The Farmer-Sympathetic Meaning Behind Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan’s 1993 Collaboration “Heartland”

Throughout their careers, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan have always had mutual respect for one another. Both first performed together in 1976 when Nelson joined Dylan on his Martin Scocese-documented Rolling Thunder Revue Tour for “Gotta Travel On.”

By 2004, Nelson and Dylan were still congregating and played minor league baseball parks together—a run they repeated in 2009 with John Mellencamp. In 2004, Dylan and Nelson also performed the ’30s blues song “Milk Cow Blues” and Dylan’s 1967 song “I Shall Be Released,” and a song they had written together, “Heartland.”

“He’s [Nelson] like a philosopher-poet,” said Dylan during Nelson’s 60th birthday celebration. ” He gets to the heart of it in a quick way. His guitar playing is pretty phenomenal. I don’t really ever see anybody giving him any credit as a musician, but in my book he’s pretty up there at the top.”

Videos by American Songwriter

[RELATED: The Only Song Bob Dylan Regretted Writing]

Dylan continued “He takes whatever he’s singing and makes it his. There’s not many people who can do that—even with something like an Elvis tune. Once Elvis done a tune, it’s pretty much done. Willie’s the only one in my recollection that has even taken something associated with Elvis and made it his. He just puts his own trip on it.”

‘My American Dream’

When Nelson was working on his 40th album, Across the Borderline, which featured collaborations with his Highwaymen bandmate Kris Kristofferson, along with Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, and Sinéad O’Connor, and other contributions by Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, and more, he also covered Dylan’s 1989 Oh Mercy track “What Was It You Wanted.”

For the album, Nelson and Dylan also co-wrote Heartland,” a song embedded in the struggle between those with money and the livelihood and future of those working in agriculture, an issue that drove Nelson, Neil Young and Mellencamp to form Farm Aid in 1985.

There’s a home place under fire tonight in the heartland
And the bankers are taking my home and my land from me
There’s a big achin’ hole in my chest now where my heart was
And a hole in the sky where God used to be

There’s a home place under fire tonight in the heartland
There’s a well where the water’s so bitter nobody can drink
Ain’t no way to get high and my mouth is so dry that I can’t speak
Don’t they know that I’m dyin’ why’s nobody cryin’ for me
My American dream fell apart at the seams
You tell me what it means you tell me what it means

There’s a home place under fire tonight in a heartland
And bankers are taking the homes and the land away

There’s a young boy closin’ his eyes tonight in a heartland
Who will wake up a man with some land and a loan he can’t pay
His American dream fell apart at the seams
You tell me what it means you tell me what it means

My American dream…
There’s a home place under fire tonight in the heartland

Nelson has performed “Heartland” live since its release at Farm Aid concerts and as part of his other live setlists, while Dylan waited until 2004 to start performing their song live. He performed “Heartland” only seven times in concert between August and September of 2004.

In 2023, Dylan supported Farm Aid with a surprise performance. The three-song set marked the first time Dylan performed at the benefit concert since its inception in 1985. Dylan is also set to join Nelson on 26 dates of his Outlaw Music Festival Tour, along with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, John Mellencamp, Billy Strings, Brittney Spencer, Celisse, and Southern Avenue.

Photo: Willie Nelson (l) by Michael Kovac/WireImage; Bob Dylan by Michael Caulfield/WireImage for NBC Universal Photo Department

3 Rebelliously Eternal Songs by Rage Against the Machine

The Who’s Pete Townshend Shares Onstage Trauma That Occurred While Performing ‘Tommy’ with the Band in 2017

Pete Townshend Claims the Who Is “Not a Band,” Details His “Journey Into Darkness” and Evolving Relationship With Roger Daltrey