LINCOLN, Neb. — When the curtain rang down on country star Willie Nelson's Farm Aid III concert late Saturday, it may also have come down on the entire phenomenon of pop charity mega-events launched two years ago by Band Aid, Live Aid and USA for Africa.
Spokesmen for the 10-hour benefit to raise money for the nation's small farmers still had no tally Sunday of total contributions that the two-hour telethon portion of the concert might have brought in. There were delayed broadcasts in several parts of the country and telephone pledge figures were not to be made public until today.
But regardless of the contributions, Nelson left little doubt that there will probably be no Farm Aid IV, even though such supporters as Kris Kristofferson and John Cougar Mellencamp said they would continue to perform in them for free as long as Nelson wanted to stage them.
"I wouldn't mind seeing the load taken off of Willie because it is such a load," Kristofferson said.
Nelson, who Forbes magazine has dubbed the 28th richest entertainer in the country, earned an estimated $17 million during the last two years. The 54-year-old country singer who was once a dirt-poor Texas hog farmer adopted the farm crisis as his personal cause after the 1985 Live Aid concerts to help Ethiopian famine victims.
Since then, his Farm Aid concerts have turned him into a heroic figure to debt-strapped family farmers and he has made frequent, well-publicized trips to Capitol Hill to lobby on behalf of agriculture bailout bills.
But the costs in time and money have been heavy, Nelson admitted in a Saturday press conference. Like Live Aid's Bob Geldof and USA for Africa's Ken Kragen who both swore off huge charity events over a year ago, Nelson said he is probably getting out of the pop charity mega-event business. His Cambridge, Mass.-based Farm Aid Foundation will continue to exist, but the concerts probably will not, he said.
Since its inception, the foundation has given away $7.1 million in farm relief grants in 40 states. Relief organizations in California, the nation's leading agricultural state, have received a total of $10,000 in Farm Aid money. Georgia farmers, who have received $536,000, have been the biggest beneficiaries of Farm Aid.
The foundation itself is now out of money until the Farm Aid III pledges begin to come in. As of last week, about $960,000 remained from the $11.4 million raised by the first two Farm Aid concerts, but it has either been committed or already spent to produce Farm Aid III.
Some 70,000 fans paid $20 apiece to see the music marathon featuring 36 country, rock and folk acts at the University of Nebraska Memorial Stadium.
The nonprofit foundation also took a percentage of concesions and Farm Aid merchandise sales and even charged the 700 newsmen and women who covered the benefit $25 apiece for their press credentials.
Still, there were unofficial fears Sunday that the benefit might not break even.
Even with many of the recording artists and local volunteers donating their time to Nelson's two-year-old foundation, production costs were expected to be substantial.
Production expenses and fund-raising costs accounted for roughly $3.2 million or 28% of the contributions raised by Farm Aid I, held two years ago in Champaign, Ill., and Farm Aid II, held last year in Austin, Tex. Officials do not yet have an estimate of the expenses for Farm Aid III.
The list of entertainers who sang and then met with reporters to speak up for the nation's small farmers on Saturday were as well known as Nelson, Kristofferson, Arlo Guthrie and Emmylou Harris, and as obscure as Rattlesnake Annie, Alex Harvey and Lyle Lovett. Though singers like John Denver offered up standards like "(Take Me Home) Country Roads" and Nelson himself kicked off the concert with his country classic "Whiskey River," most of the day's fare was either rockabilly or paeans to the bankrupt family farmer.
In one refreshing change of pace, the Grateful Dead appeared via satellite from a concert in New York, singing Bob Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" on giant television screens set up on the Astroturf of Memorial Stadium. Dylan himself, who originated the Farm Aid idea by suggesting during the 1985 Live Aid concerts that Americans should support the farmers, has not appeared at either Farm Aid II or Farm Aid III.
The Nebraska Cornhusker crowd chimed in on the chorus when Nelson's nasal twang opened on the final number, "This Land Is Your Land." Though the crowd was on its feet, the singing seemed subdued. Everyone, both on and offstage, seemed to sense that it might be the last time around for Farm Aid.