Willie Nelson’s 2023 Farm Aid Festival: Bob Dylan’s Cameo, Neil Young’s Return & More Best Moments by Them Duffy

“Farm Aid is Earth Aid,” declared Neil Young, succinctly summarizing the role which the festival has taken on since 1985, focusing on how family farmers can help address the climate crisis, while also offering hours of extraordinary music Saturday (Sept. 23) at Ruoff Music Center in Noblesville, Indiana.

With an acoustic set which opened with “Comes A Time” and closed with “Heart of Gold,” Young returned to the Farm Aid stage after sitting out the festival in 2021 and 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic; the 2020 event was presented online. 

The festival was headlined by Farm Aid’s guiding board members Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Margo Price and Young — and featured an unannounced late-night set by Bob Dylan with the Heartbreakers.  

This year’s Farm Aid took place against the backdrop of discussions in Washington, D.C., over renewal by year’s end of the multi-part, multibillion dollar Farm Bill, which has a massive influence on how the nation’s food is grown. Farm Aid has joined more than 150 organizations in co-signing a letter to President Joe Biden demanding that Congress pass a Farm Bill that addresses economic inequality, racial justice and the climate crisis. Farming practices that sequester carbon in the soil are part of the answer to that crisis.

Farm Aid’s leaders were joined on Saturday’s bill by the Grateful Dead’s Bobby Weir & the Wolf Bros. featuring the Wolfpack, Lukas Nelson, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Allison Russell, The String Cheese Incident and Particle Kid. Also: Clayton Anderson, The Black Opry featuring Lori Rayne, Tylar Bryant and Kyshona, the Jim Irsay Band, featuring Ann Wilson of Heart, Native Pride Productions and the Wisdom Indian Dancers.

Here are the greatest moments from the 38th annual Farm Aid.

“Maggie’s Farm” and More

After Young’s set and before Nelson’s traditional show-closing performance, a black-clad Dylan walked out onto the darkened stage with members of the Heartbreakers, with no introduction. With a guitar around his neck and against the stark backdrop of a silhouetted windmill, Dylan launched into a short but intense set, beginning aptly with “Maggie’s Farm,” followed by “Positively 4th Street” and “Ballad of a Thin Man.”  The cheering crowd was astonished.  

Many Farm Aid veterans recognized the significance of Dylan’s appearance.  On July 13, 1985, in Philadelphia, Dylan had taken the stadium stage of Live Aid, the mega-benefit organized to raise funds for Ethiopian famine relief. Between songs, he mused to the event’s global audience: couldn’t a similar benefit help America’s family farmers? The remark inspired Nelson to launch Farm Aid with its first benefit concert that September. At that first Farm Aid on Sept. 22, 1985, Dylan was accompanied by the late Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, making his Farm Aid reunion with that band all the more poignant.

It’s Hard for Willie Nelson to Be Humble

At 90, Nelson is certainly the oldest festival headliner in the world but his voice and guitar playing have never sounded better. He has been on the road again this past summer leading the bill of the Outlaw Music Festival and his show-closing Farm Aid set was a nonstop sweep through classics, from the perennial kickoff of “Whiskey River” to the all-star sing-along of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I Saw the Light.” With his final song, a version of Mac Davis’ 1980 hit “It’s Hard to Be Humble,” Nelson displayed the demeanor and humor which has seen him weather nine decades of an amazing life: “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble,” he sang, “when you’re perfect in every way.”

Mellencamp’s Hoosier Pride

Mellencamp has not performed in his native state of Indiana in “15 to 20 years,” he said at a pre-concert press conference. But the native of Seymour, Indiana, was justifiably proud of bringing Farm Aid back to “the greatest state in the land.” (The $1 million Farm Aid donation made onstage from NFL Indiana Colts owner and part-time rock band leader Irsay didn’t hurt either). In a set packed with hits, a highlight was Mellencamp’s performance of his 1985 song “Rain on the Scarecrow,” an evocation of the pain of farmers displaced from their land, recorded at the time Farm Aid was created. “I don’t think any of us, in our wildest dreams, believed that 38 years later we would still be doing — and need to do — this,” Mellencamp said of the fight for family farmers.

“Powerful Farm Aid Moments on Indiana Soil”

So read the front-page headline of The Indianapolis Star on Friday (Sept. 22) for a story in which reporter Domenica Bongiovanni recalled the festival’s history in the state. Farm Aid IV took place at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis in 1990 and Farm Aid 2001: A Concert for America was staged in Noblesville on Sept. 29, 2001, less than a month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.  At the 1990 festival, Elton John was on the bill and introduced “Candle in the Wind” saying, “This one’s for Ryan,” wrote Bongiovanni. “He was honoring his friend, [Ryan White], the Kokomo [Indiana] native who contracted HIV through a contaminated blood transfusion and became a champion of AIDs awareness and education.”  White died the day after that concert.

A Model of a Sustainable Music Festival

Farm Aid has long been in the lead in showing how the music industry can create environmentally sustainable live music events. As the amphitheater gates opened Saturday, fans lined up at merchandise booths displaying Farm Aid T-shirts, sourced from organic cotton. The festival’s Homegrown Village offered demonstrations of farming and environmental practices. (One session was billed as “Crimson and Clover Over and Over: Cover Cropping 101”). At the Homegrown Concessions, guided by Farm Aid culinary director Sonya Dagovitz, hungry concertgoers could choose from food from more than a dozen regional farms. And Farm Aid volunteers guided food trash into compost bins, in partnership with Live Nation’s Green Nation initiative.

David Matthews Conjures Magic

Amid the full-ensemble performances that packed the Farm Aid bill, Matthews’ set stood out, as it does every year, as he leaves behind the jamming of the Dave Matthews Band for acoustic guitar duets with longtime accompanist Tim Reynolds. What these two masterful guitarists create is nothing less than sonic magic, at once meditative and driving. The sun was setting on the Indiana landscape — the amphitheater is surrounded by corn fields — as Matthews sang “Virginia in the Rain.”

“The farmers here care about the planet,” Matthews said at the pre-concert press conference. “They care about the earth and what they’re producing” and the community they’re part of, he said. “The conventional farm system has nothing to do with the planet, nothing to do with community and it has everything to do with profit. It only has to do with money — and it’s killing the planet.”

Collaborations Sprouting Everywhere

As if everyone backstage can’t wait to play with everyone else, every Farm Aid concert brings a constant flow of collaborations. On a moving version of “Requiem,” Allison Russell was joined by Lukas Nelson and Kyshona of the Black Opry. Bob Weir, whose band the Wolf Bros. includes Don Was, segued from “Truckin’” to “Not Fade Away,” joined by Nelson, Margo Price and the unbilled Farm Aid veteran Sturgill Simpson. For her own set, Price brought Simpson back out. (“Picked up this guy hitchhiking and he’s about to sit in with us,” she wrote earlier on X, formerly known as Twitter). Together the two traded guitar lines on Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” as Price sang, “She grew up tall and she grew up right/ With them Indiana boys on an Indiana night.”

Farm Aid’s Challenge to Its Fans

More than a decade ago, Willie Nelson said of Farm Aid’s mission: “We started out to save the family farmer. Now it looks like the family farmer is going to save us.” In an era of climate crisis — with the carbon-trapping promise of regenerative farming and similar practices — that has never been more true.  

In comments to Billboard before Saturday’s concert, Price described the stark choice involved in supporting family farmers. “The climate crisis and the food crisis are unfortunately, one and the same,” Price said. “Everybody’s gotta eat, and every time you spend a dollar, you are casting a vote.”

During his pre-concert remarks, Young echoed that view. “We have a choice and it’s really the people on the street who are going to make a difference,” he said. “The family farmers are doing everything they can do. But without the people behind the farmers, it’s not going to work. People need to support the farmers. And that’s not just a phrase.”

Onstage later, Young told the crowd: “Farm Aid is you.”