Willie Nelson’s first all-star Farm Aid benefit concert in Champaign, Illinois, in September 1985 began as Bob Dylan’s idea. And before the night was through, Dylan had found a new touring partner and creative collaborator — Tom Petty.
Two months earlier, in Philadelphia, Dylan had taken the stadium stage of Live Aid, the mega-benefit organized to raise funds for Ethiopian famine relief. Between songs Dylan mused: couldn’t some of the money be used to help American farmers?
“The question hit me like a ton of bricks,” Nelson recalled to Billboard in 2015. The musician was on the road that day, watching the event on his tour-bus TV, and began looking into the economic crisis that was then forcing family farmers off their land and into bankruptcy. Then he called his friends.
Petty and Dylan were among the remarkable lineup of country and rock musicians who played the first Farm Aid in the football stadium of the University of Illinois on Sept. 22, 1985, a bill which also included Nelson’s fellow Farm Aid founders Neil Young and John Mellencamp along with Johnny Cash, John Fogerty, Don Henley, Billy Joel, Loretta Lynn, Roy Orbison, Bonnie Raitt and many more.
Three decades on, Farm Aid remains music’s longest running concert for a cause, having raised more than $50 million to support family farmers and a sustainable food system.
Petty, raised in Florida, no doubt had some exposure to the agricultural life. “Think I might go work Orlando, if those orange groves don’t freeze,” he once sang on “Southern Accents.” But there’s no question where his career preferences fell.
“I remember seeing ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and thinking, ‘That’s obviously the way to go.’ You know, you’ve got farming over here and on this side — The Beatles,” said Petty once. (The Farm Aid organization re-shared the comment Tuesday on its Facebook page).
But how did Dylan and Petty end up on stage together?
“At that time, Tony Dimitriades, Tom’s manager, was in a business partnership with Elliot Roberts in Lookout Management” who represented Dylan, recalls Bill DeYoung, a music critic, author and Petty historian, who for many years worked at the Gainesville Sun, the newspaper in Petty’s hometown in Florida.
“Bob needed a band for the first Farm Aid,” says DeYoung. “Everything else sprang from that.”
“Everything else” included the True Confessions Tour that Petty and Dylan launched together early the following year, in February 1986, during which the Heartbreakers backed Dylan for some 60 shows in Australia, Japan and the United States — including two nights at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. and three nights at Madison Square Garden. (The singers also performed at the second Farm Aid on July 4, 1986 — via satellite from their tour stop at Rich Stadium, outside Buffalo, New York). A second outing, the Temples in Flames tour, followed in 1987.
And the creative friendship between Petty and Dylan grew. In 1988, Petty joined Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison in Dylan’s studio in Malibu to record the song “Handle Me With Care.” Originally intended as the B-side to a single from Harrison’s Cloud Nine album, the song instead became the inspiration for the tongue-in-cheek supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.
So, from Farm Aid, Petty and Dylan found a potent touring combination and a hit recording collaboration. But there’s one opportunity Petty enjoyed at that first Farm Aid which Dylan missed.
Farm Aid communication director Jennifer Fahy recently unearthed this exchange between the singers at the first Farm Aid as reported by the Los Angeles Times:
“This is really nice,” Petty said. “You never see a show with country acts and rock acts, but there’s not all that much difference between the two. The thing that interests me is how easily the audience accepts it. I’m thrilled to be here… I got to meet Loretta Lynn.
“Yeah, I agree with that,” said Dylan, nodding. “Music shouldn’t be put into [categories]. I’ve always loved people like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.”
Dylan paused, smiled and looked at Petty, the L.A. Times recounted.
“The only thing I want to know,” he said, “is why I didn’t get a chance to meet Loretta Lynn, too.”