Okay, so it isn’t exactly Los Angeles, but it’s close enough. The same peeps who brought us Coachella debuted a new festival last weekend: the Stagecoach. They were kind enough to toss a couple of tickets our way, so I saddled up the ol’ sedan and rode on out to the desert. As you can see, I got all dressed up in my finest cowgirl gear for the occasion. After the jump, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Neko Case, Bela Fleck and many more.
Country music is a paradox. It’s the most popular radio format in America, reaching 77.3 million adults–almost 40 percent of the adult population–every week, but it’s also plagued by popular stereotypes. Ask just about any urbanite outside of the South or Midwest (and probably a number therein) what kind of music they like, and more often than not the answer you’ll receive is, “Everything but country.” When people think Country music, they think hillbillies, rednecks, sappy ballads–in other words, a distinct lack of style, culture, and sophistication. Some Country musicians even capitalize on the stereotypes. There’s much, much more to Country music than just three chords and a twang, though, and prospective new listeners should beware this marginalization, and think twice before writing off Country music as irrelevant or boring. The way I see it, to call yourself a music-lover and say you don’t like “Country” is like saying you’re a vegetarian who doesn’t like vegetables. I’d bet the ranch that there’s something for everyone within its sprawling frontier, and the Stagecoach Festival demonstrates just that. It’s the perfect combination of legendary old favorites and boundary-pushing new sounds. A number of the mainstream, pop Country chart toppers like Alan Jackson, George Strait, Brooks & Dunn and Kenny Chesney were there, performing on the “Mane” Stage. Then there were three other stages featuring Americana and alt-country, bluegrass, and cowboy/Western music. Stagecoach brought together these different genres with a brilliant lineup that allowed for, but didn’t force, fans to explore and discover new sounds.
The first band I checked out was Nickel Creek , whose progressive acoustic work has been said to be making “down-home music relevant for a new generation“. Regarded as both bluegrass revivalists and “newgrass” innovators, Nickel Creek is a Grammy Award-winning trio whose debut album was produced by Allison Krauss (unfortunately absent from the Stagecoach lineup). The band is composed of Chris Thile on mandolin, Sara Watkins on violin, and her brother Sean Watkins on guitar. Nickel Creek’s music is complex, vibrant, and modern, and their performance at the Stagecoach Festival was inspired. Check them out and keep a close watch on these kids–they’re bound for glory.
Next up was the legendary Earl Scruggs. At 83 years old, Scruggs can barely make it through one song without needing to sit down, but when the music starts playing, it’s as though his fingers have a mind of their own. He’s enlivened, he smiles, and he begins to pick in that good old Scruggs Style. Scruggs was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame along with Lester Flatt in 1985. The two performed “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” which was the theme song for the 1960s TV show The Beverly Hillbillies, and together they won a Grammy in 1969 for the instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Scruggs, whose son Gary backed him up on bass at the Stagecoach, was an inaugural inductee into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in 1991.
From Scruggs in the Appaloosa bluegrass tent, I moved on to the inimitable Willie Nelson, playing on the Palomino Stage. Needless to say, I wasn’t the only one excited about seeing Willie play live. His fans seem to be getting younger and younger as he gets older. He played the classic “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” and covered Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” ending a stellar set with a medley that included the Carter Family’s “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” and bluegrass gospel hymn “I’ll Fly Away.”
Next up was a little Indie Rock blended with Alt Country courtesy of the lovely and talented Neko Case. A member of The New Pornographers, the singer-songwriter is also well known for her successful solo career. Case has an incredible talent for connecting with her audience. Despite missing her bass player, who had broken some ribs in a car accident earlier the same day, and performing on the second largest stage at the same time as George Strait, Case’s set was intimate and infused with easy humor and personal anecdotes. With her gorgeously earthy vocal stylings and deep, dark, poetic lyrics, Case’s set was the perfect end to Day One of the Stagecoach.
Next up, Day Two: Cowboy Celtic, Abigail Washburn with the Sparrow Quartet, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, John Doe, Kris Kristofferson, and Emmylou Harris. Who could ask for more?