There was no denying, It was going to be a big deal. A large part of the pop-culture universe would shift its focus to South Carolina for a day, and that day was exactly 15 years ago, Oct. 12, 1996. It was a day I’ll always remember, because I’ve never felt so many good vibes in one place, with so many famous musicians just hanging out and enjoying each others company.
Farm Aid was founded in 1985 to raise public awareness about the plight of the American family farmer. Its masterminds were Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, and John Conlee, and its mission was to provide assistance to families whose livelihood depended on agriculture.
Hootie and the Blowfish were at the top of the pop charts at the time, and the Columbia-based quartet played an energetic set at the 1985 Farm Aid in Lexington, Kentucky. Afterwards, they invited Willie to bring the show to Columbia in 1996. A quick check of the calendar to see when the Gamecocks were out of town, and voila! Farm Aid was booked for Williams-Brice Stadium on Oct. 12.
It was announced to the public in July of 1996 (Willie rolled into town in his tour bus and did a press conference at the stadium), and everyone immediately wanted to know who would play … in addition to Willie, Neil, and Mellencamp of course. When the line-up was announced, anticipation swelled. Country stars abounded. Tim McGraw, Ricky Van Shelton, Hal Ketchum, Gretchen Peters, and Martina McBride were coming, just to name a few. Pop-rock stars such as Jewel and Rusted Root were scheduled. I almost blew a gasket when I saw Steve Earle, Son Volt, Robert Earl Keen, and the Texas Tornados on the bill. I can now confess, 15 years later, to doing something a tad unethical for a newspaper reporter. I finagled an artist’s laminate, hung out all day backstage, and had the time of my life. Heck, I’m a music fan and this was a chance of a lifetime. Besides, I got some great stories by posing as a country-rocker, so I don’t feel too bad about it.
Tickets were a whopping $27, and gates opened at 10 a.m. The first act was scheduled to start around 11:30, so I took a seat on a folding table near the load-in gate just to see what I could see. I knew it was going to be a good day when I looked to my left and the first person to come walking by was Steve Earle.
“Hey, Steve,” I said.
He glanced at my laminate and took a seat next to me on the table. For about 10 minutes we talked about Farm Aid and Columbia, and I confessed I was a hometown boy. He laughed and asked me about a club he’d played with the Dukes years back that was under a big water tower.
“Oh, that must have been Sylvester’s,” I said.
So it was cool when I heard Earle mention from the stage a few hours later about how he’d played Columbia before at the old club formerly on Pickens Street.
And that was pretty much how my day went. I’d spot somebody and chat with them for a while. Robert Earl Keen. Jay Farrar of Son Volt. Marshall Chapman. I actually chased a couple folks down, because I just had to say hey. Freddy Fender for one, who was wearing the largest belt buckle known to man. And David Crosby for another, a surprise visitor who came to sing with Hootie (and Neil Young, too, as it turned out).
Speaking of Neil, he provided the strangest episode of the day. As it got close to time for his set, the stagehands constructed a private tunnel from his tour bus to the stage so he wouldn’t be distracted. It was a big disappointment for me, because Neil has always been one of my biggest heroes. But he didn’t disappoint when he took the stage that night with Crazy Horse and played one of the loudest hour-long sets I’d ever heard.
As I made my way to my car around midnight (the show was supposed to end at 11 p.m.), I was exhausted but exhilarated by the phenomenal music I’d heard. In fact, I was still hearing it, because Willie and Family were onstage, playing into the night.
It was a magical (and historical) day for Columbia, and I’m still thankful that I had the opportunity to take part in it all.