1 October, 1995
It may not have been the most star-studded version of the annual Willie Nelson shindig but it was the first to sell-out prior to showtime and ultimately netted nearly one million dollars, twice the amount made by any of the three previous Farm Aid concerts.
On a sunny October morning, some 47,000 music fans headed to Louisville’s Cardinal Stadium, in Kentucky, to see Nelson and founder Farm Aid members John Mellencamp, John Conlee and Neil Young, along with such helpers as Hootie and The Blowfish, The Dave Matthews Band, Blackhawk , The Supersuckers and Steve Earle fill out the seven hours.
“Eat your heart out, girls!”
“Eat your heart out, girls” roared Willie at one point as he was joined onstage by female farmer Mattie Mack in a cowgirl dress. Later he would reminisce: “Ray Charles and I were talking at We Are The World and I said this is great but wouldn’t it be something for the people of our own country. Then at Live Aid I heard Bob Dylan say: “Wouldn’t it be great if we did something for the farmers right here in America?” Willie recalled that he, Neil Young and John Mellencamp then got together and planned a supershow. In just a few weeks, they’d put together a bill that included Dylan, Billy Joel, BB KIng, Loretta Lynn, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and an array of other main names. That first Farm Aid, dubbed ‘A Concert For America’, took place in September, 1985 at Champaign, Illinois, before some 78,000 believers, ultimately raising a huge cash fund for America’s family farmers. Not that things had always been easy.
As John Mellencamp recalled, “I went to Washington in the beginning with Willie and the guy we most needed to see just asked “You guys bring your guitars?” When we said “No” he just got up and left.”
Farm Aid came about because America’s independent family farms were in trouble. In 1970, US Farmers owed $50 billion to the banks. By 1985, when Farm Aid was launched, the debt had risen to $215 billion. Few could pay back their loans. Previously, with the economy in good shape, they’d been encouraged to buy more land, borrow more money to expand. Then the economy collapsed, and they were forced to sell, as a new form of industrialised agriculture gained control.
In 1995 President Clinton was urged to veto any farm bill that would force family farmers from their land. Clinton responded “Our nation's agricultural success comes from the hardworking men and women who till the fields and grow outdoors and they deserve our respect gratitude and support.” Even so, during that same year, the farm crisis continued to force more than 500 farms off their land every week.
It wasn’t just cash that Farm Aid supplied, at the Louisville show, a newspaper reported that local farmers had contributed 75,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables, while concert-goers had donated various canned goods on entering the stadium.
Neil Young, who opened with Comes A Time, before delivering a set that included The Needle And The Damage Done, and a cover of Ian and Sylvia Four Strong Winds, pleaded with the US Government to help abolish factory farms which were polluting the nation's rivers.
He claimed huge conglomerate farms completely wiped out everything including the environment, the family structure and just the overall goodness of American life. He loved family farms.
“When I was a kid back in Canada when I was about five or six years ago a farm started on the other side of the tracks,” claimed Young. “I remember they were the happiest days of my life”
It was Dave Matthews’ first time on a Farm Aid bill. He immediately made an impact with a highly-charged version of Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower. Matthews owned a farm of his own in Virginia, and Mellencamp described him as enthusiastic: “Not one of those guys who half-asses anything. He would later become a Farm Aid board member and would tell writer Dave Hoekstra, “When the band played for the first time in Louisville, Kentucky, I liked the whole sense of it. It didn’t matter if you were news singers like us or a legend like Willie. There was a sense of purpose that I enjoyed. It also made me reflect on my life, my own involvement, and how I live.”
Willie was totally involved at Louisville, jamming with Eddie Spaghetti and his Seattle-based Supersuckers on Bloody Mary Morning, linking with Neil Young for On The Road Again, generally basking in the good vibes that were being generated all around. A report on the event claimed: The crowd was really congenial. Fans made permanent frIends across the aisles, all while groovin’ on the baseball field turned concert stadium”
Farm Aid would continue to fascinate and donate, and in 2015 celebrated its 30th anniversay with a concert in Chicago. Not bad for an event that Bob Geldolf had proclaimed: “crass, stupid and nationalistic.”
However, time eventually ran out for the Cardinal Stadium. The seating was eventually found to be unstable and in 2014, the process of tearing it down began.