The sight of the lady in white at the top of the backstage stairs was enough to stop new partners in power rock Eddie Van Halen and Sammy Hagar dead in their boot tracks. Racing toward the Farm Aid stage where they were about to commit the wildest art heard during the 14½-hour marathon concert, these heaviest of metalists aw-shucksed like a pair of hayseeds upon encountering June Carter, the gracious first lady of country music. “We’ve been listening to your songs for years,” Hagar gushed. With wild blond curls, yellow space boots and matching jersey, Hagar clutched a bright red electric guitar in his hand and said he had spent the day hanging out with John Carter Cash, June and Johnny Cash’s 15-year-old son. June Carter described John as a guitar player and “big, big heavy-metal fan.”
As the rockers resumed their dash to the stage, Carter said she was not surprised at how well flamboyant rock stars were getting along with traditional down-home country players. “I love rock ‘n’ rollers,” she said. “We’re all here for the same reason—for the farmers. We all have to eat. And we all have the same roots. Even city people have ancestors who had their hands in the dirt. And as musicians, country and rock aren’t that far apart really. We all come from the same place.”
Staged to raise funds and encourage public support for the American farmer, whose plight has stricken the conscience of the nation, Farm Aid picked up the spirit and format of Live Aid, the worldwide July 13 African famine relief benefit, and brought it all back home. Guiding force Willie Nelson (who with John Cougar Mellencamp and Neil Young organized the concert) says it was Bob Dylan speaking from the stage at Live Aid who sparked the idea for Farm Aid. Dylan may have mumbled the words—that it might be nice to divert some of the money raised in Philadelphia and London to American farmers—but for many listeners Dylan’s words were a warning. Let the traditional caretaker of American soil—the family farmer—fail today, and tomorrow an American famine relief benefit concert might be staged on some other, more fertile continent.
Carole King compared the spirit backstage to an old-fashioned barn raising. “It’s like getting together with your neighbors.” And what a neighborhood: The largest gathering of country and rock performers in pop history, Farm Aid became a study in cultural and musical cross pollination. Exene Cervenka, singer for L.A. rockers X, trailed country stars around backstage filming them with her Super 8 movie camera. When she caught legendary singer-songwriter George Jones on camera, she nearly jumped out of her black leather jacket. “I got him in color—with sound!”
Exhausted by the marathon concert’s 12th hour, June Carter traipsed alone on blistered feet to a tour bus parked far behind the stage to retrieve a stack of vintage Sun Records 45s that rocker John Fogerty had admired during a recent meeting in Memphis with Cash. “I thought young John should have these,” Carter said, “but I can’t find him anywhere.”
When Johnny Paycheck walked through the artists’ compound, Daryl Hall’s band cheered him. “Hey, Johnny! Yeah! You’re the greatest.” When blues great B.B. King finished his set, a roadie walked offstage with King’s famous black Gibson guitar—”Lucille.” Members of Willie Nelson’s road crew quickly gathered round to admire King’s longevity. “What, the man’s 60 years old. He’s got 50 albums. I’m only 45, and I’m ready to retire,” said one.
Bridging the stylistic gap between hard rock and country, Maria McKee and Lone Justice gave the largely Midwestern crowd what was perhaps its first taste of L.A.-style “cow punk.” Wearing a country-girl dress and wielding a mean electric guitar, McKee opened with a rave-up rock version of Merle Haggard’s Workin’ Man Blues. Former Pure Prairie League vocalist Vince Gill, standing in the wings with Carlene Carter, said he thought McKee and Don Henley’s band turned in the best performances of the day. But, he said, they both “went right over [the audience’s] head.”
If Farm Aid reminded rock of its roots, it also provided indelible moments when everyone seemed country cousins. It was Nelson playing his gut-string guitar with Tom Petty’s electric band during Dylan’s rousing rendition of Maggie’s Farm. It was an aging country singer saying “I’m what’s left of Hoyt Axton.” It was Arlo Guthrie saying that if his dad, Woody, were alive “they couldn’t get him off the stage.” It was former Eagle Don Henley, just another sex object to Debra Winger, who called him “the cutest boy on stage,” quietly detailing facts and figures about the farm crisis offstage and saying, “The value of farmers is not only in the food they raise, but in the value system they nurture.” It was country banjo great John McEuen commenting in awe on a particularly incendiary guitar solo by Van Halen: “I have never heard anything like that—ever!” And it was Hill Street Blues’ Charles (Renko) Haid paraphrasing William Jennings Bryan: “You can burn down the cities and leave the farms, and the cities will grow as if by magic; but burn down the farms and grass will grow on the streets of your cities.”
After all the hard rock pyrotechnics and the rock-country hybrids, it was Nelson’s band that brought the focus back to country. Inviting fiddler Wade Ray and yodeler Shirley Collie, two old “family” friends, onstage during the finale, Nelson’s band performed a long, haunting version of Amazing Grace. When Collie (Willie’s ex-wife) began to yodel, soft and mournful, the cavernous Memorial Stadium echoed with the sound of a 19th-century pastoralism—the pure strains of longing and pride, of hurt and abundant hope.