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Dave Matthews: Farmer rocker

September 27th, 2006

By Dan DeLuca - Inquirer Music Critic

Dave Matthews, youngest of the Farm Aid principals, really plows into this cause close to his heart.

farmaid06.jpgAmong the Farm Aid four, Dave Matthews is the baby of the bunch.

The jam-band star and Virginia gentleman farmer - a headliner at the annual benefit concert, to be held Saturday at Camden's Tweeter Center, along with Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp - was a teenager in his native South Africa when the first Farm Aid took place in 1985.

Nelson organized that show after Bob Dylan made remarks in support of American farmers at Live Aid in Philadelphia that year. Nelson, 73, Young, 60, and Mellencamp, 56, have performed at every Farm Aid since.

Matthews, now 39, played his first Farm Aid in 1995, back when his enormously popular Dave Matthews Band was not so enormous. "Dave was just starting out," recalled Mellencamp, who invited him to play along with another band that was breaking that year - Hootie and the Blowfish. "He hadn't become Dave Matthews yet. But he came and played that year in Kentucky, and he got really into it."

That would be an understatement, said Matthews, talking on the phone before a hometown show last week in Charlottesville, Va.

"I've done it every year since then," said the guitarist, who will play without the DMB at the Tweeter on a bill that also includes Jerry Lee Lewis, Los Lonely Boys, Gov't Mule, Shelby Lynne, Steve Earle and Allison Moorer, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Arlo Guthrie, polka king Jimmy Sturr, and others. The not-quite-sold-out show will be Webcast at

"There are a lot of charitable organizations that are admirable," Matthews said. "But for me, Farm Aid is just a little closer to my heart."

Part of that enthusiasm is purely musical for the singer and songwriter, whose most recent studio album, Stand Up, topped the charts last year and whose latest live album, the four-disc Live Trax, Vol. 6, recorded in July at Fenway Park, was released yesterday.

Matthews' all-time fave Farm Aid moment came the first year he played it, when Young walked out on stage alone.

"Just to see him out on the stage with his acoustic guitar and just kill, with this huge stadium full of 40,000 people. Just kill! I've seen him do it since, but the first time... the power, just the potential power of music to change the world, just one man with a guitar. No fancy lights. Just one man. That was the most powerful."

And part of Matthews' zeal for Farm Aid grows out of his admiration for his elders. "I remember seeing Willie just signing autographs for hours and hours at that first one that I played," he said of the great American songster who was busted last week after 1.2 pounds of marijuana was found in his tour bus. "If everybody lived like Willie, we'd all be better off."

At this stage in his career, Matthews is far and away the most successful of the four principals. His band earned $39.6 million in 2005, according to Rolling Stone, ranking him as the world's most highly paid rock star under 40. But his Farm Aid cohorts, he says, set an example, proving it's possible to be a rock star and not be a tool.

"All of them live their lives in the most honest way they possibly can. They're the exact opposite of the huge sunglasses-and-gigantic-walled-mansion-and-liposuction-and-face-lift idea of a celebrity. And they're really for the fight. They're not in Farm Aid to make themselves look good."

Matthews has real passion for the cause. He'd rather not talk too much about his own music just now. If you must know, the DMB will begin work this fall on a follow-up to Stand Up, working again with producer Mark Dotson on songs that the group has been trying out on its sold-out summer tour. They've got a few more gigs next month - at a benefit for Young's Bridge School, a program for severely impaired children, as well as two dates opening for the Rolling Stones, which he describes as "pretty cool."

He says he can't predict whether he and the DMB will stick it out as long as the Stones have. "I'm much better at thinking about what I'm going to have to drink after tomorrow night's show than what I'm going to be doing in 10 years - though whatever it is, I hope that I'm not being too grotesquely unnatural," said Matthews, who splits his time, along with his wife, Ashley, and 5-year-old twins, Grace and Stella, between Charlottesville and Seattle.

Matthews would rather sing the praises of Farm Aid and inveigh against what he calls the "corporatism" of "factory farms" that are "poisoning the land" with chemicals and mass-producing inferior food. While earnestly decrying the "revolting conditions" in which livestock are kept on many giant farms, he still manages to lighten it up a bit. "I'm not saying these pigs should be able to sun themselves in the afternoon and relax to their favorite music."

The Farm Aid mission has changed considerably since Nelson founded it in the mid-1980s. Then, money was typically given directly to small family farmers to ward off foreclosures. Now, Matthews said, it works to "connect farmers with consumer and farm markets, and get people to realize that smaller-produced, healthy food is out there. And also to facilitate the growth of the new slow food and organic food movements."

Matthews has put a considerable amount of money into producing food for himself and his fellow Virginians. His farm raises chicken, turkey and cattle and grows carrots and corn, which are sold locally under the Best of What's Around label. "I like my food naked," he said. "Not when I'm naked. But I'm as liable to lose my mind over an apple as I am over a fancy meal."

Though Matthews himself is "usually too busy traveling around the country somewhere with a guitar to do anything more than get a little dirt under my fingernails or grape juice on my lips," his brother Peter is in charge of a vineyard that produces a few thousand cases of wine a year. The vino is well enough regarded for Food & Wine magazine to call Matthews "the wine world's No. 1 rock star."

"I like to play music and I'm lucky that I get more than compensated for it," said Matthews, who started performing around Charlottesville after moving there in 1989. Working with Farm Aid and owning his own farm have only increased his respect for those who struggle to get by.

"But I can't even begin to think that what I do is righteous," he went on. "There are good things about it, and sometimes I do it well. But somebody like a farmer should be exalted, when they are often ignored just because of the quietness of what they do. I mean, if anybody deserves our gratitude, it's the person who brings us food. And the better the quality, the greater the gratitude.

"I can't see a downside to [Farm Aid]," he said. "It doesn't have any political affiliation. Its roots are in something pure. Everything is corruptible. But it's more difficult to corrupt a garden."


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