Times Pop Music Critic

Everyone expected Willie Nelson to join recording buddies like Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and, even, Julio Iglesias on stage during Farm Aid II.

But even those who were familiar with Nelson's success in bringing together hippies and rednecks in Texas must have been surprised to see the laid-back country music star backing up heavy metal heroes like Vince Neil (of Motley Crue) on the old, rowdy rock hit, "Smokin' in the Boys' Room."

It made quite a contrast: Nelson, in his cut-off jeans, strumming guitar alongside Neil, strutting around in his flashy snakeskin chaps.

The pairing highlighted a playful "rock 'n' roll all-star" session in which Nelson and his harmonica player Mickey Raphael also joined hard rock figures Jon Bon Jovi (singing Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds"), Joe Walsh (singing his own "Rocky Mountain Ways") and four members of the L.A.'s the Unforgiven.

"We didn't even know what songs we were going to do an hour before we went on stage," the Unforgiven's John Henry Jones said afterward backstage. "We all just got together behind the stage and figured out who was going to do what."

More than anything else on the 18 1/2-hour bill that attracted more than 40,000 fans to the Manor Downs quarter horse race track near Austin on Friday, the teaming symbolized the continuation of the "musical coming together" spirit that had made the first Farm Aid benefit the most satisfying concert bill of 1985.

Besides raising $9 million to support financially troubled farmers, last Sept. 22's Farm Aid program in Champaign, Ill., made a valuable statement by bringing together more than 50 acts from the country, rock and pop fields that are generally segregated by radio programmers.

In expanding the number of acts to more than 80 for Farm Aid II, Nelson created another "melting pot" that showed the richness, range and compatibility of much of contemporary American pop. Among the performers: John Cougar Mellencamp, Neil Young, the Beach Boys, Rick James, Los Lobos, John Conlee, Bonnie Raitt, the Blasters, Roger McGuinn, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, War, George Jones, X, Dwight Yoakam, John Prine, Maria McKee and Taj Mahal.

Indeed, Farm Aid has evolved into a sort of American music festival, where musicians are free to interact or try out new songs in a highly relaxed atmosphere.

Despite this, there were warning signals that these all-day, televised pop benefits may be in danger.

The mostly 16- to 25-year-old audience here loved the show--despite punishing 96-degree heat that forced more than 700 people to seek medical assistance and despite traffic snarls that turned what should have been a 20-minute drive from Austin into a four-hour ordeal for many in the crowd.

But these shows are designed mainly for television--and that's where success or failure is measured. Early indications are that only about $1.3 million was raised at Farm Aid II, including just $500,000 through TV pledges--even though VH-1, the "adult" sister station of MTV, carried all but the first hour of the program. This is down from $9 million raised at the first Farm Aid.

After learning of the pledge total, Farm Aid organizers speculated about the reasons for the disappointing response. Among the chief factors cited: the Statue of Liberty preoccupation during the Fourth of July weekend and the possibility that viewers thought the purpose of the Farm Aid show was simply to raise social awareness--not to raise money.

But there is also reason to suspect that the show itself has to be rethought for a national TV audience. The problem Friday, from a television standpoint, was length. I kept track of some highlights and the times they occurred: Nelson and Jennings together at 8:20 a.m; Nelson joining the Beach Boys on "Help Me Rhonda" at 8:41 a.m.; the Blasters playing a new Phil Alvin tune called "The Farmer and the Bo Weevil" at 11:15 a.m.; the all-star rock session at 12:35 p.m.; Prine, Kristofferson and Raitt singing "Angel From Montgomery" at 2:55 p.m.; Emmylou Harris offering Dolly Parton's "To Daddy" around 5 p.m.; X introducing a new Dave Alvin song, "Fourth of July" at 5:30 p.m.; Mellencamp and McKee singing "Pink Houses" at 9:40 p.m.

If you turned in Farm Aid II for any six consecutive hours, you would have missed at least two-thirds of those activities. And there was another four hours after Mellencamp and McKee.

So, where does this leave us? Will there be a Farm Aid III?

Nelson believes the answer depends on whether Congress passes an acceptable farm aid package.

Even before the figures were in, Nelson himself was concerned about apathy in responding to the needs of American farmers.

"I am angry about it. . . . I am angry that our government isn't doing enough and I am angry that people are letting other people go under without doing something about it," he said, during a break backstage.

"I just don't think the American people know that. I don't think they would put up with it if they knew about it. If they knew what was going on, I think they would be outraged."

Still, Nelson vowed to continue the struggle.

"I can't turn away from it because I am committed to it. I can't conceive of anybody else in this country turning away from it once they learn. These are our neighbors."

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