Farm AID's Founder: Willie Nelson

Feature on the legendary country singer and songwriter Willie Nelson and his founding and involvement with Farm Aid.

| May/June 1987

The Texas troubadour Willie Nelson approves every check sent from Farm Aid.

Farm AID's Founder: Willie Nelson

It's midwinter in Tampa, Florida, one of those southern growth centers succumbing rapidly to Yuppie homogenization—the place looks like one giant, upscale import auto dealership dropped just yesterday across the delicate semitropical landscape of swamp and mangrove and palmetto—and as usual the weather is warm going on stifling. Willie Nelson really needs the air conditioner humming peacefully in his mobile home away from home, the Silver Eagle Honeysuckle Rose.  

In his own quiet, careful way, Willie's all business today. Waiting in the cool, dark comfort of the bus for the horde of people his presence will draw to town tonight, he's working hard: poring over snapshots of himself and his sister Bobbie outside the Abbot, Texas, church in which they learned to sing, for the cover of a genuine hard-core Christian mail-order gospel album; making little decisions about the set he and his band of hairy, red-blooded, honky-tonk gypsies will play tonight; ordering up a carefully nutritious chicken dinner from the kitchen bus that travels with his five-vehicle caravan, then forgetting to eat it; talking business, with little haste or waste of words or energy, on the radio telephone at his elbow.

The business concerns the usual megastar matters—movie promotion, investment opportunities, the touring schedule, a $1.5 million book contract—but also something seemingly out of place in this context: the Farm Aid cause, Mr. Nelson's first and only foray into public service. Cocooned amid Tampa's rapacious concrete consumerism, the former Bible salesman, honky-tonk infighter and latter-day multimillionaire is taking time to help the family farmers of his country fight back against government policy, big business and the economics of scale.

There is something rather special about Willie Nelson. It was he, after all, who united the rednecks and the hippies and the suburbanites of the 1970s in appreciation of a style of country music considered both archaic and impossibly uncommercial by the Nashville powers-that-were. Likewise his image—a lovely blend of longhair, cowboy, rebel, hardcore party legend and wise old man—is suggestive.

It's no wonder he's such an institution. You can look up to or down on some entertainers (Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Paul McCartney), but Willie invites involvement, not distance. The dominant element of his stare—a thoroughly savvy serenity—is mighty trustworthy.

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