Last Saturday, an incredible lineup of artists came together to celebrate Willie Nelson in Nashville, Tennessee. The all-star concert, Willie: Life & Songs of An American Outlaw, featured artists paying tribute to Willie with a mix of his songs and theirs. It makes sense that so many of the artists who played that night have also graced the Farm Aid stage–since artists usually make their way to the Farm Aid stage via a personal invitation from Willie.
The concert was a reminder of what we know in our hearts to be true: Willie’s spirit touches everyone who listens to his music.
It was wonderful to hear from Farm Aid board members John Mellencamp (who put his own rootsy spin on Willie’s “Night Life,” with a special appearance by Carlene Carter) and Dave Matthews (who gave “Funny How Time Slips Away” a delicate DMB feel and sang “Crazy” as a duet with Willie himself). Farm Aid artists included Jack Johnson (who played his own song, which he debuted on the Farm Aid 2012 stage, “Willie Got Me Stoned and Took All My Money”) and The Avett Brothers (with a bluegrass-inspired medley of Willie tunes followed by their own “Willie Got There First,” a funny song that pays tribute to Willie’s songwriting genius, featuring Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel).
Micah and Lukas Nelson, Willie’s sons who have played the Farm Aid stage since they were teenagers, brought the house down with their heartfelt renditions of their dad’s songs, as did Jamey Johnson, who took the crowd’s collective breath away with “Georgia.” Relatively new to the Farm Aid stage, Chris Stapleton opened the show like Willie does, with “Whiskey River,” and Jason Isbell played the on-message (for Farm Aid) song, “Milk Cow Blues.” Farm Aid’s women artists were well represented via Sheryl Crow (one of the lucky ones who got to sing with Willie), Margo Price (the soon-to-be-second-mamma played “Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys”), Emmylou Harris (with the epic tale of “Pancho & Lefty”), Norah Jones and her band The Little Willies, Susan Tedeschi (who performed with Farm Aid alum Derek Trucks), and Allison Krauss (who silenced the arena with “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”). And there were so many more!
Of course, a tribute to Willie cannot fail to mention his commitment to America’s family farmers. In between acts, Farm Aid was highlighted for our mission to keep family farmers on the land. But then the emcee, W. Earl Brown, went off-script. He told a story about one of his social media followers, an Indiana dairy farmer who wrote to him after learning he was hosting the show. She told him how Farm Aid helped her dairy farm when times were tough, including helping her family share their story to explain the incredible odds dairy farmers are up against. When she said that she’d love to be there in person to honor Willie, Earl made it happen. We were incredibly happy to meet this dedicated farmer after the show and talk to her about her plans to keep the farm going by transitioning to beef production full-time.
The concert was a reminder of what we know in our hearts to be true: Willie’s spirit touches everyone who listens to his music. It was a reminder too that the work of Farm Aid, which can feel inadequate in times of crisis like these, can make a difference in the lives of hard-working people who love the land and just want to make a living by raising good food.