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Willie Packs 'em In, Down On The Farm

July 13, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN

MANOR, Tex. — Willie Nelson has been a hero for years in his native Texas, where his annual Fourth of July "picnic" has become an institution. Now his Farm Aid campaign has brought him added respect--there are even whispers about some people here wanting him to run for governor or U.S. senator.

But Nelson doesn't encourage that kind of talk.

"I wouldn't want to run for office," he said with a shrug the day before the Fourth of July Farm Aid II concert. "I'm not into politics. There are people who are better suited for that than I am . . . and more power to them."

Yet Nelson has exhibited much of the dedication and leadership on behalf of financially troubled U.S. farmers that rocker Bob Geldof has in support of Live Aid and other African famine relief projects.

Those who have known Nelson for years aren't surprised by his drive.

"Willie has a laid-back appearance, but he has a wild energy," Waylon Jennings said backstage shortly after the Farm Aid II concert kicked off at Manor Downs, a quarter-horse race track near Austin.

"He'll keep doing this (Farm Aid) until something happens. He knows he is not going to make enough money to save the farmers, but he'll keep pounding until they do something down in Washington.

"People around the country are just beginning to see this side of him, but he has always been able to stick with things until they got done. Look at what he has done with the picnics. Who ever thought the longhairs and cowboys would ever sit side by side?"

Nelson's picnics--actually all-day music festivals--achieved a minor miracle by bringing together the once warring factions of long-haired hippies and two-fisted cowboys in an atmosphere of peaceful celebration.

That mix is now taken for granted, but it was very much a source of tension during the first picnic, a three-day affair called Dripping Springs Reunion and held near Austin in March, 1972.

About the philosophy of those shows, Nelson once said, "(People were suspicious of longhairs) . . . but it was a surface thing. Once people had a chance to think about it, they saw how ridiculous it was and they got over it. It's just something they weren't used to being around.

"After Charles Manson came along, they thought that everybody with long hair was going to kill them. So they had to get over that. Then, they thought that everybody with long hair was a draft dodger. And so on."

In subsequent years, the picnics grew--to as many as 50,000 people some holiday weekends. Though the first event centered on country artists, lineups occasionally included rock performers.

Last year's Farm Aid concert at the University of Illinois expanded the "melting pot" concept by spotlighting an even more diverse set of musicians and using the power of those musicians to support a social issue: the troubled farmers.

The artists seemed so delighted by the relaxed, open interchange that day, you felt most of them would have paid their way to Farm Aid II even if it weren't a fund-raiser.

Several Los Angeles rock bands contributed to the spirit of the day. The Unforgiven, the only rock band that appeared at Nelson's Fourth of July picnic last year, took part in some pre-concert activities the night before the show at Alley Oop's, a downtown Austin club.

The band, which dresses up in the spaghetti-Western garb associated with Sergio Leone films, was pulled onto the stage by Nelson's harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, and was soon joined by Motley Crue's Vince Neil, who led the group through Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll." Then Rick James took the stage for a medley that included his own "Super Freak" and Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City."

The Unforgiven was joined the next day at Farm Aid II by Nelson and Kris Kristofferson during a lengthy--and moving--version of "Amazing Grace."

Farm Aid II also contributed a footnote to Los Angeles rock history.

Two of the city's most respected bands, X and the Blasters, had performed at the first Farm Aid last year at the University of Illinois, and they were back for return appearances. The difference is that Dave Alvin, the guitarist and chief songwriter for the Blasters, is now a member of X.

That left questions about the Blasters' ability to come up with quality material, and about whether X would use any of Dave Alvin's songs. X already had two writers in Exene Cervenka and John Doe.

Tentative--and encouraging--answers to both questions were provided at Farm Aid II.

The Blasters debuted a bluesy, roots-flavored song, "The Farmer and the Boll Weevil," a biting reflection on the way thousands of family farmers are being forced from their land. Sample lines:

Says the boll weevil, "How does it feel"

The farmer told the weevil, " It's a dirty deal "

You burn the weevils with gas, you burn the farmers with loans

Now we are all on the road, looking for a home.

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