Country music superstar Willie Nelson, along with veteran rocker Neil Young (now a country music convert) and country stalwart John Conlee, appeared yesterday on the Hill to talk about the grim financial plight of many small farmers in this country.
Three days before the scheduled Farm Aid concert in downstate Illinois, Nelson said he hoped their appearance on the Hill would "bring attention to this problem . . . If you sit down tomorrow morning to eat your ham and eggs, look at it, imagine where it came from . . . Everyone in this room is affected by farmers."
"We're destroying the family farm," said Young. "We don't believe in the family system enough to support it at its roots."
The three spoke at a press conference in the Russell Senate Office Building after a closed half-hour meeting with the Senate Agriculture Committee. Singer John Cougar Mellencamp was expected but canceled his appearance on the Hill due to illness.
Nelson and his colleagues conceived the Farm Aid concert, scheduled for Sunday, and modeled it after the pop music stars' Live Aid benefit this summer for starving Africans. "I worked on a farm all through my childhood; I picked cotton," said Nelson, who comes from a small farming community in Texas, where he said his family didn't have enough money to own a farm. "Through the years, I've been a farmer and a rancher." Young urged people to vote for Sen. Tom Harkin's (D-Iowa) farm reform bill because "it doesn't create any more deficit than we already have. It's not subsidies . . . It allows the farmer to stand up and support himself on his own two feet."
John Conlee added that he had "sentimental reasons for being involved . . . My grandfathers were both involved in farming as well as my father."
Nearly $2 million has already been pledged in corporate contributions to the benefit, according to Jim Skilbeck, special events coordinator for Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson, and the 80,000 tickets for the concert at the University of Illinois football stadium in Champaign sold out in three days.
"I was in Champaign last Saturday," said Sen. Alan Dixon (D-Ill.) of the Agriculture Committee at the press conference. "It sounded like everyone in the world was coming."
Concert organizers have not decided yet how money from the benefit will be spent, according to Nelson. "We're open to suggestions about how we will distribute the money . . . When we do, it will attract a lot of media attention."
The concert promises 50 performers, among them Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel and Waylon Jennings.
"This is going to bring a lot of attention to the farmers' problem," Nelson said. "We already have made some videos. Neil Young and I are making one tomorrow. Sissy Spacek is making one. Jessica Lange is making one. Clint Eastwood, I talked with; he may be making one." No major network has opted to televise the concert, though it will be broadcast on cable, by an ad hoc network of television stations across the country and simulcast on 400 radio stations, according to Nelson.
"Having those stations -- some are affiliated with networks -- will help," said Nelson. "It would have been nice if one of the major networks had taken it, but unfortunately they didn't."
Nelson, in blue windbreaker and jeans, with a white visored cap on his shoulder-length brown hair, stayed to sign autographs for Hill staffers and chat with fans.
Nelson said he couldn't predict how seriously Americans would respond to the farm problem as a result of Farm Aid.
"We'll have to wait and see," he said. "When people see the plight of farmers out there who are killing themselves, I think maybe they will respond . Your guess is as good as mine."