September 22nd, 1985, was the inaugural Farm Aid event which saw esteemed artists like Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash and more come together in the name of charity while creating iconic moments in front of 80,000 fans. It would be the start of a long history that will add another edition on 27th September, with a special lockdown version of the huge event.
The idea for Farm Aid stemmed from a controversial performance at Live Aid involving Bob Dylan. The singer was asked about the huge help the benefit may be to those starving in Africa when he commented that “it would be nice if some of this money went towards American farmers”. It sparked an idea in the brains of legend Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young who felt obliged to use their powers to get something moving.
The cause saw names ranging from Carole King to Joni Mitchell to Eddie Van Halen and Kris Kristofferson all take part in uniting for the greater good. Sammy Hagar told MTV on the day of the event: “As soon as I read in the paper that there was gonna be such a thing I called my manager and said, ‘I wanna do it.’ And he said, ‘It’s all country.’ I said, ‘I don’t care. It’s America. I wanna do it.’”
Over the last 35 years, Farm Aid has gone on to become a staple of American culture and has overseen some incredible performances from the great and the good of the world of music. Performing is all well and good but the real winner here is raising money for a great cause. We are going to celebrate seven of the finest moments to have ever graced the Farm Aid stage.
Let’s get stuck in!
The Best 7 Farm Aid Performances
Johnny Cash & Waylon Jennings (1985)
At the very first Farm Aid in 1985, one of the most special moments came when Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings came together during that historic day at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium which stole the show.
The duo performed a wonderous rendition of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. Jennings introduced his counterpart to a raucous ovation, saying: “This is my friend from the road, home and everywhere for about 25 years. He’s truly a legend in his own time, this is Johnny Cash.”
It was always a special moment whenever Cash performed this legendary track but the addition of fellow country juggernaut Waylon Jennings makes the performance even sweeter and is a celebration of everything good about Farm Aid’s collaborative nature.
The Grateful Dead (1986)
Most charity shows were a single affair but Farm Aid was ready to go again in 1986 and little did they know back then that it would still be going strong all these years later. For Farm Aid II, they booked Manor Downs Racetrack in Texas on May 4th for the second event which would become a yearly musical moment in the calendar. The show in 1986 had a remarkable lineup that included the Beach Boys, Los Lobos, Rick James, Bon Jovi, Steve Earle, Joe Walsh, George Jones, Waylon Jennings and more.
The Grateful Dead, however, were not at Manor Downs Racetrack on that iconic night. Instead, they simultaneously broadcast their performance at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, to the audience in Texas. Jerry Garcia and the group tore through a mini-set that included ‘The Wheel’, ‘I Need A Miracle’ and ‘Uncle John’s Band’ to the audiences in Texas, New York, and those watching back at home.
The performance sees The Dead at their musically swaggering best but all was not well behind the scenes. Garcia’s health had been gradually deteriorating in the lead up to the show and just six days after the event he fell into a diabetic coma and was unconscious for nearly a week. Thankfully, Garcia recovered and despite forgetting how to play the guitar he somehow returned to the stage by the end of the year.
Willie Nelson & Paul Simon (1992)
Farm Aid took place at the Irving Stadium in Texas for the 1992 edition which welcomed the likes of Neil Young, Arlo Guthrie and Lynyrd Skynrd but it was Willie Nelson & Paul Simon sharing the stage together which would provide the most poignant moment.
They took to the Texan stage to perform ‘Graceland’, the titular track from Simon’s 1986 seventh solo studio album a year before when Nelson joined him on stage for a rendition of the song at Farm Aid in 1992. The performance was so special that twelve months later on May 22nd, 1993, shortly after Willie turned 60, he was joined by Simon for an incredible version of the track on Saturday Night Live as well as duetting on Nelson’s ‘Still Is Moving To Me’.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (2000)
The 15th anniversary was a special occasion indeed with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young serving as the cherry on top of the evening’s events in Virginia at the Nissan Pavillion.
Neil Young is, of course, one of the founding father’s of Farm Aid along with John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson so it was a special moment when he got to perform with his old buddies in CSNY.
They delighted the crowd with a short but sweet seven-song set which was rounded off with a visceral version of ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ which went down an absolute delight with the crowd.
Lou Reed (1985)
Reed had spent much of the previous decade with his head being turned by the glitter and the gutter of glam rock. After a series of genius albums, Transformer being his most notable, the drugs and the debauchery of the seventies had taken its toll on Reed and he’s vivacious creative output was beginning to wane.
1984 effort New Sensations had been his first charting record of the decade and it gave Reed a new impetus. By 1985, Reed was not only back in the charts but he was back on stage with a smile on his face too. At Farm Aid, Reed performed ‘Doin’ the Things We Want To’, ‘I Love You Suzanne’, ‘New Sensations’ and his iconic outsider anthem, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. It’s one of the best performances from Reed’s later career you’ll see and captured the former Velvet Underground man rejuvenated.
Bob Dylan & Tom Petty (1985)
After Bob Dylan’s wholly unsuitable on-stage comments at Live Aid in 1985, the singer would spark the fire of one of America’s proudest benefit concerts; Farm Aid. The world had the pleasure to see the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan join Petty and the Heartbreakers for three numbers including a beguiling performance of ‘Maggie’s Farm’—which worked as a fitting reminder of their talent.
Earlier that year, while on stage in front of an estimated 40% of the global population as part of Live Aid, Bob Dylan, with cameras and spotlights trained on his gnarled face said: “I hope that some of the money… maybe they can just take a little bit of it, maybe… one or two million, maybe… and use it, say to pay the mortgages on some of the farms.”
Though the Live Aid event organiser, Bob Geldof would later call the comments “crass, stupid and nationalistic,” it was enough to inspire Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson to get together and start Farm Aid with the inaugural event being pretty much the perfect day.
Jack White (2014)
The former White Stripes man made his only appearance to date at the event back in 2014 at the Walnut Creek Amphitheatre in North Carolina when he shared the bill with the likes of Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Kacey Musgraves and Jack Johnson.
He ripped through a career-spanning 10-song set which heavily relied on White Stripes classics such as ‘Icky Thump’, ‘Ball and Biscuit’ before closing in epic style on ‘Seven Nation Army’. The 2014 event was a triple-headline special with White having the honour to co-headline alongside Nelson and Young as the event beds in fresher artists as the years go on.