Willie Nelson, along with Neil Young and John Mellencamp, founded farm Aid in 1985 when American farmers were in the midst of a mortgage crisis that was forcing many small farmers to leave their land. Through the concert, modeled on the Live Aid event that took place earlier that year, the performers hoped to raise money and awareness to help those farmers along. The event was a huge success, and turned into a tradition that has lasted for over three decades, with a large concert held at a different location each year.
The last time a Farm Aid event occurred in the Washington, DC area was at the turn of the century, when shows occurred on back-to-back years at the then Nissan Pavilion in 1999 and 2000. Since then, the event has moved between locations as diverse as Indiana, New Jersey, Kansas, and Illinois. This year it was finally DC’s turn again, as the concert returned to Bristow, VA to the now renamed Jiffy Lube Live.
As always, the concert brought a good range of artists to perform, from up-and-coming artists such as Sturgill Simpson, Alabama Shakes, Nathaniel Rateliff, and Margo Price to headlining sets by Nelson, Young, Mellencamp, and Dave Matthews, who joined the three of them on the Farm Aid board of directors in 2001. This year’s lineup was a family affair, with John Mellencamp’s nephew Ian Mellencamp opening the day, and Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas Nelson and Micah Nelson performing with their respective bands, Promise of the Real and Insects vs. Robots (and also appearing in both Willie Nelson and Neil Young’s backing bands).
But while it was possible to attend the show purely for the entertainment, there were many other activities available, including exhibits and activities designed to educate concertgoers on farming skills and issues. The normal pavilion concessions were replaced with food produced from family farm-sourced ingredients. And of course several of the artists took time in their sets to speak about the issues – “There’s a revolution starting,” declared the always-outspoken Neil Young a couple of songs into his set, “it’s called eating good food that your neighbors made for you, not going and buying the stuff from the corporations that’s got all the chemicals on it and everything.”
In all, Farm Aid 2016 was a well-rounded event that served to both entertain and educate its audience, while also helping to raise funds for an important cause. The concert is over for this year, but you can learn more about the organization, donate, and watch for information on next year’s show on the Farm Aid website.