The Road to Farm Aid 30: with Willie Nelson

Photo courtesy of Farm Aid. © Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.

Come with us on the (virtual) Road to Farm Aid as we celebrate Farm Aid’s 30th anniversary concert in Chicago by profiling the amazing musicians involved – and join us there in person this weekend! (September 19th)

Organized in 1985 by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, the first Farm Aid concert set out to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on their land. Since then, Farm Aid has raised more than $48 million to promote a vibrant family farm system.

Name: Willie Hugh Nelson

Born: April 30, 1933

Hometown: Willie was born in Abbott, Texas – he has homes in Maui (in a solar-powered community) and Austin, Texas

A Bit of Background

Let’s just start off this profile by saying that you could research Willie Nelson’s life for weeks and have a great time doing it, but still have barely scratched the surface. Here is the tip of the iceberg!

Considering Willie Nelson’s infamous affinity for a certain smoke-able herb, you might think of the legendary singer/songwriter/guitarist/activist  as laid back or even lazy, but don’t get it twisted – Nelson has earned his spot at the top of the country music pantheon with about 70 years (and counting!) of hard work. He is said to have received his first guitar at six years old and joined a band at 10.In the years since, he has written over 2,000 songs and released over 300 albums!

As a child, Nelson worked in cotton fields. Over the years, he spent time in the US Air Force, sold Bibles and encyclopedias door-to-door, worked as a disc jockey and musician, and taught Sunday school. In the 1970s, he was an instrumental figure in the rise of “outlaw” country – a new subgenre that mixed country’s “hippie” and “redneck” contingents (as opposed to the more conservative Nashville country). During that same period, he adopted what would become his signature look: long hair (often in braids), headband, t-shirt, jeans and sneakers.

2015, which marks the 30th anniversary of Farm Aid, has been a big year for Willie. His new memoir, It’s a Long Story: My Life, hit stands last spring (other books include the Tao of Willie and Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die ). Around that time, inmates from the Pulunski Unit (a prison) in Livingston, Texas, gifted him with a handmade guitar. He also announced the launch of an agricultural enterprise, producing and selling a signature strain of marijuana, Willie’s Reserve, to be sold in states where recreational marijuana is legal, including Washington and Colorado.

In addition to his work with Farm Aid, Nelson has championed causes including the legalization of marijuana (he serves on the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), LGBT rights (in 2006, he released a cover of Ned Sublette’s Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other) and for better treatment for horses (he campaigned for the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act).

In 2013, Nelson covered Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” and the song was released with an animated video produced and released by Chipotle, featuring an independent farmer who scales up and mechanizes his farm, then returns to more traditional methods of animal husbandry, going “back to the start” (the main refrain from the song’s chorus).

Nelson holds black belts in tae kwon do and gongkwon yusul (second and fifth degrees, respectively).

Farm Aid Role 

Though flanked by his co-founders Neil Young and John Mellencamp (and Dave Matthews, who joined the Farm Aid Board in 2001), Nelson serves as president of Farm Aid’s board, and is inarguably the face of the organization. His daughter, Lana Nelson, serves as secretary.

In 2013, to mark that year’s concert in Saratoga Springs, New York, Nelson wrote this op-ed in the Huffington Post. In it, he wrote:

Every year, come harvest season, we gather for the annual Farm Aid concert. Artists, farmers, activists and eaters, we come together to recognize the crucial importance of family farmers. We take account of how far we've come and we renew our spirits for the fights ahead.

We stand with family farmers. 

Musical Tidbits

Before rising to fame, he wrote songs for artists like Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison.

In the early 90s, to raise funds following his trouble with the IRS, Nelson released the album Who’ll Buy My Memories: The IRS Tapes direct to fans via an 800 number. During that time, he also boosted his funds through a series of ads with Taco Bell.

In 2013, to mark his 80th birthday, the Red Headed Stranger released a special album, To All the Girls…a collection of duets with such notable female singers as Dolly Parton, Allison Krause, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris and Norah Jones.

He often plays with his sons, Lucas and Michah Nelson, who are featured in his album Heroes (along with musical greats Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Snoop Dogg), a collection of top-notch pop-country hits, some from the 30s and 40s.

Our Favorite Song

There are so many wonderful Willie Nelson songs – I am personally inclined toward classics like Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain and Whiskey River, but I wanted to give a nod toward something lesser known and also food/farming related. Driving the Herd, co-written with Buddy Cannon and performed with Merle Haggard on Django and Jimmy (released in 2015), fits that bill.