"This is something I believe in," singer/songwriter Amos Lee said, relaxing offstage moments after playing a intimate benefit concert in Manhattan April 24 for Farm Aid, the music-industry-backed group that supports American farmers. Lee first performed at Farm Aid's annual concert in Milwaukee, Wisc. on Oct. 2, 2010, when the organization marked its 25th anniversary and was joined onstage that day by Farm Aid co-founder Willie Nelson. Nelson later joined Lee in the studio to sing on his 2011 Blue Note album Mission Bell, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Additional tracks from the Mission Bell sessions were released as an EP titled As The Crow Flies in 2012.
Now, Lee says, the full-length follow-up to Mission Bell is finished. Blue Note reports the album is coming this Fall with guest artists including Patti Griffin, Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas. For this album, Amos was the first artist to record in a studio that his producer, Jay Joyce, has built in a former church in east Nashville.
Farm Aid, which was first staged in 1985, is the music industry's longest-running concert for a cause. It is still guided by Nelson and fellow Farm Aid board members Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews. The organization has raised millions to help keep family farmers on their land and has promoted a cultural shift in the country, towards the appreciation of food grown by family farmers, not corporations.
"I want to make a toast to Willie," said Nelson's longtime manager Mark Rothbaum, noting that Nelson will turn 80 on April 30. In anticipation of that milestone, Farm Aid has launched a website with birthday greetings from Young, Mellencamp, Matthews, Kenny Chesney, Sting, Jack Johnson, Bonnie Raitt, Steven Colbert and others.
Nelson was not present at the New York event. "He's playing poker in Maui right now," quipped Rothbaum.
From Nelson's sustained involvement in Farm Aid, said Rothbaum, the great lesson is to love the people who put their lives on the line to give us a better life, and better food.
For the second consecutive year Farm Aid held its Spring event at Haven's Kitchen, a recreational cooking school, specialty food shop and event space two blocks from Union Square in Manhattan. Haven's Kitchen founder Alison Schneider told those gathered that her appreciation for Farm Aid grew when she learned the organization supported urban groups such as Just Food, which aims to make fresh, locally grown food accessible to all New Yorkers, regardless of income.
One of the evening's co-chairs was Liora Yalof, a senior VP and real estate broker at the Corcoran Group, and a longtime Farm Aid supporter. (Yolaf's husband serves on the board of HeadCount, the organization that aims to raise political awareness and register voters at concerts). Yalof was joined by her daughter, Brooke, 18. Back when her daughter was born, Yalof said, she began to focus on the food system and was shocked by what she learned. Her advocacy for Farm Aid followed.
The evening's other co-chair was Joe Defeo, an author, business-quality consultant, and chairman/CEO of the Juran Institute. He remembered attending his first Farm Aid concert in 2007 on Randall's Island in New York. "We went there for the music and became part of the cause," he said.
The evenings honoree was Steve Ells, chairman and CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill, which has had a relationship with Farm Aid for a decade. It was a both a sponsor and vendor at Farm Aid's 2012 concert in Hersey, PA. Ells described how, years ago, he saw horrific conditions at corporate factory farms and made a commitment to Chipotle's goal of food with integrity by seeking sustainably raised ingredients. Ells also thanked Nelson for his acoustic performance of Coldplay's "The Scientist" on Chipotle's 2011 animated video "Back To The Start," which has been viewed on YouTube more than 7.2 million times.
Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar presented Ells with a tool to symbolize his efforts to carve a path toward a more sustainable food supply, a Courage Axe from New York's Best Made Co.
Mugar recalled the early days of the organization, when it was run out of her kitchen. Remarking on the evening's turnout of supporters, Mugar quoted Nelson as saying: "People want to be asked to help, but they need to know their money is going to the right place. Farm Aid's supporters saw enormous potential to change our food system and change our world," she said.
Lee was accompanied to the event by co-managers Kevin Morris and Perry Greenfield of Red Light Management. They also had been with Lee when the singer/songwriter came to the Billboard Touring Conference in 2011 to talk about his career and songwriting.
For the Farm Aid gathering, the plaid-shirted Lee played solo in a concise set that included two particularly appropriate covers.
He talked about joining the "Midnight Ramble" events at Levon Helms barn in Woodstock, New York before The Band's drummer passed away last April. Then he performed Helms darkly tinged farmers lament Growing Trade. And with his soulful voice soaring, Lee closed his set with Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come."
Reflecting afterward on Farm Aid's mission, Lee declared: "If we lose the connection to the family farm, we lose something really important."