Leaving her house in the pre-dawn darkness on the coast of North Carolina, my oldest daughter, Sophie, traveled north and then west, speeding across Virginia to a rendezvous with me and two more daughters at a Walmart in the town of Staunton, where she would park her car and climb aboard our Honda Odyssey.
I had driven north from Hillsborough to meet her and had the luxury of leaving more than an hour later in the morning and with two passengers to keep me company. But at last, we were all together, a married father and three of his four daughters rocketing to rural Pennsylvania, still with many miles and many hours to go before we got to Farm Aid 2017.
I’m a freelance writer, and an ardent fan of popular music. My love of music had lain low during the years when my girls were little, but when the older three went one-by-one off to college it resurfaced, as something to share with them. This resurgent love sprang not just from their coming of age, but also from a new and deep idealistic belief that popular music is a universal healer – perhaps the only one.
We same four went to our first Farm Aid in 2016, in rural Virginia, and had a fantastic time. This year’s odyssey would be much more challenging, and a much longer drive. We also didn’t have a car or phone with GPS. Sophie jokes that I sometimes like to live life on the edge – “an adrenaline junkie” in her words – like when I move a Diet Coke from the fridge to the freezer just because I like it better when it’s colder, and insist I’ll remember to pull it out before it freezes and explodes. So far, I’ve had two explosions. Would traveling without GPS be another?
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Sophie had just left home the previous month to start her first real job, and now at the Walmart she took the wheel from me and headed toward northern Virginia, later veering westward into West Virginia – where we proceeded to get lost.
At that moment, I had a sinking feeling deep in my pit that this huge adventure was at the brink of an unraveling, a disintegration, to end in huge disappointment and mini-disaster. But we groped along with our directions, got help from a kind lady in a mini-mart, and got back on track in the city of Morgantown. There I took back the wheel from Sophie and sped north toward Pittsburgh. We knew we’d be late to the concert, but we just didn’t want to be too late. We didn’t want to miss any of this year’s headliners. And being from North Carolina, we had to see the first of them, North Carolina’s own Avett Brothers.
Seeing Neil Young
We came to Farm Aid in a bit of a roundabout way, this year geographically and last year philosophically.
You see, last year Sophie made it her personal mission to find a way for me to see Neil Young, who I’ve been a huge fan of forever but had never seen live, and she knew that every year he played at Farm Aid. So, Farm Aid was the goal. And while Farm Aid started out just as a way to see Neil, as a means to an end, it became an end in itself – for us, it has become the main event.
Starting with last year’s concert in Virginia and continuing this year in Pennsylvania, we have grown to love Farm Aid, and feel there’s no other concert like it. Seeing kids of all ages (even babies), all coming together to enjoy great music by legends and newer stars, and all in support of American family farmers: it’s just a beautiful thing.
Everyone seems so happy, and I feel they’re so well-behaved out of respect for Farm Aid’s founder, Willie Nelson. I also feel the crowds have been getting larger because everyone wants to see Willie, knowing that his end here might be near.
In Virginia we were very comfortable, our seats under the roof and out of the sun, the vibe prim and proper, families with scrubbed kids passing hand sanitizer and such; in Pennsylvania we were far from the roof and out in the grass (or as Sheryl Crow put it, “Here’s a song for you guys in the yard.”), an experience more raw and raucous, less scented of “wet wipes” than of “Willie’s weed” but as pleasant in a different way because you talked much more with neighbors.
Last year’s highlight for me was (after following him for 40 years) finally seeing Neil Young. It was thrilling. Neil serenaded the crowd with his song “Harvest Moon,” on a night when the actual Harvest Moon was clearly seen in the sky above us.
This year, the thrill was the Avett Brothers. And really, all the headliners sounded so good, especially Sheryl Crow.
Throughout the day my girls and I struck up nice conversations with a large group of friends from Youngstown, Ohio, who were huge fans of the Avett Brothers (one of them had seen the Avetts over 80 times). These friends were middle-age children and grandchildren of steelworkers. Somewhere I read that Farm Aid is one of the few places where “red state” and “blue state” America still come together. I couldn’t agree more, and Farm Aid has been for my daughters and me a celebration both beautiful and powerful – creating a strong bond of shared memories.
Thank you Willie, Neil, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews for giving us this. And I know America’s family farmers are grateful to you too, as we are to them - especially at this time of harvest and bounty and Thanksgiving.
As a blessing for Farm Aid’s 32-year history as well as its future (and employing the name of the great new film about the Avetts): may it last ...
Duncan Shaw lives in Hillsborough.