Photos by Brian Murphy, Words by Marcus Dowling
Farm Aid is 31 years old this year! And for all those years, we’ve been fighting for a revolution! – Neil Young
For literally half of Neil Young’s 70 years on planet Earth, he’s been a fighter for the welfare of community farmers. Neil Young also played Woodstock, pilloried those who were against the anti-war movement, and is widely considered to be the “Godfather of Grunge,” too. Thus, of all of the many things that made Saturday’s Farm Aid Festival at Jiffy Lube Live a worthwhile twelve hours of festivities, it’s in noting that gray-haired muckrakers and their college-aged progeny, dudes downing Bud Light Lime brews while drenched in a scent that feels forty minutes off from five o’clock, and kids with flannel shirts wrapped around their waists though it’s 25 degrees too warm for them ALL still love “Rockin’ in the Free World” that makes the legacy of Farm Aid’s “revolution” come full circle. Sometimes a festival is more than a festival, and is instead about discovering how to give high-minded idealism a semblance of real-life sustainability that lasts forever.
In an election year where a candidate promises that building a wall along the Mexican border will “make America great again,” there’s something about eating a grilled ham steak slapped between two slices of thick white bread slathered in tangy barbecue sauce while Dave Matthews Band plays frat-boy grooves that would lead you to believe that, well, America’s already great, has a smoking horn section, and is delicious, too. However, Farm Aid’s stated mission is to “build a vibrant, family farm-centered system of agriculture in America,” a nation where famously, as fellow Farm Aid co-founder John Mellencamp sang on his 1985 hit “Rain on The Scarecrow,” “The crops we grew last summer weren’t enough to pay the loans, couldn’t buy the seed to plant this spring and the Farmers Bank foreclosed.” That aforementioned delicious sandwich came courtesy of Farm Aid’s HOMEGROWN Concessions, which provided family-farmed food to the concessions stands, a testament to Farm Aid’s organizers putting boots to the ground to ensure the legacy of this concert-as-movement.
Grammy Award-winning rockers the Alabama Shakes and infamous new era country/soul hybrid star Sturgill Simpson were mid-day delights, and if Farm Aid’s permanence via founders starts with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, sweeps through John Mellencamp and recently ended with Dave Matthews getting on board as a member of the Board of Directors in 2001, then there’s a likely hope that either one — or both — of these acts will join Matthews and do the same.
For as much as people look to Saugerties, New York every five-to-ten years to see how Woodstock’s legacy will be pushed ahead, it’s probably wiser to look at Farm Aid to get a sense of where the hippie-to-hipster agrarian soul revolution is headed. Walking about the crowd during the Shakes’ set, and the unifying theme among oldsters was that there was a “Janis Joplin” vibe to Brittany Howard’s lead vocals and a “Stax or Muscle Shoals thing going on” with Sturgill’s swinging alt-country presentation that has much more to do with two of the ’60s most iconic jazz/funk/soul hybrid labels than any traditional twanging country-rock vibe. There’s an allegory to what was played in the afternoon at Farm Aid to Woodstock ’69-era groups like Janis and her Kozmic Blues Band or Otis Redding playing Monterey Pop in 1967 with Booker T and the MGs that comes to mind, which was more than certainly directly intended.
There’s something about seeing legacy acts like John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson that’s really mind-blowing in the sense that you’re not quite sure about when they went from being pop icons to being something greater than themselves. Maybe it’s a testament to songs like “Pink Houses” and “On The Road Again” in that they are these anthemic and guitar-driven sing-alongs that have hooks big enough to feel like they can fill a cavernous venue like Jiffy Lube Live with a sense that everything’s going to be alright if we all just sing along and smile really hard. At moments in Mellencamp and Nelson’s sets, it’s the sense that songs in their canon have always emanate from the speakers as sounding so unmistakably “American” in the most gratifying of ways that simultaneously made them legends when they were already being considered great.
In America, a “band of gypsies” can “travel down the highway” as the “best of friends” to “little pink houses.” Put that house next to a family farm, and this all sounds like a grand old time. A revolution that started on a farm in upstate New York four decades ago still likely hasn’t reached it’s tipping point. However, a jam-packed crowd of three generations of farm-to-table food-stuffed revelers would agree that soldiering on — especially to this grooving and jamming soundtrack — is a great idea.