Farm Aid Brings Great Music to Virginia
By Max Stewart • Photos by Brady Cooling
American farmers are vital to the chemical makeup of this country; these men and women keep all of us healthy and well-nourished and they should never go unnoticed. For that reason, the Founding Fathers of Farm Aid – Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young – established the organization in 1985 with the intention of raising money to keep small-time family farmers on their feet while allowing them to thrive in the days where factory farm goliaths cast a large shadow. Farm Aid has been wildly successful over 31 years, managing to raise over $50 million to keep the local farmers of the U.S.A. growing and flourishing.
On September 17th, Virigina was indeed For Farm Lovers as Farm Aid 2016 rolled into Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, VA for the first time since 2000. The all-day event featured a variety of educational activities and discussions at the Homegrown Village area of the showgrounds: educational vendors discussing everything from composting to local farming economies, farmers gathering for seed swaps, a variety of informative seminars, and even a section where you could play Dave Matthews’ new board game, Chickapig. Musicians Jamey Johnson and Nathaniel Rateliff spoke during a heartfelt seminar at the Farmyard Stage with Xavier Brown of Soilful City in Washington, D.C. and Shirley Sherrod of the Southwest Georgia Project in Albany, GA, discussing ways to maintain a strong, local agriculture contingency while making sure ethical standards are in place for a new generation of farmers.
The music of the day officially kicked off when Star Swain gave a moving performance of the National Anthem after Willie Nelson performed an a capella version of “The Lord’s Prayer”. This was followed up by an extravagant routine by the Wisdom Indian Dancers, then an indie-fueled performance by John Mellencamp’s nephew, Ian Mellencamp. Insects vs. Robots provided a psychedelic whirlwind of a set before the family affair continued when Willie’s son and his band – Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real – took the stage for some tasty, deep fried Rock ‘N’ Roll. The Promise of the Real kicked the energy into overdrive and the twangy “Something Real” was a shot of whiskey to start the long day and get the blood flowing. Soon after, the new Country-Americana sensation Margo Price candidly poured her heart on stage after opening with “Tennessee Song”, keeping it all in the heartland with songs such as “Heart of America” and “This Town Gets Around” (which she claimed is dedicated to the tart of a music town, Nashville). Price dedicated her set to the “workingman”, reflecting on the turbulent times back in 1985 when her grandparents lost their farm where her dad worked too. Expect more solid material from Price, who is signed to Jack White’s Third Man Records.
Tried-and-true Country singer and nine-time Farm Aid participant, Jamey Johnson, took the stage with the angelically-voiced Alison Krauss sitting in. Their set featured a who’s who of country music covers as Johnson and Krauss’ differing vocal styles blended in perfect honky-tonk harmony. “We lost one of our best in country music, we gotta do one for the Hag,” Johnson remarked before a gritty cover of Merle Haggard’s “I Think I’ll Just Sit Here and Drink”. Their version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” was a humbling performance that spoke true to the spirit of the event. Swinging-Soul sensations Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats have been blowing up in 2016, and they certainly kept the energy ascending with their rockin’ afternoon set. The Missouri natives were gracious to be sharing the stage with such prolific talent: “We were just poor kids from Missouri, never thought [we’d] be here”. Highlights included the full dose of Americana, “Wasting Time”, as well as the best surprise hit of the year, “S.O.B.”, which transitioned into a well-executed rendition of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In”.
Sturgill Simpson is the most refreshing artist to come out of Country music in years, providing a psychedelic spin on the genre while all the while keeping songs pure and relatable. Simpson impressed with his live versions of the tunes from his new album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, in part thanks to the newly added brass section supporting him. Simpson also included some unique variations of a few of his older songs including “Life of Sin”, “It Ain’t All Flowers”, and “Long White Line”. Sturg and the boys (who include one of the best guitarists I’ve seen in years, Estonian-cowboy Laur Joamets) tipped their caps to Farm Aid’s fearless leader, Willie Nelson, with an emotional cover of “I’d Have To Be Crazy”. We can’t wait to see these guys back in the District-area on 10/11 at DAR Constitution Hall.
Next up, the Alabama Shakes continued to cement themselves as one of the best modern alterna-blues bands that are thriving in an era of vapid mainstream releases, carried on the wings of Brittany Howard’s beautifully-soulful vocal range. Their performance affirmed why they have been so successful (3 Grammy awards already in the bag), thanks to a wide-ranging batch of songs from 2012’s Boys & Girls and 2015’s Sound & Color.
Dave Matthews, who became a Farm Aid board member in 2001, returned back to his home-state of Virginia with his trusty confidant / shred-master, Tim Reynolds, for one of the highlights of the day. Carrying just two acoustic guitars, Matthews and Reynolds played a career-spanning set from the DMB catalogue that got folks out of their lawn chairs for some stripped-down magic. Matthews opened with a song that pays homage to the original inhabitants of North America, “Don’t Drink the Water”, which contained a very-fitting interpolation of “This Land Is Your Land”. Dave Matthews also played a crowd-pleasing batch of new and old stuff, including the oldies-but-goodies “Crash Into Me”, “Crush”, “Ants Marching”, intermixed with the new “Samurai Cop” and “Bismarck”. “Two Step” was a touching addition, mainly because just inside the entrance of the venue there is a tree in memory of the former Dave Matthews Band brass legend who died tragically in 2008, LeRoi Moore, with joyful lyrics from the song on a plaque that read: “Celebrate we will, because life is short but sweet for certain”.
John Mellencamp got the boots stompin’ during live versions from his vast songbook, including crowd-wailing versions of the patriotic “Small Town”, “Pink Houses”, and “Crumblin’ Down” and a poignant version of “Rain on the Scarecrow”. Mellencamp even included a cover of an artist that ignited the spark that eventually led to the bonfire of Rock ‘N’ Roll, with a cover of “Stones In My Passway” written by Delta blues-legend and soul-seller Robert Johnson.
Neil Young took the stage armed with just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica before a high banner moment of the evening, “Heart of Gold”. You could have heard a pin drop as the audience of 20,000 was fully captivated by the rendition of the 1972 classic. The supporting band for Young was Lukas Nelson’s band Promise of the Real, while Young stayed on acoustic for another song off of Harvest, “Out On the Weekend”. “Let the earth bring us all together, back to the roots. Eat good food. You don’t need the drugs anymore. It took us a long time to get this far. We have a long way to go. But with people like you, we’re going to make it!” Young sincerely stated. Never afraid to speak his mind, Young liked the message of a corporate farm-hating shirt he spotted in the crowd while he echoed the statement himself: “Fuck Monsanto!” It was then time to “expand our family” before Young hollered for “Farm Aid’s founder and chief” Willie to take the stage for a captivating version of “Are There Any More Real Cowboys?” Young plugged in his weathered, black Gibson Les Paul for an amplified change of pace during “Powderfinger” and a powerful and extended version of “Rockin’ In the Free World” to finish his set.
The day closed as it has with every Farm Aid: hippie-cowboy legend Shotgun Willie Nelson gave us a downhome cap to an All-American day. At 83 years old, Nelson continues to impress as he managed to play 15 songs with his trusty acoustic “Trigger” by his side. As is standard fare, he opened with “Whiskey River” and then went into “Still Is Still Moving to Me”, before a well-received cover of “Beer For My Horses”. Nelson paid tribute to another member of the Highwaymen, singing “Good Hearted Woman” by the late-great Outlaw legend Waylon Jennings. Nelson surely brought the crowd what they wanted after a long day of music, playing some fan favorites “On the Road Again”, “Always On My Mind”, and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” as we all swayed in the Virginia moonlight. The grateful and patriotic theme of the day was in full force during “Amazing Grace”, which also featured Dave Matthews, Jamey Johnson, and Alison Krauss. Kudos to the legend Willie Nelson for not only changing the course of country music and making it a bit more dangerous, but also shining a light on such a noble cause which has lasted for 31 years.
Farm Aid 2016 was a wonderful opportunity to support the farmers of this great nation while also getting to see a truckload of great music. Ain’t that America?