On September 13th, Farm Aid is returning to Raleigh, North Carolina. Dave Matthews first played the event in 1995 and now sits on its board of directors alongside Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp. Matthews spoke with Rolling Stone for our Nelson cover story, on stands now. We edited Matthews’ words into an appreciation of one of his favorite songwriters that covers weed, why he likes Nelson’s version of “Gravedigger” more than his own and why he considers Nelson a folk hero.
The first time we did Farm Aid, I think in 1995, I remember seeing Willie Nelson on the side of the stage, and he was signing autographs or saying hello to fans for the longest time. I thought it was amazing how after all those years being a legendary songwriter and a performer in his own right – and being an advocate for labor and for farmers – that he is really just those things because that’s who he is. He has no ambitions for politics or power. He’s just genuinely a folk hero. He genuinely has concern for the people around and the people that know him. The more you know him, the more he’s like that. He has written so many profound songs that I think there are sort of two different people, at least. The one that is this amazing contributor to the history of American music but then also this voice for the people.
I don’t know if I have a favorite Willie story; a lot of times they’re too X-rated. I wonder if he would say, “Hey man, don’t give my jokes away to Rolling Stone.” I remember the first time that I met him, the band and I got on his bus and he started rolling joints and passing them around the bus. And at some point, I got this sort of warm dull hum in my head I think everybody was sharing. We’d been chattering, and I don’t know how many joints had been going around the bus, but he raised his hand and said, “Is everybody high?” And then everyone laughed. It was a great moment.
“I don’t know if I have a favorite Willie story; a lot of times they’re too X-rated.”
I had to go from there to do a whole bunch of Farm Aid press, and I was just useless. I don’t know if I’m any better ever [when I do press], but I just remember I couldn’t be more stoned than I was. I just remember Willie going, “Is everybody high?” Every time I go to visit my mom, who is a huge Willie Nelson fan – as much for the person as for his music – there’s a photograph that we took on the bus and he just looks as bright-eyed as ever, but the rest of us just look as if we are so fucking high. But my mom proudly displays this photo of me cross-eyed on Willie’s bus.
He has so many great lines. He’s not at all on a high horse about his political beliefs. It’s not boring to listen to him talk about what he believes. At Farm Aid, in respect to the corporate invasion of farming and the poisonous method of modern farming, he said, “We’re not happy until you’re not happy.” Anytime I’m sitting in a room with him, I’m sitting in awe. When you meet him, like when he said hello to my mom once, you just walk away feeling like you’re worth it, like you matter and that he’s not just blowing smoke up your ass. Which is not the case often with people that are in a position like his.
He really is revolutionary and I wish more people would pay attention to things he says and be a little more cynical of the people in power in this country and a little more cynical of corporate influence and the almighty dollar. I wish we’d look a little further into what really makes this country great. I think that if we don’t fight for it the way Willie has spent the majority of his life fighting for it, we’re gonna lose this country to a bunch of money. Although you can make a lot of money, if that’s all it’s about, then we’ll lose everything that’s worth it, and we go up our fundamental orifice.
“Crazy” is one of my favorite songs; I lifted the phrasing of the first line for “Crush.” That was not as great a song as “Crazy,” but I just loved it. I also couldn’t believe his version of “Gravedigger.” I felt really good about it when I wrote it. When I found out he was going to sing that on his record, it was maybe one of the highest points of my life. Now, whenever I sing that song, I’ve kind of turned the phrase to favor his version of it over mine. I don’t know if it’s ever noticeable, but there are a couple moments when I try to emulate him more than I do me.