For nearly four decades Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Farm Aid have been fighting the good fight for American farmers

By Cameron Lee

September 29, 2022

Photo: Brian Bruner

On the first Saturday morning of fall in Raleigh at a Farm Aid 2022 press event, 70-year-old John Mellencamp sat atop the stage at Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek. He was sitting next to 89-year-old Willie Nelson telling a story about how they once spoke at a Senate subcommittee meeting. 

“Remember this, Willie?” Mellencamp asked. Nelson nodded. “I was under the impression that they would all be there and all be interested…and as we’re talking, some [politicians] are getting up and leaving, and finally one of the guys said, ‘Where’s your guys’ guitars?’” Mellencamp said. “I looked at Nelson– and excuse my language– f*ck these guys, let’s get out of here.” 

Nelson chuckled, and the crowd cheered. 

L to R: Willie Nelson, local farmer Beverly Blackwell Bowen and John Mellencamp at pre-festival press conference. Photo: Brian Bruner

It was Mellencamp and Nelson who, along with Neil Young, founded Farm Aid In 1985. The inaugural event took place in Champaign, Illinois with a mythical lineup featuring Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, The Beach Boys, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Bonnie Rait, Tom Petty, and many more country, pop and rock stars of the ‘80s. In its first year, the festival raised over $7 million dollars. 

There haven’t been many music festivals that have survived 37 years, let alone benefit concerts that have raised over $65 million for American family farmers, a total which included a generous $1 million donation on Saturday night by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay. 

Press Conference ahead of the Farm Aid 2022 music festival at the Coastal Credit Union Music Park in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photo: Suzanne Cordeiro

Saturday’s Farm Aid festival felt just as much like a grassroots social movement as it did a concert or music festival. As Nelson and Mellencamp were on stage next to fellow board members Margo Price and Dave Matthews, historian and activist Michael Stewart Foley announced “Farmers for Climate,” a rally organized by “a coalition of 35 farm, food, social justice organizations” scheduled for March 2023 in D.C. But stories from North Carolina farmers like Beverly Bowen, co-owner and operator of Blackwell’s Farm in Reidsville and Millard Locklear of New Ground Farms in Pembroke, shifted the attention closer to home. In a video released on the same day, Bowen, a second generation family farmer whose parents’ purchased the farm in 1945, speaks about legacy. In the same video, Millard and his wife Connie, express the importance of buying and eating locally.

Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek transformed into a musical ranch of sorts for Farm Aid’s return to Raleigh, as vendors sold fresh locally sourced okra, muscadine grapes, and apples. Knightdale, North Carolina’s Half-Pint Hollow Farms offered a mini petting farm with friendly (and adorable) baby pigs, goats and sheep. Farm Aid’s Homegrown Concessions’ family farm-sourced foods lined the amphitheater with a vendor village, skills tent and educational resources. It was a picturesque first weekend of autumn and fans in attendance– many of them farmers– were ready for the epic day of music ahead. 

The festival opened with the Wisdom Indian Dancers, a Farm Aid tradition. Micah Nelson, who goes by the moniker Particle Kid, followed. The youngest son of Willie Nelson, Micah took the stage to a fairly hollow amphitheater as many were just starting to arrive for the day’s festivities. Sounding more like the late Kurt Cobain than his father with tunes like “Fifth Song,” he dazzled in his scaled-down five-song acoustic/electric guitar set. 

Micah Nelson, best known by his stage name Particle Kid, performs at Farm Aid 2022 in Raleigh. Photo: Brian Bruner

Brittney Spencer showcased the vocal power that skyrocketed her career since she posted a cover of The Highwomen’s (Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires) “Crowded Table” to Twitter in late 2020. The rising country music star impressed with her pop-leaning “Damn Right, You’re Wrong” and “Sober & Skinny,” followed by a dynamic rendition of the Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra classic, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” With a once-in-a-generation voice, every note built anticipation for Spencer’s upcoming debut album. 

Charley Crockett, the country blues singer-songwriter and guitarist performed his traditional numbers like “Jamestown Ferry” and songs from his stellar 2022 album, The Man from Waco, “I’m Just A Clown” and “Just Like Honey.” Before finishing his set with the rockabilly-style “Goin’ Back to Texas,” Crockett took a minute to address the crowd: “That’s what I’m talking about North Carolina! I love it here, it’s a whole like the state that I’m from.”

Allison Russell performs with Tressie McMillan Cottom, Sheryl Crow, Brittney Spencer, and Margo Price at Farm Aid 2022. Photo: Brian Bruner

Fresh off her recent Album of the Year win at the 2022 Americana Music Honors & Awards, Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Russell brought out North Carolina’s own Tift Merritt, UNC professor and writer Tressie McMillan Cottom, and fellow performer Brittney Spencer for “Nightflyer.” Russell proclaimed the song changed her life: “It took me to the Grammys, it took me to the Junos, it took me to the Americana Awards, it brought me here to all of you and I am so grateful to be here with you. So grateful to be here with all of these goddesses.” 

By the time Sheryl Crow hit the stage, the amphitheater started to reach its 20,000-plus capacity. She rifled through her nine-song set with pop-country hits “Everyday is a Winding Road” and “If It Makes You Happy” from her multi-platinum 1996 self-titled album, and “Soak Up the Sun” from 2002’s C’mon, C’mon. 

Sheryl Crow performing at Farm Aid 2022 in Raleigh. Photo: Brian Bruner

Spencer and Russell came back out to perform with Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real on a touching Delaney & Bonnie cover of “Poor Elijah / Tribute to Johnson,” a song dedicated to the legendary Delta blues guitarist, Robert Johnson.

Chris Stapleton’s voice rippled through the amphitheater for a hair-raising performance of his Grammy Award-winning song “Broken Halos” and his famous cover of Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove’s “Tennessee Whiskey.” 

The newest Farm Aid board member, Margo Price, awed with her own “Tennessee Song,” from her critically acclaimed debut studio album, fittingly titled, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. For Price, whose family lost their farm in the mid-’80s in Illinois when Farm Aid was first being conceived, the Farm Aid cause hits close to home. She emphasized earlier in the day during the press conference that “there’s power in where we put our money, and if Neil [Young] was here, he would say, ‘If you see a farmers market, stop, pull over, and support’.” Young, a co-founder of the benefit concert and organization, has sat out the last two years due to health concerns from Covid-19. 

Margo Price, a board member, performs at Farm Aid 2022 in Raleigh. Photo: Brian Bruner

While Young was missed, his fellow Farm Aid co-founder John Mellencamp stole the show with a set that was soaked in American nostalgia. As the gravelly voiced heartland rocker strummed the first notes to “Small Town,” glowing images of rural cities and farms were projected behind him and his band. Mellencamp didn’t hold back his feelings on the government either, taking the time between sets to express his sentiment on politics from earlier in the day. 

Following with an acoustic solo version of “Jack & Diane,” he interjected, as the eager masses jumped right into the chorus instead of the second verse. 

“How many of you guys heard this song enough to know that it goes verse, verse, then chorus? You guys just jumped straight to the chorus!” After a collective laugh, the venue’s energy transformed into a campfire sing-along for the classic American love ballad. 

At 89 years old, Willie Nelson is still on the road. Even when the pandemic forced a national lockdown in March 2020, Nelson’s annual Luck Reunion festival was one of the first major livestream events in the country. This year’s Luck Reunion kicked off an extensive year of touring for Nelson with his Outlaw Music Festival, headlining shows, and Farm Aid. 

Willie Nelson performs at Farm Aid 2022 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photo: Suzanne Cordeiro

It’s remarkable when you can see a true living legend and national musical treasure perform songs from his historic catalog of albums spanning 60 years. Walking onstage to a mighty applause, Nelson shared the headlining set with his two sons Lukas and Micah (Particle Kid), kicking off with his traditional opener, “Whiskey River.” Starting with two songs from his genre-shifting 1973 album, Shotgun Willie, following up with “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer),” the performance turned into a true family affair. Changing between songs by Particle Kid like “Die When I’m High (Halfway to Heaven)” and “Everything’s Bullshit,” and Lukas’s “Forget About Georgia,” Nelson played fan favorites like “On the Road Again” and “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” As a luminous image of a rainbow hovering over green pastures served as a backdrop, Nelson brought out the full cast of Farm Aid artists to assist with his tour closers, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “It’s Hard to Be Humble.”

Lukas Nelson, Willie Nelson, and Micah Nelson (Particle Kid) performing at Farm Aid 2022 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photo: Suzanne Cordeiro

As he strummed the final guitar note for “It’s Hard to Be Humble,” Nelson gingerly made his way off stage as the band played an instrumental outro. He hurled a cowboy hat and a couple of his signature red bandanas into the crowd with all his might flashing his biggest smile of the day and waving farewell. With an amphitheater filled to the brim, many were in awe applauding what may have been their final time seeing the resilient outlaw country music icon and culture shifter. Nearly four decades since he and his friends set out to help save family farmers in America, Nelson is still fighting the good fight. 


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Willie Nelson’s setlist:

Whiskey River
Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)
Bloody Mary Morning
I Never Cared for You
Texas Flood
Die When I’m High (Halfway to Heaven) – Particle Kid cover
Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys
Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground
On the Road Again
Always on My Mind
Forget About Georgia – Lukas Nelson cover
Georgia On My Mind)
Everything Is Bullshit – Particle Kid cover
Good Hearted Woman
I’ll Love You Till the Day I Die
Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die
Will the Circle Be Unbroken? / I’ll Fly Away
It’s Hard to Be Humble
I Saw the Light – Instrumental Outro

John Mellencamp setlist:

Rain on the Scarecrow
Paper in Fire
Small Town
Minutes to Memories
Check It Out

Longest Days (acoustic)
Jack & Diane (acoustic)

Crumblin’ Down
Pink Houses

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