From the heart of some of the most productive land ever put to the plow, the marathon Farm Aid country and western concert today boomed forth a message of alarm and hope for America's financially stricken family farmers.
With support from numerous rock 'n' roll cousins, the down-home millionaire balladeers of the Nashville Sound led an emotional 14-hour tribute to the men and women of rural America, whose lives and hard times for so long have inspired their own country art.
The talent ranged across American pop tastes, from such country superstars as Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker and Waylon Jennings, to Arlo Guthrie, Roy Orbison, Billy Joel and Bob Dylan.
Millions across the country tuned in via cable television and radio to the day-and-night hoedown, hootenanny and jam session, which was organized by Nelson and rock star turned country singer Neil Young. In the same way that the summer's Live Aid concert touched a well of compassion for Africa's starving millions, Farm Aid focused new national attention on the real-life situations of sod busters, sheep herders, pig farmers and cattlemen-the classic bad-luck folk of country music's lonely hills and hollers-whose way of life is in grave jeopardy.
Nelson said, "Since the Live Aid thing did so well, maybe we had to do something."
Concert organizers said more than $3 million had been pledged within the first eight hours, in addition to $4 million they had raised in advance. By some estimates, callers were donating about $500,000 an hour. Some participants had predicted earlier the concert could raise up to $50 million, though in recent days organizers have played down their expectations.
As the concert progressed, about 30,000 calls an hour flooded the tollfree donation telephone number, 1-800-FARM-AID. The organizers had anticipated 50,000 calls per hour. During the evening prime-time viewing, The Nashville Network sent its syndicated live feed to more than 300 stations outside its own network. Radio coverage was continuous from the start, and the Nashville Network television coverage-to its regular 29 million subscribers-began two hours after the concert got under way at 10 a.m.
The concert's stage was wide as the show's artistic embrace: a 64-foot- square platform in the open, north end of the U-shaped football stadium. A 60-foot-diameter turntable allowed continuous performance; while one act played, the next group could set up and then be rotated into view. Each was scheduled to play a 17-minute set, with three-minute breaks between acts. The schedule, however, became ragged quickly -- to the crowd's obvious delight.
A 300,000-watt sound system and huge stadium screens blew the show into the other end zone; it was the same complex setup used at the Philadelphia Live Aid concert.
Thousands of people thronged the streets of this university town (population 58,000) late last night and early today. The $17.50 tickets sold out within three days after they went on sale early this month.
The music they came to hear began with Nelson and Young doing a soft, smooth duet, "Are There Any More Real Cowboys Anywhere." For what was to come, it was a placid opener. Merle Haggard took the stage for several of his legendary ballads. His gaunt face, 19 feet tall on the Diamond Vision screens, bespoke the life of solitude and toil common in the nation's green and empty places.
The show quickly segued into a pastiche of country, rock and blues. A major high spot came about an hour in, when Roger McGuinn raised the skies above the stadium with an unannounced guest solo of The Byrds' 1966 megahit "Turn, Turn, Turn."
That seemed to tap into a raw line of energy that was building around in the stadium. Even though the rain pelted down, the crowd clapped, cheered and sang along. They gave hearty applause to Bonjovi, a five-member rock band from New Jersey; and Hoyt Axton, a country music legend whose hits include "Where Did the Money Go?" and "A Rusty Old Halo."
Then came country superstar Tanya Tucker, who brought the rain-soaked crowd to its feet with a powerful performance. She later told a press conference, "I was kind of worried about the electrical shock system out there."
But there were no reports of serious injuries either on stage or in the stadium.
Charlie Daniels, a grandfatherly fiddlin' genius, knocked the crowd out with "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Resplendent in a white shirt, dark trousers and a turquoise-striped black vest, Daniels later told reporters, "Go out and see some guy planting in his field sometime. Pay some attention to these people-they need it."
If Daniels came close to the old-time flavor of country music, the Beach Boys came closest to tearing down the stadium. With a medley including "Good Vibrations," "Help Me Rhonda" and some of their immortal surfin' hits, the band dried up the rain with the sounds of endless summer. The press box, high atop the west side of the granite and concrete stadium, began rockin' and rollin,' setting aging men and women to recalling times long gone by.
Loretta Lynn, sleek in white pants, blouse and heavily beaded jacket, left no doubt she believed every word of her hit "You're Not Woman Enough to Take My Man."
Blues singer Bonnie Raitt and Rickie Lee Jones added their own unique touches to their sets.
As evening closed in, B.B. King, the nation's most explosive blues man, electrified the crowd with a long, stirring set. King, head shaking, guitar wailing, strutted and strummed and hit the moment between day and night right between the eyes.
As the rain held off through dusk, the crowd grew, and by nightfall the stadium was packed. They thronged the new, $1.8 million artificial-turf football field, which was protected by fiberboard and huge tarpaulins. Concertgoers stayed energized by making "the wave" around the grandstand arc and swaying to the performers' beat.
They made a colorful sea beneath the twin 50-foot-high Farm Aid logo banners that flanked the stage: a blue and black tractor proudly flying the American flag. A flag staff atop a huge rear wheel drew a stylized musical note. Among the day's favorites was Roy Orbison, the proto-punk soloist from Wink, Tex., whose 1964 classic "Oh Pretty Woman" remains hot enough to melt Siberia.
Carole King, alone on stage at a white grand piano, did her song "You've Got a Friend," setting off nostalgic clapping. John Fogerty, songwriter and lead singer of the old Credence Clearwater Revival, brought his solo act here, getting a warm response.
Glen Campbell, bearded and wearing tinted aviator glasses, opened with his 1975 runaway hit "Rhinestone Cowboy," then smoothly stitched a medley that drew sustained applause. Nelson, wearing a Farm Aid cap, stoked the crowd with call-and-response choruses of the donation phone number. That ushered in the three-hour prime-time segment beamed live via satellite to stations outside The Nashville Network.
Urban rocker Billy Joel and folk philosopher Randy Newman led off, alternating solos from face-to-face grand pianos. Joel's "Only the Good Die Young" shook the stands for the first time since nightfall. Newman responded with the legendary blues-rock standard "Stagger Lee." The crowd gulped it up.
Next, blue-eyed soul man Daryl Hall appeared without partner John Oates, stirring the crowd with a prancing "Expressway to Your Heart." But the highlights of the prime-time set were Johnny Cash's solo rendition of "Old McDonald Had a Farm," while the crowd sang "Eeyie, eeyie, ooh;" a quartet of Cash, Nelson, Campbell and Waylon Jennings; and then, Bob Dylan.
Looking relaxed and at ease with the stirred-up crowd, Dylan led his band through a long set that featured Nelson playing with the sidemen.
Despite heavy showers that drenched the first three hours of the long day, the audience remained friendly, relaxed and devotedly enthusiastic as the show moved along, alternating the blasting beats of rock bands with the twangy guitars, soaring fiddles and strong solo voices of Nashville.
Mostly college-age, with as many women as men, the crowd also included thousands of farmers and rural residents. Their careworn faces, natural quiet, and modest ways were in homespun contrast to the livelier young folk around them. Draped in bright yellow, green and red plastic slickers, wearing Stetsons and farm caps, the audience gave back its own intensity to the bands and singers. With good cheer and endless enthusiasm, they bore witness to their love of heartland music and the cause of their farms.
Those twin themes brought Bill and Judy Shouse here from their farmhouse in LaPlata, Mo., several hundred miles west. "I wanted to see what was going on," Bill Shouse said equably. "It's drawn worldwide attention to the plight of the American farmer." His commitment has its own bitter roots: Last January, Shouse lost his 460-acre corn, bean and grain farm to foreclosure. "The day they sold it on the courthouse steps it was 25 years since I'd begun working a farm." His troubles came so swiftly he is still reeling from them.
Now, back in farming with his father's help, Shouse said of the possible impact of Farm Aid, "Washington's listening, but they're not really hearing us. If the full strength of the nation gets behind us, maybe they Washington will listen." The concert, he said, should help focus leadership attention just as the Congress begins debate on the five-year Farm Reform Act.
The complexities of the Farm Belt's crisis are not the stuff of country-and-rock concerts, but there was certainty throughout the resounding 61-year-old stadium that family farms must be preserved.
"I'm here because I like country-western music, and to help support the American farmer, and to have a good time," said Steve Chilias, 45, a long-distance truck driver down from Chicago. "The farmer grows it and the trucker hauls it, and a lot of them are losing their farms. Food to eat and milk to drink comes from only one place."
Said Bill Millman, a 26-year-old construction worker from Sadorus, Ill., "Several people in my family have lost farms, and I know where they're coming from. This is the richest, most fertile soil in the world; it'll grow anything. I bought a bunch of souvenirs to help the cause."
On stage, the show rolled on with a number of surprise guest artists, including an unannounced appearance by Arlo Guthrie. Willie Nelson joined Guthrie for an emotional chorus of Steve Goodman's eerie paean to a past way of life, "The City of New Orleans."
Despite Farm Aid's extraordinary harmony and generous spirit, the diversity of the farm problems is so great there is no agreement among concert organizers on how to use the money.
Nelson said at a midafternoon press conference, "You can either spend it quick or spend it right. So we're not going to rush into anything." About 10 percent of America's 2.3 million farms are in danger of failing within the next 18 months; most of those in trouble are classified as "family-size commercial farms."
Ironically, their plight is seriously aggravated by a record-breaking harvest now under way in the Grain Belt.
Even as the 80,000 in the audience exuberantly roared and stomped their approval of music and message, storage space for corn and soybean crops is running short hereabouts. The new bounty from 18-hour harvest days will drive prices ever lower.
Few audience members had firm answers on what to do with any donations.
"If it helps the farmers, that's what it's for, but they ain't never said how they're going to distribute it," said Stoke Horton, 56, of Morton, Ill.
Said Ken Does, 43, a welder from Toledo, "I don't know how they're going to spend the money, but I know it's about time we helped people in this country instead of everybody else. This should make Reagan wake up to the fact people here need help."
Financial questions aside, the concert's power to put the farm problem on the front page of every paper in the country got high marks among the spectators.
"It's bringing awareness to the problem. Farm issues are getting a lot more space in the paper now that the concert is on," said Brian Harbac, a 21-year-old computer programmer down from Janesville, Wis.
For a group of high school friends, the issues were as clear as a lesson in American history. "I have friends whose dads are farmers, and I'm here to do my part to help," declared Jennifer Ross, 16, of Monticello, a small farm town 20 miles west of here.
Pat Kaler, 19, and his sister Kathy, 28, came from nearby Rantoul because "we have relatives who are farmers and we know how they're struggling. Farmers need all the help they can get."
Perhaps no one put the issue more clearly than a 15-year-old from Rantoul, Chad Ingold. "I'm here to support America. It's a great nation, and we wouldn't be here if there weren't any farmers."
Inside the press tent, Nelson, bewhiskered and enjoying himself hugely, said, "I lost $800,000 feeding cattle last year" on his own farm. And then he got down to basics about why he cares.
"When the family farm goes, so goes the service station down the street, and the used-car lot. On a loaf of bread, the farmer makes less than the printer who printed the wrapper."
John Cougar Mellencamp, a co-organizer with Nelson and Young, blamed much of the farmers' woes on the banks. "They don't mind the farmer farming the land. They just don't want them to own it." Mellencamp's sister farms in Indiana.
Describing himself as "more radical" than his musical colleagues, Mellencamp said, "I'm getting ready to do a hundred show dates, and I'll be talking about it and donating money at my shows."
Nelson and Lynn added, "This is only the beginning."
As the concert progressed, the performers drew special applause whenever they spoke of the country life. Beneath the sophisticated veneer of the high-tech concert, the hearts of many here remained beyond the stadium walls and the show-time glitter.
For the people from the farms beyond the edge of town, Farm Aid may yet bring help. But tomorrow -- with its chores, joys and troubles -- will come first.