Willie Nelson's Farm Aid Heads South as Jack White, Gary Clark Jr. & Delta Rae Rock in Raleigh

Ebet Roberts
Jack White and Lillie Mae Rische perform at Farm Aid on September 13, 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Farm Aid, the annual benefit concert to support America's family farmers, headed south this year, drawing 20,000 fans to the Walnut Creek Amphitheatre in Raleigh, N.C., on Saturday, and the move shaped both the music and the message of the event. Now in it's 29th year, Farm Aid is the longest-running concert for a cause in pop-music history.

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Farm Aid's four guiding stars -- Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews -- are the perennial headliners of the all-day affair. But acclaimed Southern additions to the bill this year included guitarist extraordinaire Jack White, now based in Nashville; bluesman Gary Clark Jr., born and bred in Austin, Texas; the alt-pop-Americana sextet Delta Rae, making their North Carolina homecoming after a two-year tour; singer/songwriter Todd Snider, who honed his career in Memphis; and the mighty Preservation Hall Jazz Band, marching in from New Orleans.

They were joined by returning Farm Aid favorites Carlene Carter, Jamey Johnson, Jesse Lenat and members of the extended Nelson musical clan: son Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real; Insects vs Robots, featuring son Micah Nelson; and granddaughter Raelyn Nelson and her band, in their Farm Aid debut.

More than a concert, Farm Aid serves as an annual gathering of activists focused on the "good food" movement, environmentalism and social-justice battles. Many farmers and activists travel to the event each year to network, share strategies, listen to the music and eat great family farm food on a menu that Farm Aid has trademarked as "Homegrown."

This year, Farm Aid organizers aligned their mission of preserving family farms with another struggle with deep roots in North Carolina and the South: the civil-rights movement.

"We all felt that we could not come to this region that has such a profound history without taking note of it," says Carolyn Mugar, executive director of Farm Aid. "Civil-rights activists have become examples for all of us, in how to organize and how to work. So we had a two-day gathering [earlier in the week] bringing people together, many of whom are based in the civil-rights movement. They are farmers and farm advocates now."

Among those activists is African-American dairy farmer Dorathy Barker of Olusanya Farm in Oxford, N.C., who described the discrimination she faced from bankers as she sought financing for her farm. "It didn't take long for me to realize they were pissing in my face -- and it wasn't raining," said Barker. She and her husband Phillip are leaders in Operation Spring Plant to advocate for African-American and low-income farmers.

"Corporate domination and corporate control is what's running farmers into the ground," said Scott Marlow of the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, an advocacy organization aligned with Farm Aid, at a morning press conference that preceded the concert.

Neil Young echoed that view. "All of the things we're talking about here are all about power," said Young, "It's all about corporations telling us what to do."

As Farm Aid's focus shifted from speeches to music, Willie Nelson offered his annual benediction by singing the Lord's Prayer to open the show. Lenat, at the start of the bill, showcased his upcoming album Son of a Cactus Farmer, while the Raelyn Nelson Band sparkled, proving that more than family ties earned her a spot on the lineup. Likewise, delightful contrasts came from Micah Nelson's eclectic folk ensemble Insects vs Robots and Lukas Nelson's muscular Promises of the Real. Lukas' performance of Paul Simon's "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" was a standout moment.

In songs like "Can't Complain" and "Statistician's Blues" during his early afternoon set, Todd Snider showed that he may the finest bard of both pathos and humor since John Prine. Carlene Carter, stepdaughter of Johnny Cash and granddaughter of country music pioneer Mother Maybelle Carter, introduced "Carter Girl," the title track of her latest album, which celebrates her family's history and legacy. Delta Rae, who hail from nearby Durham, N.C., were the hometown favorites and turned in a scorching set of harmonies. (Vocalist Brittany Holljes earlier in the day spoke about her love of getting her hands back in the dirt at the Raleigh City Farm).

The horns and brass, soul and sass of the amazing Preservation Hall Brass Band brought irresistible dance rhythms to the day just before Johnson and Clark stepped up to deliver their respective doses of rock and blues.

Jack White undeniably ignited the most excitement of the day, taking the stage in the late-afternoon light (Delta Rae's Brittany Holljes ran to grab a spot near the stage front during his set). Sporting a new fade haircut with retro sideburns and decked out in suspenders, White stored his guitar picks in the antenna of an old tube television at center stage, whose blue static screen was projected across the backdrop. His set list spanned tracks from the White Stripes ("Icky Thump") to the title track of this year's Lazaretto album. White is possibly the only singer who can channel Robert Plant and Hank Williams in the same performance and yet create a magnificent roar and twang that's entirely his own.

Dave Matthews played his traditional Farm Aid acoustic set of favorites like "Ants Marching" accompanied by the marvelously inventive Tim Reynolds. "My guitar isn't even plugged in," Matthews deadpanned.

With his vocals sounding stronger than they have in years, John Mellencamp captured the crowd with his power-chord pop hits, but also showcased "Troubled Man" from his forthcoming album Plain Spoken. Among Farm Aid's four artist board members, Mellencamp has written some of his most best songs -- "Small Town" and "Rain on the Scarecrow" -- inspired by the struggle of family farms.

"Heart of Gold" opened Neil Young's acoustic set, as a carved Indian at center stage gazed on, and Young sat at his old-fashioned, wood cabinet organ for the apt "Mother Earth." But the high point of his set came as Young welcomed both Micah and Lukas Nelson out to add electric energy to "Rockin' in the Free World."

Willie Nelson's finale was both understated and overwhelming. His guitar solo on "Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground" was a marvel to behold. Songs like "Whiskey River," "On the Road Again" and "Always On My Mind" were reminders that Nelson is a national treasure -- one who cares deeply about the state of his nation and the families who work the fields to keep it fed.

Farm Aid 2014 was streamed live on Willie Nelson's SiriusXM channel, Willie's Roadhouse (59) and in HD by Axis TV, presented by Amy's Kitchen, a cooking school and specialty food shop in New York. Video highlights will be posted on YouTube.com/FarmAid.