Aside from Farm Aid co-founders Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young, Bloomington-based guitarist Mike Wanchic likely has spent more time onstage across 34 in-person editions of the benefit concert than any other musician.
And Wanchic might give the Big Three a run for their money. The guitarist joined Mellencamp’s band in 1978, seven years before the first edition of Farm Aid raised awareness about challenges faced by independent farmers.
In the early years of the multi-act festival, Mellencamp’s band accompanied guest stars who didn’t have backing musicians on site. That’s how Wanchic became a one-off music director for performances by Lou Reed, John Prine, John Fogerty, Bonnie Raitt and even Tom Keifer of Cinderella.
Wanchic, a DePauw University alum who grew up in Kentucky, said the all-star concerts provide something he doesn’t experience when he’s on the road with Mellencamp—or even at home.
“I don’t drive places and go to a show,” he said. “I just don’t do it. It would be like a carpenter deciding to go watch other people frame a house. But Farm Aid is a one-stop opportunity every year for me to see some of my favorite artists.”
On Saturday, Wanchic will do double duty when Farm Aid No. 35 is presented at Noblesville’s Ruoff Music Center. In addition to playing with Mellencamp, Wanchic is music director in the Jim Irsay Band that’s performing with Ann Wilson of Heart.
In 2019, the Farm Aid organization awarded its “Spirit of Farm Aid” award to Wanchic for donating his time and talent to the cause since 1985. In 2000, he served as the producer for a double-album compilation of Farm Aid performances.
It’s not a stretch to say that Wanchic’s work through the years could warrant a title of “Mr. Farm Aid.”
He counts his production work on the live album as a career highlight.
“One of the biggest thrills of my life was mixing the Highwaymen,” said Wanchic, referring to the supergroup that included Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. “Just to be able to pull those faders up and hear Johnny Cash singing. Those kinds of things are really monumental to me.”
Nelson, the acknowledged father of Farm Aid who turned 90 in April, will close out Saturday’s concert. On Friday, Farm Aid’s YouTube channel will livestream policy-focused discussions that will originate in Fishers.
The two-part itinerary includes “A Farmer Forum” and “The People’s Hearing.” Organizers say the discussions will address food sovereignty in Indiana as well as farming in the context of corporate power, climate science and racial justice.
Pro-agriculture musicians Dave Matthews and Margo Price joined the Farm Aid board of directors in 2001 and 2021, respectively.
This year’s Farm Aid will be the third presented in central Indiana, following a massive 1990 artist lineup that played at the bygone RCA Dome and a 2001 show that happened 18 days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Wanchic remembers missing the 2007 edition of Farm Aid in New York because he was recovering from surgery, and Mellencamp didn’t take all of his supporting cast to the 1986 edition in Austin, Texas. In 1994, Farm Aid had no Mellencamp presence because the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer suffered a heart attack that year.
The 1986 and 1987 Farm Aid concerts included Grateful Dead performances beamed in via satellite. On Saturday, Grateful Dead founding member Bob Weir will make his in-person Farm Aid debut as the leader of Bob Weir & Wolf Bros featuring the Wolfpack.
Wanchic said he listened to his share of Grateful Dead music while he was a college student in Greencastle.
“I can play every song on the early albums,” he said. “ ‘American Beauty,’ ‘Workingman’s Dead’ and ‘From the Mars Hotel’ … That’s my favorite era of the Grateful Dead.”
Farm Aid lineup
Music is scheduled to begin at 12:35 p.m. Saturday at sold-out Ruoff Music Center.
- Willie Nelson & Family
- Neil Young
- John Mellencamp
- Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds
- Margo Price
- Jim Irsay Band featuring Ann Wilson of Heart
- Bob Weir & Wolf Bros featuring the Wolfpack
- Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
- Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
- Allison Russell
- String Cheese Incident
- Particle Kid
- Black Opry featuring Lori Rayne, Tylar Bryant and Kyshona
- Clayton Anderson
- Wisdom Indian Dancers
- Native Pride Productions