10 Reasons Why Willie Nelson's Farm Aid Is Unlike Any Other Music Festival

Brian Bruner/Bruner Photo
Willie Nelson and Neil Young perform at the 2016 Farm Aid in Bristow, Va. on Sept. 17, 2016.

The 31st annual Farm Aid concert, benefiting the nation’s family farmers, rolled into Bristow, Va., on Saturday, Sept. 17, with the organization’s guiding foursome — Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews — joined during the day-long festival at the Jiffy Lube Live amphitheater by Alabama Shakes, Sturgill Simpson, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Margo Price and others.

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Also sharing the bill: Jamey Johnson, accompanied by Alison Krauss; Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real; Insects vs Roberts (featuring Micah Nelson); Ian Mellencamp (the nephew of John Mellencamp); the Wisdom Indian Dancers, and Star Swain.  Swain opened with her rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner.” Her impromptu performance of the anthem at the Lincoln Memorial in June became a viral video, leading to her appearance at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July.

Saturday’s high-spirited show was an 11-hour celebration of American roots music — rock, country, folk, soul and R&B. It was carried live at farmaid.org and on the SiriusXM channel Willie’s Roadhouse. The back-to-back triple play of the hottest acts on this year’s bill — Rateliff, Simpson and Alabama Shakes — lent a strong blues and soul feel to the day.

As in previous years, Farm Aid 2016 was like no other festival you’ve ever seen. Here are 10 reasons why.

1. Farm Aid’s headliner is 83 years old — but you’d never know it.

It’s funny how time slips away. Willie Nelson turned 83 on April 29. To put that in perspective, consider that the oldest superstar headliner at the Desert Trip festival — dubbed “Old Chella” and taking place in Coachella, Calif., in October — is Bob Dylan, who is a mere 75. Nelson opened the afternoon set with his traditional singing of “The Lord’s Prayer” and closed the show after 11 p.m. with an all-star finale. From his nimble guitar solos on “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” (played on his battered six-string nicknamed Trigger) to his vocal romp through “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” Nelson never sounded better.

2. This is the nation’s longest-running concert for a cause.

“This is number 31,” said Nelson. First staged on Sept. 22, 1985 in Champaign, Ill., in response to that era’s farm foreclosure crisis (and inspired by a remark made by Bob Dylan two months earlier during the Live Aid benefit for Africa famine relief), Farm Aid hasn’t stopped. The organization has raised more than $50 million to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture. While the annual concert draws the headlines, Farm Aid has a staff that works year-round to keep family farmers on their land, promote the Good Food movement and help shape government food policy. John Mellencamp said he recently was asked, “Farm Aid, you guys still doing that?” He replied, “You still eating?”

3. Farmers themselves are the opening act.

At an onstage press conference before the music began, farming activists from the region shared the spotlight with the musicians. Organizers of Appalachian Harvest described their efforts to build a family-farm-based economy as an alternative to tobacco and coal industries. A nurse practitioner from Charlottesville, Va., described how connecting patients to food from family farmers through the community group Local Food Hub helped battle diabetes and other health crises. Activists with Dreaming Out Loud in Washington, D.C. described how urban farms had become a tool for community organizing. Said Neil Young: “These people are the heroes. These people are warriors for tomorrow. This revolution starts with us. Try to make sure when you buy your food, you support the people who are growing it.”

4. Farm Aid moves to a new state every year — with a purpose.

Unlike destination festivals staged on established sites, Farm Aid takes place in a different region every year, allowing the organization to connect with farmers nationwide. The Jiffy Lube Live amphitheater, which most recently hosted Farm Aid in 2000, is some 40 miles west of Washington., D.C. The week before the concert, Farm Aid-affiliated groups teamed up with the National Farmers Union to fly in 275 farm families to the nation’s capital to press for emergency aid amid a new farming crisis of falling income and rising costs. “We know that they are hurting,” says Farm Aid executive director Carolyn Mugar. “They have been left behind by their elected officials often and exploited by corporations who have so much power over their markets.”

5. For Farm Aid performers, this cause is personal.

Dave Matthews described a recent encounter with the neighbor of a North Dakota farmer, who became sick with cancer. “Then Farm Aid came in and took care of him” with financial help, Matthews was told. Margo Price, whose debut solo album is titled Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, remembered when her father lost their family farm in Illinois, during the same foreclosure crisis of the `80s that led Nelson to launch Farm Aid. Jamey Johnson spoke of his realization that “the more time I spend in my grocery store looking for food from family farms, the less time I spend in my doctor’s office.” Nathaniel Rateliff, a native of Missouri, says he was very aware of Farm Aid from its start. “Everybody was losing their farm in our region when I was a kid.  Even up until 1997, I was working in a plastics factory with [Night Sweats bassist] Joseph Pope and there was an old man working with us, who had been a pig farmer. He said, `I’ll butcher and give you a pig for $80.’ The factory farms had overproduced so much pork that they’d driven the price down” and he lost his farm.

6. Pictures of pigs, potatoes and poultry.

And kale, tomatoes, tractors, silos, barns, windmills and more.  Among the most striking aspects of Farm Aid’s production is the spectacular farm-centered photography projected both behind the performers and on video screens.  The images this year, which powerfully complemented the performances, were the work of photographers Patty O’Brien, Molly M. Peterson, Lise Metzger and Sabine Carey.

7. The food at Farm Aid is Homegrown — with a capital H.

Homegrown Concessions — a registered trademark of Farm Aid — “is the way in which everybody who goes to a concert can eat healthy great food from family farmers,” says Farm Aid associate director Glenda Yoder. “This is our tenth year of doing this.  And we make it a deal point [with the venues] that all the food on the property comes from a family farm, is produced to an ecological standard, with a fair price to the producer.” A choice menu item: the pasture-raised pork chop sandwich from Missouri’s Patchwork Family Farms cooperative has been a staple at Farm Aid since 1999.

8. Homegrown Village makes Farm Aid feel like a revival meeting.

Longtime fans of Farm Aid come for more than the music. The event is an impassioned gathering for activists involved in environmental and social justice issues, as well as farming. At Homegrown Village, an assembly of tents to the side of the amphitheater, more than 35 exhibitors discussed issues and offered farming skill sessions. Among the organizations on site this year: Food and Water Watch, the American Farmland Trust, the National Young Farmers Coalition and the Farmer Veteran Coalition.

9. The community of Farm Aid musicians is a powerful thing.

Performers at Farm Aid donate their time and travel expenses, playing this festival for love, not money. (That helps the organization earn the highest rating from charity watchdog groups.) The affection among the four core activists was clear, for example, when Young embraced Nelson onstage after a duet on “Are There Any More Real Cowboys.” Others, like Jamey Johnson, return to the Farm Aid bill each September to support its cause and share in the community. Nelson’s finale, which flowed from the gospel hymn “I’ll Fly Away” to Hank Williams’ “I Saw The Light,” drew everyone back to the stage for a spirited closing to this year’s show.

10. Willie is always on their minds.

Let a farmer have the last word. Rhonda Perry and her husband Roger Allison, hailing from Howard County, Mo., are co-founders of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and Patchwork Family Farms, a farming cooperative that Farm Aid funding helped establish. “We’ve been involved with Farm Aid since 1985,” says Perry. She recalled when her husband and Mugar traveled by train from a rally by farmers in Ames, Iowa, to the first Farm Aid concert in Champaign, Ill. “It was one of the darkest hours that we had seen in generations of farming,” she recalls. “And as the train was going down the tracks, there were farmers on the side of the road, with flags and signs that said, `Willie is our hope.’

 “To be here now, all these years later,” says Perry, “with all this energy around food and around people who care about how their food is raised, it’s incredible.”