mellencamp and Matthews on the bill. Indeed, he’s just wrapped a co-headlining Brothers of the Sun tour with Tim McGraw, and Farm Aid marked his last show before a break. Summer was just one day in the rear-view mirror, but that didn’t stop him from breaking out some great beach anthems, starting with “Beer In Mexico,” followed by “Summertime,” “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem” and “Guitars and Tiki Bars.” Cranking out hit after hit, he paused to say “We’re all here because we know music is very powerful,” going on to thank Nelson, Matthews, Young and “the great John Mellencamp” before launching into “I Go Back,” which references Mellencamp’s classic “Jack And Diane.” Grace Potter, who opened the Chensey/McGraw tour, returned to the stage to reprise her role on their duet, “You and Tequila.” Although Chesney has a rather large band, this song featured just the two singers, playing their acoustic guitars and marked one of the many great collaborations of the day.
Dave Matthews took the stage next, saying, “Thanks to Willie, Neil and John and to the farmers, and all of you for supporting this, the most noble of causes,” adding “This country should be for the small farmer as much as it is for anyone else.” Matthews played a passionate set, but he never loses his sense of humor: he related a story when he visited Willie Nelson’s tour bus, and, “among other things,” discussed Willie’s songs. Matthews claimed that Willie told him that the classic song that he wrote for Patsy Cline, “Crazy,” was originally titled “Stupid.” He said that he loved the way the word “crazy” sounded, and he used it to start the song “Crush,” which he then played.
Matthews soon returned to the stage to introduce John Mellencamp, who kicked off his set with a rockabilly reimagining of “Authority Song,” which sounded reminiscent of “I Fought The Law.” Kenny Chesney joined him on stage for “Small Town,” another highlight of the day. Mellencamp’s set also served up “Check It Out,” “Crumblin’ Down” and “Pink Houses.”
Willie Nelson joined Neil Young & Crazy Horse for “Homegrown”; Nelson sitting in on that song has become something of a Farm Aid tradition. The song, a sort of cheeky paean to marijuana, was released in 1977 to little acclaim, but which has gone on to take new meaning to organic farmers, and has become an unofficial anthem of Farm Aid. After that, Nelson left, and Young launched into his fifth and final song (and the third that stretched past the ten minute mark), the epic “Like A Hurricane.”
The concert was supposed to end at 11, but Nelson hit the stage shortly after that. Before playing a note, he introduced Native American musician/activist/actor John Trudell, who submitted to the audience the idea that selling industrial hemp would save a lot of family farms that have closed down. And with that, Willie launched into his classic “Whiskey River,” and in quick succession played “Still Is Still Moving To Me,” his recent Toby Keith-penned hit “Beer For My Horses,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life.” He was joined by his son Lukas for much of his set, and they sang a duet on their cover of Pearl Jam’s ballad “Just Breathe” (from Willie’s latest album, Heroes). After “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and “On The Road Again,” he invited the Bee Creek Gospel Singers to join him for some gospel songs. Other performers, including Grace Potter and Neil Young, also joined. First they played “I’ll Fly Away.” The next gospel number, which closed the show, was anything but traditional: “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” (also from Heroes), which accentuated Trudell’s earlier point. While maybe not a number you’d hear in any church, it certainly is the gospel to Nelson. And, he hopes in the future, to small farmers.
— Brian Ives, CBS Local