John Mellencamp, Kacey Musgraves and More on Willie Nelson Making a Difference With 30 Years of Farm Aid
Willie Nelson's Farm Aid celebrated its 30th birthday this year with a concert held at the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island in Chicago, Ill., on Sept. 19. To help fete the milestone, Billboard spoke with several of this year's performers as well as Nelson's longtime friends and collaborators about the the philanthropic country star and his non-profit's continued influence as the longest running concert for a cause in the music business.
“For 30 years, we’ve been doing this and I can’t tell you how amazing these concerts have been,” says John Mellencamp, 64, a Farm Aid co-founder. “We’ve had everybody play, from Dylan to Billy Joel, Lou Reed, you name them, all over this country. I'm proud just to be part of it, proud of Neil, Dave and I’m extra proud of Willie to have the courage and stamina to keep it going.”Don Henley
"I don’t think I even met Willie [when we played the first] Farm Aid,” recalls the Eagles’ Don Henley, 68. “He was busy doing other stuff. A lot of things make him unique. He’s a character -- what we refer to in Texas as a real character. He’s a good musician. He’s got an incredible sense of humor. He has a large group of loyal friends. And he cares about the common people.”
“I just wrote a new song about Willie; it’s called `Willie Got Me Stoned and Took All My Money’ [playing poker],” says Jack Johnson, 40, who counts Nelson among his friends. “When people ask me, of everybody you’ve met, who’s the coolest?’ -- it’s Willie. And he is just the most humble, nicest, present person when you’re with him -- 100 percent in that conversation, when you’re with him.”
“What attracts me to Willie is his honesty and his sense of humor,” says Kacey Musgraves, 27, who has toured with Nelson and performed at Farm Aid twice, including this year’s 30th anniversary show. “He’s a very real person, no bullshit. And he’s just a great writer.”
“We had his records when I was growing up,” says Martina McBride, 49, who has performed at Farm Aid three times, beginning in 1993. “I first met him when our tour buses ended up in the same parking lot. We went over to say hi, and he couldn’t have been more gracious and nice and friendly -- just amazing, everything that you want people you look up to, to be.”
“I hate to overstate things, but without Willie Nelson I don’t know what American music would be; he’s that fundamental to our culture,” says Amos Lee, 38, who sang with Nelson at the 25th anniversary Farm Aid in Milwaukee in 2005. “I look at Willie Nelson and I’m grateful to live during a time when he lived.”
“Willie is very authentically himself and has been from Day One,” says Dan Reynolds, 28, frontman of Imagine Dragons, who performed at Farm Aid’s 30th anniversary show in Chicago. “Willie, to me, has been one of the most inspiring musicians that, lyrically and melodically, has been consistent for years and years.”
“He’s always remained relevant,” says Imagine Dragons’ guitarist Wayne "Wing" Sermon, 31. “He’s always remained a part of pop culture.”
An edited version of this story appeared in the Oct. 24 issue of Billboard.