“The farm killed me.”
An Iowa farmer’s 1985 suicide note bluntly told the story of that decade’s agricultural crisis. Family farms were disappearing at an alarming pace, taken down by bank foreclosures and bankruptcy.
The suicide rate among farmers soared. And Willie Nelson, a son of rural North Texas who knew firsthand how tough farming could be, even in good times, wanted to help.
Bob Dylan was the instigator: at the July 13, 1985, Live Aid concert for Africa, held in Philadelphia, he declared, “The American family farmer could use a hand too.” Though, given the event’s global focus, some balked at Dylan’s comment as overly nationalistic, Willie took him seriously. “I asked some of my friends around who were ranchers and farmers [in Texas], and they said, ‘Well, it’s really bad in the Midwest . . . It’s on the way [here].’ ” Farmers’ dire straits—caused by a combination of sinking crop prices and federal farm policy that urged farmers to overextend themselves—“pissed me off,” said Willie.
So he decided to do something about it. In short order, he put together a team of activists, started a nonprofit, and—a mere two months after Dylan had planted the idea in his head—wrangled dozens of artists for the first Farm Aid concert, held on September 22, 1985, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Some 78,000 people cheered 54 acts, including Willie, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Johnny Cash, Dylan, B. B. King, Lou Reed, and Loretta Lynn. Farmers and activists also took the stage during the twelve-hour event, which raised $7 million.
Over the 35 years since, Farm Aid has continued to work on behalf of family farms. More than five hundred artists have played the annual festival, raising close to $60 million. The Massachusetts-based nonprofit isn’t just about that one big event, though; it operates an emergency hotline, provides disaster relief, and gives annual grants to farmers and farm assistance programs.
“Willie is the DNA of Farm Aid,” says its executive director, Carolyn Mugar. “It’s no telling how many farmers have stayed on the land because he listened to them and gave them the strength to continue.” One such farmer, 85-year-old Nebraskan Merle Hansen, said in 2005 that Willie and Farm Aid “have stuck with us over the long haul. You are good folks to ride the river with.”
“Farmers were losing their land and being shoved off,” Roger Allison recalls. “Then Willie Nelson says he is going to help. . . . We felt we could see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Willie first rode the river growing up dirt poor in Abbott, a small town about 25 miles north of Waco, where, as a young child, he picked cotton and baled hay. On Sundays he learned the Golden Rule at the Abbott Methodist Church. Gene Autry, the white-hatted singing cowboy, became his role model, vanquishing evil with his guitar every Saturday afternoon at the Ritz picture show. In Abbott, when people needed help, you gave them a hand. Farmers chipped in to buy Willie a $60 calf when he joined Future Farmers of America in high school. As a guitarist for Bud Fletcher and the Texans, an adolescent Willie attracted his first fan club—local teenage girls and young women who bought him a fancy Western suit to wear onstage. Willie saw these gifts not as acts of charity but as what we now call “paying it forward.”
That kind of thinking would become the Willie way. During his early years as a journeyman musician, dozens of helping hands gave him a boost, and he never forgot the generosity that kept him going. For the past fifty years, he’s lent his support to hundreds of causes. As far back as 1973, he organized a “homecoming” event assisting Abbott’s parent-teacher association. That was the first of numerous fundraisers he’s held for the folks in Hill County. Seven years ago he gave $120,000—most of it proceeds from an Austin concert—to residents after a fertilizer plant exploded in West, killing 15 people and injuring more than 250. In 2006 he purchased the Abbott Methodist Church, likely saving it from the wrecking ball.
Many such efforts went under the radar, as when he played a concert in the Big Bend in 1980 to raise money for the local hospital. Others got more media attention: in 2004, when Texas Monthly staffer Michael Hall sought to raise money for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, the first person he called was Willie. “Let’s do it,” Willie told Hall, who noted that “with Willie driving the bus, others hopped on.” The star-studded Austin concert eventually raised over $130,000. In 2011, Willie co-headlined, with George Strait and the Dixie Chicks, another Austin benefit that yielded more than half a million dollars for victims of wildfires in Central Texas. The list goes on and on. Willie, it sometimes seems, can’t say no.
Some of his charitable work has raised controversy, costing him more than time and money. For decades Willie has been an advisory board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, though his reputation as an outspoken cannabis enthusiast has never gone over well with the conservative faction of his audience. According to Joe Nick Patoski’s 2008 biography of Willie, some locals boycotted his 2006 induction into the Hill County Hall of Fame because they disapproved of his “lifestyle,” and the University of Texas at Austin once barred him from performing at a Special Olympics ceremony because he might attract “undesirables” to a family event. But he just keeps on smoking. This past April 20 he hosted a four-hour-and-twenty-minute “Come and Toke It” livestream, encouraging socially isolated viewers to “smoke one with Willie” and soliciting donations for the Last Prisoner Project, which works to release inmates incarcerated on minor drug charges. While Willie told jokes, sang songs, and cheered guests, thousands of online viewers responded with donations and comments like “You’re a fighter for this plant!”
Willie’s most contentious act of charity was playing a 1987 benefit concert for the imprisoned American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of the murder of two FBI agents. Peltier’s supporters, who believed he was framed, sought a new trial. “[Willie] took more heat than anyone did,” Kris Kristofferson said. Police officers, angered by his participation, picketed Willie concerts in West Virginia and Rhode Island the following year. As a peace offering, Willie shared the proceeds from a Massachusetts concert with a police memorial fund—and the American Indian Movement. He also made hefty donations to several police organizations. Around the same time, Baylor University canceled a fundraiser Willie had organized to help the residents of nearby Leroy, who’d lost their life savings when a local bank failed. Texas Rangers had threatened to picket the concert, and the university president said that Willie should use his influence to “strengthen the moral fiber of our nation.” (Willie simply relocated the show to another Waco venue.)