Friday, August 19, 2011

Willie Nelson, Kansas City and Farm Aid

This past weekend, I attended the 26th annual benefit concert for Farm Aid, held this year in Kansas City. Since I am not a music critic and had no intention of sitting in a stadium for ten hours straight listening to music, I decided to organize this blog post around a few random photographs that I took, some at the concert venue, some of the celebrity performers, and some of Kansas City itself (the Missouri side). I begin with the latter.

Kansas City, Missouri, Country Club Plaza
Reputed to be the first regional shopping center in the world dedicated to automobile access, Country Club Plaza was built in 1922 on 55 acres, located about four miles south of downtown KC. At the time, the area was best known as a location for pig farms. But it soon would be stunningly transformed, with its main commercial structures designed as scaled-down replicas of some of the famous buildings of Seville, Spain.

Still beautifully preserved today, Country Club Plaza boasts the longest life of any planned shopping center in the world.  It offers lessons in what foresight and creativity, when merged with a commitment to aesthetic beauty, can contribute to a community over the long run.  In contrast, consider how many seedy, abandoned shopping centers, many under ten years old, despoil the American landscape today!  Originally disparaged as "Nichols’ Folly" (after its developer, J. C. Nichols) for its (then) undesirable location, Country Club Plaza provides a powerful, visual emblem of the thriving urban center that Kansas City is today.

Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City, MO, main entrance

Nelson Atkins Museum, Henry Moore, Reclining Figure: Hand, sculpture lawn

Rather than attend the early musical performances on Saturday afternoon, I visited the Nelson Atkins Museum in KC, MO, one of the wonderful smaller museums in our country.  Here (top photograph) is the front of the old classical building, completed in 1933.  The Shuttlecock, one of four placed by Claes Oldenburg, suggests that some giant race has been using the building as a net.  The other three Shuttlecocks will be found on the cascading sculpture lawn on the other side of the museum, where (above) we see one in the distance beyond one of the thirteen monumental sculptures by the British artist, Henry Moore.

Kansas City, Kansas, Livestrong Stadium, Farm Aid Show

The new Livestrong Stadium, located in a dedicated sporting park outside of Kansas City, Kansas, holds 18,467 when configured for soccer, but also can create a large stage at one end, and, with the additional seating on the field, it accommodates 25,000.  I thought that this stadium worked amazingly well as a concert venue.  Populous, its architects, also were the designers of the new Yankee Stadium and Wimbledon’s Centre Court.

Livestrong Stadium Plaza, Patchwork Family Farms stand

On the plaza outside of Livestrong Sporting Park were stands and tents with educational displays, games, and activities related to farm and food issues.  Here, Patchwork Family Farms serves up delicious pork chops while its staff sports t-shirts calling for the end to factory farms.  As Neil Young remarked when visiting this area, which was called Homegrown Village, “My name is Neil Young and I want a Fair Farm Bill because real money should go to real farmers.”

At another booth, the Kansas Farmer’s Union compared the retail prices of common food items with the amount received by the farmer.  Thus, for a loaf of bread costing $3.89, the farmer receives a mere $0.19.  The data was quite revealing.

We all need to understand the implications of factory farms on our health, environment and economy.  As Willie Nelson has often said, “If you eat, you’re involved.”  He founded Farm Aid in 1985 in support of family farms and the value of hard work.  Over the following 26 years, Farm Aid has raised over $39 million in support of family farm agriculture.  Looking to the future, Neil Young stated that “Farm aid needs new blood. We need to educate kids in school that being a farmer is really good … We need to stay together.  Lets go forward and keep our food clean and pure and grow it together.”

The alternative, large industrialized farms (or factory farms) pose major threats to our health, the environment, and our economy.

Dave Matthews, Wilie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young at Livestrong Stadium

In the stadium, Saturday morning, just prior to the press conference that would kick off the day, we here see the four main performers for the evening music program:  Dave Matthews, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young.  Here are some excerpts from their statements at the press conference that followed.

Jim Hightower & Dennis Kucinich talking after the Press Conference

Jim Hightower was the MC for the press conference, and often had the crowd of ca. 600 people in stitches with his laconic, low-keyed, down-home humor.  But we might also remember him as the Texas Agriculture Commissioner for a decade in the 1980s and a progressive thinker who has championed positions in support of the common man over corporate greed and control.

Dennis Kucinich is Ohio’s representative from the the 10th Congressional District and one of the true liberals of Congress.  In many ways, he represents the conscience of our country within Congress.  But given the radical turn to the right over the past fifteen years, his is a voice of reason and ethics crying in the American wilderness.

Both Hightower and Kucinich are supporters of Farm Aid and family farms.

Mark Rothbaum, manager of Willie Nelson

Caught doing what he does invisibly and so well, is Willie Nelson’s manager, Mark Rothbaum, here working his PDA behind the scenes during the Saturday morning press conference.  Mark is the person who has insured that Farm Aid continues as a major venue for great musical presentation.  As long as he has his PDA, his office is wherever he happens to be, which is usually far from the limelight.

Willie Nelson displaying Agricultural Hall of Fame induction plaque

Willie Nelson, after the press conference, here holds up the plaque honoring him as the most recent inductee into the Agricultural Hall of Fame for his support of the family farmer and for being the main force behind Farm Aid.  Willie refers to family farmers as “the backbone of our country.”

Willie is the 38th person to be inducted into the Agricultural Hall of Fame since it was chartered in 1960.  Among the other inductees are George Washington, for his innovations in fertilizer and the prevention of soil erosion;  John Deere, for the development of the durable steel plow;  Eli Whitney, for his invention of the cotton gin; and Squanto, for helping the starving Pilgrims and teaching them to fish and to plant corn using fish as fertilizer.

In contrast to the today’s totally ineffectual and counterproductive members of Congress, two of its earlier members were also inductees: Arthur Capper and Andrew Volstead, who gave their names to the act of 1922 that guaranteed the rights of farmers to organize and operate cooperatives without any governmental anti-trust backlash.  Both were Republicans, the one a senator from Kansas, the other a representative from Minnesota...but this was back in those arcadian times when Republicans actually served our country and worked for the common good.

Ray Price, the "Cherokee Cowboy" at Livestrong Stadium

Here I catch Ray Price starting out the program in the early afternoon.  Only before the crowds came in for the evening performances could one get up front to take a photograph (wide angle at that) near the stage.

Painting John Mellencamp during show, Livestrong Stadium

While the musicians performed, two painters collaborated on a portrait of that musician.  Here is one of Mellencamp, although well on its way towards the far end of expressionism, it still captures his recognizable features.  Since the painters themselves are a bit of an act, they eventually will get carried away on this work as they slather on more pigment and John begins to dissolve behind a swirling river of acrylic.  If he seems a bit bi-polar, realize that the two painters each work on one side only!

Neil Young on big screen, Livestrong Stadium

Neil Young’s act was the penultimate of the evening, just preceding that of Willie Nelson.  He came solo, with just his guitar and harmonica, and captivated the audience both with his statements in support of family farms and at least one new song he wrote for the occasion.  Among the lyrics of Young’s Farm Aid Song are these:

Well I hate to say the farmer 
Was the last of a dying breed
 Living off the land 
And taking what he needs...

Enter the corporate farm in the next stanza, where Young sings:

...Yeah, they want to feed the world
But for power and for greed
Then they'll cut off the supply
Until they get what they need.

What follows is a warning, as equally unheeded as those today about global warming and the real causes of our economic catastrophe:

Well I dreamed I saw a dust bowl
Where the farmers used to live
Earth was flying through the sky
It had nothing left to give...

The conclusion is hardly uplifting, but Young’s composition is a powerful bit of homespun poetry:

Don't say much for the future
When a family can't survive.
I'd hate to say the farmer
Was the last of his kind.

You're In Kansas Now 1, Livestrong Stadium

You're In Kansas Now 2, Livestrong Stadium

You're In Kansas Now 3, Livestrong Stadium