Willie Nelson is pissed off.
For more than three decades, Nelson has fought for the survival of America’s family farmers, staging the first Farm Aid benefit concert in 1985 with John Mellencamp and Neil Young, and later welcoming Dave Matthews to the cause.
Backstage at the 33rd annual Farm Aid benefit concert at the Xfinity Theatre in Hartford Saturday (Sept 22), aboard his tour bus, Nelson held a coffee mug and evenly described his anger with the economic and political reasons why the plight of family farmers is “just as bad today as it was 33 years ago — if not worse.”
Farm Aid’s four headliners were joined Saturday by one of the most impressive lineups to play the benefit in years: Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Jamey Johnson, Ian Mellencamp and Particle Kid — a bill that led this year’s event to sell out in four hours when the show was announced in June.
The Hartford show took place 33 years to the day that the first Farm Aid was staged in Champaign, Ill., on Sept. 22, 1985.
“You would think, after that many years, something would be done and their problems would be solved or at least an attempt [made] to solve them,” Nelson says, “and I haven’t seen anything to suggest that. Because there are a lot of people who don’t care, you know? A lot of people are making a lot of money and big corporations could care less about the small family farmer. In fact, the sooner they get rid of them happier they’ll be.”
Farmers this year are taking the brunt of multiple policies of the Trump administration. A trade war with China has prompted that nation to announce a retaliatory 25 percent tariff on U.S. exports, including soy, corn, wheat, cotton, beef, pork and more. New immigration policies threaten the ability of farmers to find workers to harvest their crops. And federal inaction on climate change comes in the face of increasingly frequent, intense storms and hurricanes.
For family farmers, the current presidency has “been rather disastrous,” says Nelson.
“Washington is not doing one damn thing to help the small family farmer. In fact, they’re doing everything they can to put him out of business; that’s their objective. And so we have a fight on our hands,” says the singer, adding a characteristically zen-like coda to his comments: “And that’s cool.”
Nelson’s commitment to Farm Aid is hands-on. The organization reported that calls came in to its crisis hotline in recent days from dairy farmers in three different states. For emergency grants, delivered via allied organizations, Nelson signs the checks. “Every one,” he says. As artists prepared to perform in Hartford, three checks went out with Connecticut postmarks.
Nelson, of course, also continues a thriving recording and touring career. Many of the artists on the Farm Aid bill have been part of Nelson’s summer Outlaw Music Festival Tour. And on Sept. 7, just five months after Nelson’s previous album Last Man Standing, he released My Way, interpreting the songs first recorded by his friend Frank Sinatra.
Many artists embrace a cause, stage a benefit — then move on.
“I guess it would be easier, you know,” says Nelson. “But that’s not what we want to do. That’s not what we’re about. We want to try to help if we can. And 33 years later, we’re still trying to help. We’re trying to convince everybody that it’s important that they shop farm-to-market, that they help their local farmers and and people are getting more and more educated in that respect.”
At a press conference that preceded the day’s performances, Farm Aid organizers introduced Connecticut farmers who described their hardships. But they also presented the stories of young activists who share Farm Aid’s goal of creating a sustainable food system.
At the press conference, Mellencamp angrily denounced the influence of large corporations on how America’s food is grown and called for a political response. “We’ve got to get the right people representing us and have your voices heard, not corporate America’s voices heard,” he said. “You’ve got to get out and vote.”
Nelson agrees. “Yeah, you’ve got to vote,” he says. “If you care, you’ve got to vote.”
“In fact,” Nelson says, describing a recent recording session with sons Lukas and Micah, “I’ve got a new song me and the boys [will] put out, called `Vote `Em Out.’”
“If you don’t like who’s in there, vote `em out
That’s what election day is all about
And the biggest gun we’ve got is called the ballot box
So if you don’t like who’s in there, vote ’em out.”
“I’m finishing it up in a couple of days,” says Nelson. “So it’ll be out pretty quick.”