On Saturday, Farm Aid delivered its 31st edition at Jiffy Lube Live, returning to Virginia for the first time since 2000 with an all-day benefit that was part-concert, part-state fair.
The latter was contained mostly in a few tents on the mezzanine: the Homegrown Village, where patrons could meet farmers, learn about issues such as food insecurity or participate in a seed swap; and the Homegrown Concessions, where people could eat family farm-sourced food rather than the usual deep-fried festival fare.
But most people were just there for a good time. Farm Aid delivered that, too, including a hoedown soundtracked by Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats; Sturgill Simpson’s soulful, Stax-influenced country; the heart-on-sleeve roots rock of Alabama Shakes; and the gentle ’90s nostalgia of Dave Matthews’s greatest hits.
It was the kind of blues-country-rock tapestry that Farm Aid has woven since its inception in 1985. As always, some of the acts — such as co-founders Willie Nelson and Neil Young — have been making music for half a century, and some for just a few years. But what joins all the artists is a nostalgia for Americana, for the better days of that old time rock-and-roll.
That nostalgia is key to Farm Aid’s mission: celebrating the days when family farmers weren’t under siege by banks and corporations. That dual nostalgia is present in the music of Margo Price, who performed early in the day. True to the title of her debut album, Price is a “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” and as she pointed out, Farm Aid was founded in the same year that her family lost their farm.
Price is among the class of young musicians looking back to the glory days of outlaw country, and she recalls both Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. Her lyrics hit familiar tropes — hard living, hard drinking, being “fifty-seven dollars from being broke” — and are heavy with real heartbreak and loss. But they’re fun, too: Her set included non-album cut “Paper Cowboy,” a honky-tonker that kisses off men who are all hat and no cattle.
There were plenty of paper cowboys in attendance on Saturday — people donning the hats, boots and denim of country-western dress-up — but most were good ol’ boys (and girls) dressed for a moderate September day, lounging in a sea of captain’s chairs and picnic blankets. Most opted for T-shirts dedicated to musicians, college sports and the American flag, but there was also a smattering of political messages, befitting the final stretch of the 2016 election: a Donald Trump shirt here, a Bernie Sanders shirt there, and even a few Ronald Reagan shirts.
But by wearing a Reagan shirt to Farm Aid, one is perhaps missing the point. The concert was born of the farm crisis that accelerated during the Reagan years; weeks after the first Farm Aid, Neil Young took out a full-page ad in USA Today that asked the president, “Will the family farm in America die as a result of your administration?”
That kind of disconnect was an undercurrent of the festival. Concertgoers sang along to John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” and rocked out to Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” but did they understand that those songs are sarcastic critiques about the death of the American dream, not rah-rah anthems about patriotism? When Young told the crowd that Farm Aid is a “revolution” wherein we “let the Earth bring us all together,” were they getting the message? Environmentally, perhaps not — at least judging by the empty beer cans and cigarette butts that littered the lawn.