Willie Nelson

The Living Treasures: Willie Nelson—Hero of American Music and Soil

Willie Nelson truly “Rocks the Earth.” This year, the 78-year-old country music legend—whose career spans over 60 years, with thousands of songs written and over 200 albums recorded—was presented with the Planet Defender Award by “Rock the Earth,” an environmental organization who partners with the music industry.

“I’m happy we share a love of music and the environment and use those passions to make the world a better place for generations to come,” said Nelson in his acceptance speech.

Nelson’s philanthropic efforts date back to 1985, when he and fellow musicians John Mellencamp and Neil Young (Dave Matthews joined later in 2001) created Farm Aid—a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping family farmers on their land. One of the extraordinary features of Farm Aid is its annual fundraising concert with the same name—the longest running benefit concert series in America. As Founder and Board President, Nelson’s commitment to the cause for the past 27 years is relentless and evident in the astounding $39 million they have raised promoting family farmers and raising awareness about the plight of these unsung heroes of American soil.

Family farming in America is still a crisis. Due to economic pressure, US farmers are often pushed off their land and replaced by big factory farms. Farm Aid’s website encourages folks to take action—not only to support family farmers but also to protect our food quality and the environment. “Family farmers work to protect the soil, water, and biodiversity in addition to producing high-quality, healthy food for everyone.”

All great creations begin as seeds. The seed for Farm Aid was sown at the Live Aid concert—created to provide relief for the ongoing Ethiopian famine in 1985. On stage, Bob Dylan said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we did something for our own farmers right here in America?” Farm Aid had a mere a six-week gestation period, and was ushered into being on September 22, 1985 by Nelson, Mellencamp and Young.

Nelson’s long-standing commitment to America’s family farmers earned him induction into the Agricultural Hall of Fame last year. Farm Aid’s executive director Carolyn Mugar remarked, “Willie has said he realized early on that playing the guitar was a heck of a lot easier than being a farmer. The family farmer has never had a better friend than Willie Nelson; he has worked tirelessly to stand up for family farmers and the good food we all want.”

This past year, Nelson and others at Farm Aid asked White House officials and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help farmers who have been forced to finance their farms on high-interest credit cards or personal loans. The USDA’s Farm Service Agency proposed a new rule to help farmers by creating a micro-loan program for up to $35,000.

What led Nelson to become a voice for family farmers? Growing up in Abbott, Texas during the Great Depression, Nelson was raised by his grandparents. He picked cotton in the summer but found it to be difficult work. He also raised pigs for the Future Farmers of America. But singing and music was his deep calling from an early age. Nelson’s grandpa gifted him with a guitar at age six, and he dislike cotton picking so he made money singing in dance halls and other venues from age thirteen on.

Having been honored with nearly every imaginable award a musician can win, Nelson has also earned recognition as an actor, author and a humanitarian and environmental activist. Known for his legendary ballads and albums too numerous to name but including “Crazy”, song and album “Red Headed Stranger” and “Stardust,” Nelson advocates for the reduction of gas emissions and is also the mastermind behind Willie Nelson Sustainable Bio-diesel (Willie Nelson Bio-diesel also known as “Bio-Willie”)—bio-fuel for truck stops made from vegetable oil. At present, two sustainable bio-diesel plants exist in Oregon and Texas. His bio-diesel fuel-powered bus named after one of his many movies, Honeysuckle Rose IV, is powered by Bio-Willie. His home in Maui, Hawaii is solar powered.

Nelson is recognized as an Honorary Trustee of the Dayton International Peace Museum and in 2010, was awarded the Feed the Peace award from The Nobility Project not only for his extensive contribution to agriculture, but also for his active role in world peace.

Like his range in music—including country, outlaw country, country rock, reggae, blues, jazz and folk, Nelson also has a wide scope of causes for which he contributes his time and talents. The year before he founded Farm Aid, Nelson sang on the extraordinarily popular “We are the World” album. He is a significant voice in support of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act and just this past Spring, supported the Occupy Wall Street Movement—protesting against financial greed and economic and social inequality by being a part of the “Occupy This Album.”

His success and dedication in all arenas just seems to be part of him, much like his beloved battered old Martin guitar he affectionately calls “Trigger.” It seems that being a steward of the land and many other causes are a part of him as well. One could imagine the Earth herself at the top of the list in “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” and continues to love. If the Earth could vote, I imagine she would vote for Nelson who has tirelessly kept her, as his ballad is titled “Always on my Mind.” Rock on, Willie!