Farm Aid 2017: Using Music To Aid The Family Farmer

By Stu Kelly / September 27, 2017

The mission behind Farm Aid is simple: keep family farmers on their land. However, as each year passes the task seems to become more daunting especially with local family farmers facing extreme economic pressure. This rising crisis is directly threatening the very existence of the family farm in America. Family farmers are the pillars of their communities and they’re essential to the economic vitality of not only their local communities, but also the nation. When family farmers suffer, so does the quality of the food they produce. Large factory farms are no doubt a danger to not only our environment but also our food security.

Each year, Farm Aid board members Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews host an all-day festival to concert to bring together a wide variety of artists, farmers and fans to benefit family farmers. Since 1985, Farm Aid has raised over $50 million to help family farmers thrive all over the country while inspiring millions of people to stand up to take part in the Good Food Movement.

This year the board members (who perform every year) were joined by a plethora of other stellar artists including Jack Johnson, The Avett Brothers, Sheryl Crow, Margo Price, Jamey Johnson, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Valerie June and many more. As is tradition for Farm Aid, the board members orchestrate a press conference before gates open to speak to the media about the event. Neil Young unapologetically professed, “America is already great, we don’t need to apologize. We don’t need to feel bad.”

The 32nd annual event was held at the KeyBank Pavillion, in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania (better known to fans as Star Lake), just outside of Pittsburg. Festivities opened up with Willie Nelson & The Wisdom Indian Dancers around 12:30, a traditional welcome of the ceremonies for Farm Aid. Shortly after the beautiful performance from the Wisdom Indian Dancers, Blackwood Quartet took the main stage and serenaded the crowd as they were still trickling in from the many entrances. Insects Vs Robots took the steering wheel next on the main stage and delivered a nice set of their genre-bending sound. Valerie June was a nice addition to the bill this year and her soulful blues-rock fit perfectly with this year’s lineup. Hailing from Memphis, June is supporting her 2017 release The Order Of Time and with a new bevy of songs now embedded in her arsenal the singer-songwriter is poised for monumental things.

One of the most exciting artists to consistently grace Farm Aid is Willie Nelson’s son Lukas Nelson and his band Promise Of The Real. Not only has Promise Of The Real become Neil Young’s backing band for the annual show but Lukas has become just as much of a pivotal member for the cause as his father has. Highlights from their set included “Set Me Down on a Cloud,” “(Forgot About) Georgia” and “Find Yourself.” Blackberry Smoke was another exciting addition to the lineup this year. The rapidly ascending Southern rockers have made quite the name for themselves, especially after being taken under the wing of veteran pioneer in the jam band scene Warren Haynes. Haynes has not only tapped Blackberry Smoke to play his annual Christmas Jam benefit concert but also extend the invite to head out on the road as a support as for Gov’t Mule. By the time Jamey Jonson took the stage just before 3 p.m. the crowd was notably more full and situated for the rest of the music that was about to unfold. Johnson has been performing at Farm Aid for ten years in a row and its clear this is an issue that’s very important to him. With that sort of tenure hopefully one day he can become a boared member as well. Johnson kicked off his set with a nice tribute to The Band when he covered “Up On Cripple Creek” which found its way into the Don Williams covers “Some broken Hearts Never Mend” and ‘Til the Rivers All Run Dry.” Johnson continued this momentum with a beautiful rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” > “Willin’” by Little Feat and closed his set with a Jerry Reed cover “Eastbound and Down.”

Margo Price took the stage just before 3:30 and opened up with country staple “Tennessee Song.” The singer-songwriter squeezed many heavy hitters into her allotted time slot including “Weakness,” “Hands of Time,” “Paper Cowboy” and “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle).” Price took full advantage of her time on stage and while her set seemed over too soon, this wouldn’t be the last time she graced the stage that evening. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats were one of the many bands who tried to stay as involved as possible and take their efforts beyond the stage. Early in the afternoon Nate made an appearance at the FarmYard Stage for a forum with local farmers about how to keep the local farming economy vibrant. Musically Rateliff and company more than exceeded expectations as they delivered hits like “S.O.B.,” “I Need Never Get Old,” “Look It Here” and even working in a cover of Leon Russell’s “Delta Lady.”

The Avett Brothers took the stage at approximately 4:45 p.m. and opened up with “Laundry Room” > “Talk on Indolence.” The band came out firing from all cylinders and revved the crowd up with a jolt of energy. Scott and Seth Avett have an unexplainable chemistry together not only through their songwriting but also their on stage performances. At one point Seth Avett even jumped down and got down to the crowd where he high-fived a fan in the front row. Other highlights from their set were the two-song punch of Daniel Decatur Emmett cover “Jordan Is A Hard Road to Travel” > one of their most beloved originals “Ain’t No Man.” The band kept to mostly songs from I And Love And You and served up a beautiful set with a full range of emotion.

Jack Johnson made his triumphant return to Farm Aid and at this point in the evening had the largest crowd in their seats ready to see what the singer-songwriter was going to serve up. Johnson was all smiles throughout his set often pointing at someone in the crowd, telling stories in between songs and genuinely having a great time on stage. Jack opened up with a brand new autobiographical song he wrote moments before he took the stage called “Willie Got Me Stoned and Stole All My Money.” The title of the song says it all as Jack got caught up in a few poker games with the Farm Aid board member.

Jack turned to his roots as he played “Good People” next, fully embodying the theme of the people who want to help local farmers. Without wasting any time, Jack brought out Sheryl Crow, Jamey Johnson and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats for a stunning rendition of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” “Bubble Toes” found its way into “Breakdown” where Lukas Nelson emerged to add to the laid-back number. Jack and Lukas swung into a beautiful tease of Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” inside “Breakdown.” The Avett Brothers came out and played “Mudfootball” > “Better Together” before Johnson closed with his new single “My Mind is For Sale” off his brand new album All The Light Above It Too.

Sheryl Crow followed Johnson’s incredible set and took the momentum in stride. Crow opened up with “Everyday Is A Winding Road” before eventually welcoming Margo Price back to the stage for a duet on “Strong Enough.” Crow stated she was a “huge fan” of Price and was notably happy to share the spotlight with her. Crow closed her set with “If It Makes You Happy” which paved way for a tribute to The Allman Brothers Band with a cover of “Midnight Rider,” featuring Margo Price, Jack Johnson and both Willie and Lukas Nelson.

Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds no doubt retained most of the fan base in the audience. The two have become a staple at Farm Aid and together they’re coming off one of their most successful summer tours as an acoustic duo in their career. As the two guitar players took their spots on stage the opening notes of “Don’t Drink The Water” came slowly out of the PA as the two artists extended the intro nicely.

“Satellite” emerged next and found its way into “What Would You Say” before one of Dave’s most beautiful newer ballads “Mercy.” The duo went on to debut a new song called “Odds Are Against Us” before “Warehouse,” which was the highlight of their set. The duo closed out with a beautiful rendition of “Crush” that left the crowd more than satisfied. Fellow board member John Mellencamp took the stage next and sprinkled in many different highlights in his set including a solo acoustic performance of “Jack & Diane,” which ignited a sing-a-long with the sold out crowd. Mellencamp even managed to work in a Robert Johnson cover with “Stones In My Passway.”

Neil Young took the stage with Promise of the Real as his backing band and immediately dropped into a stirring groove with the Crazy Horse cover “Fuckin’ Up.” Young motioned to Luckas Nelson and dropped into “Cortez the Killer” > “Cinnamon Girl.” The two songs whiplashed the crowd into a dancing frenzy before Young lead the backing band through “Human Highway” and eventually the beautiful landing gear “Heart of Gold.” Pressed for time, Neil worked in “Comes a Time,” “Like a Hurricane” and closed his set with “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

While Neil hasn’t missed a single Farm Aid since its inception in 1985, recently Young has cancelled a lot of performances this year alone. Earlier this year he cancelled a festival appearance in Australia, bailed on a tour in South America and Japan and pulled out of his commitment to induct Pearl Jam in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Young also put the Bridge School Benefit on hold, with no foreseeable plans to change that in the future. Needless to say, it was more than a treat to see the rock and roll icon take the stage at Farm Aid. Young stole the evening and left no stone unturned.

As it tradition Willie Nelson closed out the main stage festivities. Willie took the stage just before 10:30 p.m. and opened up with “Whiskey River.” Nelson worked in several of his staples including “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” and “On the Road Again.” Willie tipped his hat to several artists and delivered some prominent covers with Toby Keith’s “Beer For My Horses,” Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman,” Ed Bruce’s “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “It’s All Going to Pot,” his famous collaboration with Merle Haggard. Willie welcomed Jamey Johnson for a take on Larry Davis’ “Texas Flood” and even closed out his set with a cover of Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light.”

When it was all said and done people in attendance were left content and satisfied with the incredible marathon event of music. While the last note has come and gone through the PA system, the message of importance to help the local American family farmer still rings as loud as ever.

About the author

Stu Kelly