The LBJ Foundation has presented its highest honor, the LBJ Liberty & Justice for All Award, to Texas singer-songwriter and legend Willie Nelson at a gala dinner Friday night that featured musical performances by Eric Church, Sam Hunt, Elle King and Lyle Lovett.
And while there have been many tributes to Nelson this year, including the announcement last week that he will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the sold-out celebration at the LBJ Presidential Library raised funds to create the Willie Nelson Endowment for Uplifting Rural Communities in honor of his longtime philanthropy and commitment to family farms and sustainable agriculture.
“A lot of people don’t realize where their food comes from,” Nelson said in a conversation with Mark K. Updegrove, president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation, at the gala dinner. “You know, when you had breakfast this morning, did your food come from a farmer out here who raised his own?…Or did some trucker drive it in from 150 miles away? So, these are things that you need to think about and how you can help the local communities and help the local farmer. Because he’s trying to make it.”
The Willie Nelson endowment ensures that Nelson’s advocacy will continue. It will fund research and student fellowships at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, a part of The University of Texas at Austin. The focus will be on sustainable agriculture, eliminating hunger, resilient energy, sustainable water and natural disaster recovery to benefit rural communities.
A lifelong champion of farmers, alleviating food insecurity, and support of rural communities, Nelson embodies President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s belief that every citizen should share in the benefits, blessings and protections at the heart of the American dream. Perhaps Nelson’s best-known cause, Farm Aid, has raised more than $70 million in financial assistance and helped increase awareness about the plight of family farms.
Capping off the evening were tributes by some of the most compelling musical artists performing today who have all been inspired by Nelson’s talents: Eric Church, Sam Hunt, Elle King and Lyle Lovett. Each musician picked a favorite Nelson song and one of their own to sing in his honor:
- Eric Church performed “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young.”
- Sam Hunt performed “Women in my Life,” a new song he released on May 12, and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.”
- Elle King performed “It’s Not Supposed to be That Way” and “Love Go By.”
- Lyle Lovett performed “Hello Walls” and “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.”
Each musician also cited Nelson for enchanting the world for over seven decades with his extraordinary talent, voice, and songwriting, touching the hearts of millions across generations and transforming lives with his humanitarianism.
Also recognizing Nelson were President and Mrs. Johnson’s daughters, Lynda Johnson Robb and Luci Baines Johnson, who presented him with the LBJ Liberty & Justice for All Award. The award recognizes Nelson for exemplifying President Johnson’s belief that America is a nation where everyone has the opportunity to rise and those in need should not fail.
The recognition comes at a time when this country is divided and polarized. Nelson says we can come together, “I believe in imagining what you want and then get out of the way. I think if you follow that, imagine getting up every day and say, ‘Here’s what I’d like to see happen today.’ And then get out of the way and let it happen. It’s worked for me.”
Former recipients of the LBJ Liberty & Justice for All Award include President George H. W. Bush, President Jimmy Carter, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, U.S. Sen. John McCain, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, U.S. Rep. John Dingell, U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, and philanthropist David M. Rubenstein.